Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 17, 2017

The Town, by Shaun Prescott #BookReview

I first heard about this book back in September when I saw a review of it in The Weekend Australian, and it intrigued me because The Australian doesn’t often review books from micro publishers like Brow Books.  Ed Wright’s review of The Town ran to two whole columns, and it began like this:

Riffing off authors such as Gerald Murnane, Shaun Prescott builds an idiosyncratic vision that is simultaneously banal and powerfully moving. The Weekend Australian, September 6-17

So I bought a copy.  Gerald Murnane is, after all, unique, so I was interested to see if Ed Wright knew what he was talking about.  Since then, however, The Town has been reviewed all over the place, the SMH, the Sydney Review, and the ABR and probably elsewhere as well.  That’s quite a splash for a debut novel…

But much as I love the enigmatic writing of Gerald Murnane, I suspect that for some readers, the comparison is like the kiss of death.  So I am here to reassure you that The Town is not as weird and strange or abstract as The Plains to which it is being compared and I don’t think it’s like the fictions that Murnane himself describes as conceptual literature.

For a start, The Town has characters.  Murnane, in A Million Windows repudiates the idea of characters, and indeed he is somewhat patronising about undiscerning readers who expect more in the way of narrative conventions.  But The Town has some quite engaging characters – all of them with names except for the narrator.  And in The Town, the bricks-and-mortar realism of recognisable settings littered with Woolworths and BP, Golden Arches and Michel’s Patisserie, is nothing like the dreamy landscapes of The Plains where the concept of a plot is equally foreign.  Whereas I can tell you what happens in The Town, no problem.

The narrator is a wannabe author who wants to write the history of disappearing towns in the central west of New South Wales.  He makes his way to an unnamed town marooned somewhere between the city (later revealed as Sydney) and the vast emptiness of the inland.  He gets casual work stacking shelves in the local Woolworths, and he shares a house with Rob while he sets out looking for material for his book.

What he finds is lethargy, stagnation and inertia.  Nobody knows anything about the history of the town because nothing of any significance has ever happened there.  Whereas he had assumed that there must be some kind of intellectual or artistic sub-culture, everyone he meets seems banal.  The disconcerting elements of this novel arise when the reader meets the fatalistic characters who signpost the futureless destiny of the town: Tom who drives the only town bus along a route so interminable that no passengers will use it because it takes so long to get anywhere.  Ciara – having an experimental relationship with Rob – who can’t find any local bands to support so she invents her own weird and strange recordings, strewing cassettes around the town for people to discover – but no one can play them because they’re recorded on obsolete technology.  The Town Extremists with their innocent appetite for destroying things who predictably vandalise the Town Day at the end of proceedings.  The languor of the town lifts only during the annual disco fight.

And then there’s Steve Sanders who wants to bash the narrator despite his efforts to appear meek and harmless around people of the town who might be curious or offended. 

I told Rob that he must be joking.  Or else there was a misunderstanding, that Steve Sanders had mistaken me for someone else.

He definitely means you, Rob said.  Steve Sanders wants to bash you, probably because you’re writing a book about the town.

I explained again to Rob that my book was not about this town, but other towns – most of which did not verifiably exist.

He shrugged and took a can of beer from the fridge.  You don’t come to a new town expecting not to be bashed, he said.  (p.32)

Jenny at the pub is equally laconic:

Just get bashed, Jenny suggested.  Get it over with.  He’ll bash you then it’ll be done.  Have you never been bashed before?  I told her I hadn’t.  Then it’s about time you did, she said.  (p.33)

As the narrator discovers, the meaninglessness seems to have no origin or logic:

During the moments when I peered into the windows of the main street pubs I wondered whether anyone was truly part of the town.  Every weekend had the mood of a last hurrah; everyone drank as though they were departing for far-off destinations the next morning.  That’s how it seemed – and what else could they be drinking to?  They drank like it was their duty.  I suppose they were drinking to the fact that they were there.

In books and songs people and gather for reasons, and their lives bull-rush towards moments of importance.  In these books and songs, meaninglessness is depicted too deliberately and often hinted to have an origin or logic.  The people in the town lived as if they would never die, but they were not heroic or foolish like in books or songs. They were only there.  They seemed to understand better than anyone else that they were only there.  (p.85)

Eventually, the town starts to disappear.  Literally.  Huge fathomless holes too nebulous to be sink holes (or anything else that’s geologically recognisable) appear overnight; things and people disappear into them, never to be seen again. The bus has to be rerouted, but Rick who spends his days in the supermarket aisles for entertainment, is quite sure that Woolworths is safe because

… they were still cycling through this quarter’s sales.  Prices on a particular brand of muesli were scheduled to plummet next week.  He told me that he knew this because the supermarket always left obscure hints about its future sales: breadcrumb trails for the dedicated bargain hunter. If the powers that be at Woolworths suspected something sinister as complete disappearance, Rick surmised. they would not bother planning a major sale. (p. 186)

[Those of us watching Big Business and the federal government comprehensively ignore the warning signs of climate change might not share Rick’s confidence].

The narrator’s futile efforts to rescue his friends from the inevitable see him journey to Sydney with only Ciara by his side.  The novel falters a little in Sydney.  The city is equally dispiriting and fatalistic, just in different ways, but Ciara’s descent into utter nihilism leaves the narrator with little to do and the novel just seems to fade away.  It’s a bleak view of the world, these disappearances seeming to be not only a metaphor for rural population decline, passing without a sense of occasion, but also a portent of an apocalyptic ending for cities.  Despite the insouciance of the tourists, the sun-seekers and the patronising real-estate agents in Sydney, Ciara recognises the message of impending doom in the claims that not only is the city full, so is the country:

Ciara said that everyone in the city was frightened about the future, more so than in the town.  They didn’t admit it explicitly, but they all seemed to know that big things were about to happen.  They knew that the fewer people around them, the fewer people there would be to attack and loot them when everything collapsed.  She gestured towards the water.  They only want to protect themselves and their property, she said.  (p.220)

Another interesting aspect of the characterisation is the age of the central characters.  They are (I think) all millennials and they have no confidence in anyone…

Everything about the town rested on belief, Ciara believed, but whose belief could they trust?  Certainly no one older than us, she said.  (p.92)

Author: Shaun Prescott
Title: The Town
Publisher: Brown Books, 2017
ISBN: 9780994606822
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond

Available from Fishpond: The Town

 


Responses

  1. Sounds great. I don’t like jumping onto bandwagons, but I might get on this one anyway. And then I might read another Murnane, I’m a bit behind.

    • Oh jump on! I haven’t read any of the other reviews except Ed Wrights, so I’d love to know what you think:)

  2. Gerald Murnane’s writing is generally concerned with meaning; ‘The Town’ focuses on the lack of meaning. So maybe there is some connection, but it’s not a particularly significant one. Also, for Gerald Murnane, a key interest is in the quality of the prose.

    • I guess for me the difference lies in the experience of reading the two: Murnane takes me into a wholly different world where nothing is real, only the intense experience of tracing his thoughts, Prescott’s town is all too real, IMO, a bit of magic realism notwithstanding.

  3. I’ve not heard of Murnane so the comparison is a bit lost on me. Sounds as if in this case the author didn’t need to be compared to an already successful author, his book can stand on its own merits.

    • Ah well, you might hear of Murnane if the Nobel Prize people get their act together!

  4. Love that cover.
    I think comparisons with other writers can be useful, but most of the time they seem inaccurate.

    • Ah, now tell me, why does that cover appeal? To me, it’s a nothing kind of cover, but obviously it speaks to you!


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