Doug MacLeod is known for his comic novels (and his comedy writing for television). But his latest novel, The Shiny Guys, is somewhat of a detour from straight comedy: it tells the story of a deeply depressed 15-year-old, Colin, who is hospitalised in a mental ward.
Colin believes himself responsible for the abduction and murder of his much-loved younger sister. ‘The Shiny Guys’ are characters on the very edges of Colin’s vision who only he can see, though he is convinced they are real. A science fiction fan, he experiences the unreal world of alien planet Nestor alongside the very real world of Ward 44 – and his fellow patients. These patients often lend a lighter touch to the novel, somewhat balancing the serious subject matter. Some of them also provide much-needed friendship and connection.
MacLeod has drawn on his own experiences of depression (and his own time in a psychiatric ward) to create this story, complemented by research – and of course, his imagination. The reader is pulled into Colin’s headspace, where fantasy and reality merge.
The resulting novel is engrossing and affecting, with touches of dark humour.
Doug MacLeod left his full-time TV production job in 2002 to focus on writing books for children and young adults. So far, he’s written seven novels for Penguin. In 2011, his last novel, The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher was awarded an Honour Book in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and was highly commended for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
Doug lives and works in St Kilda, in Melbourne. In 2008 The Australian Writers’ Guild presented him with the Fred Parsons Award for Contribution to Australian Comedy. Despite this, The Shiny Guys is a serious book without too many jokes.
It’s 1985 and Colin Lapsley has just been visited by the shiny guys, extraterrestrial beings that draw him in to their thoughts and world. Colin did a terrible thing – he lost his sister three years ago – and the shiny guys want him to pay. But people think that Colin must be insane, so he is admitted to Ward 44.
MacLeod has tenderly created memorable characters suffering in their battle with the fragility of the human psyche. MacLeod has pulled off multiple worlds, charging the reader with deciphering what is real from what is imaginary. There is a sad heart to this often funny and absurd novel.
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Doug MacLeod writes weird books. Really, really excellent books, I might add. But weird books all the same. This is meant as a great compliment. Many of his books are excellent because they are so weird.
MacLeod’s previous young adult novel The Life of A Teenage Body-Snatcher was wonderful, campy fun. A comedy about body-snatchers set in 17th-century London was perfect fodder for MacLeod’s off-beat sense of humour.
The Shiny Guys retains the comedic elements of Body-Snatcher, but is more restrained in the punchline department, as there are many other elements to deal with here: mental illness, depression, suicide, alienation, science fiction and Kafka.
Set in a mental institution in the mid-1980s, we follow the story of Colin – a teenage patient who performs magic tricks (mostly of the coin variety) and drolly delivers the narration. While Colin’s view of the world is the source of much of the book’s humour, it’s a tears-of-a-clown situation, as he’s in the ward following a recent suicide attempt, brought on by the grief fuelled by his younger sister Briony’s disappearance. He is now a kleptomaniac who constantly sees shiny, red things in the peripheries of his vision.
Since it’s the 80s, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is in, but political correctness is not. Colin and his best friend on the inside – Mango – constantly greet each other with ‘Hello, mental case’ and ‘Hello, spazzo’. And yet life on the ward is drawn with sympathy and realism. It’s the small details that articulate this deft portrayal, like Colin and Mango calling the hospital-issued underwear ‘psycho-undies’.
Experimental psychiatry – and even ECT – are at play in Colin’s ward, but neither are judged as such. It’s worth reading MacLeod’s thoughts on the ECT in his book (although be warned, there are spoilers on this page of his website).
The main characters might sound like bad mental illness clichés – Colin the klepto, Mango the attachment disorder sufferer and Anthea the druggie anorexic (and love interest for both boys), but each is complex, misunderstood and surprisingly likeable. And the shiny guys themselves, the ones Colin sees out of the corners of his eyes, turn out to be giant cockroaches from a parallel world called Nestor. Hello Kafka! Hello science fiction!
Colin travels between the real world and Nestor a few times. Possibly he is delusional. Possibly he is not. The ‘good’ giant cockroaches he has met – Dr Vendra and Dr Maximew – have told him to stop taking his medication. While the giant cockroaches are an obvious homage to Kafka, the more impressive Kafka-inspired feat is just how completely strange and relatable The Shiny Guys is. We know this world, yet it is blurry and unfamiliar with a sense of lurking menace.
Colin is reading Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which famously ends mid-sentence, until it is stolen from his room. The theft is never explained but the point is there. Sometimes life’s mysteries make almost-sense, rather than perfect sense.
Readers expecting lots of exposition and revelations at the end are set to be disappointed. But MacLeod skilfully demonstrates that satisfactorily concluding a story doesn’t have to mean tying up lots of plot points. And while there is one big twist at the end, it’s a story best enjoyed for the almost-sense it makes.
We should count ourselves lucky to have an author like Doug MacLeod writing such funny, weird and interesting books for young readers. The Shiny Guys is a gift. A reminder of the mesmerising power of Kafka and a truly creepy science fiction novel in its own right.
This review is by Andrew McDonald of andrewmcdonald.net.au
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