Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($26)
by Chris Barsanti
Like all writers who will never finish their book, the wandering artist who narrates Shaun Prescott’s bafflingly compelling debut novel The Town just cannot stop talking about the book he is writing. This is despite thin evidence that anybody else is even slightly interested in the project or that he has invested any true effort in its creation besides moving to the place he is ostensibly writing about. Nevertheless, he carries on.
Showing up in the nameless outback town without any past or future direction, the narrator describes the place in sanded-down lines that emphasize its dullness and discontent. Chain stores and lassitude rule the place, as does the sense that everything is dwindling and collapsing. He gets a job at a Woolworth’s, finds an apartment, and plots out his book about the disappearing towns in “the Central West region of New South Wales” (a phrase whose repetition eventually brings on the type of cold chuckle one gets from a David Lynch film). Telling his roommate the reason for his move, he receives a less than enthusiastic response: “He told me that he was going to have a beer.”
That dismissive attitude surrounds the narrator, who fails to interest anybody in his project or really anything outside of the town itself. Trying to learn about the town’s past, he discovers little except for some old photos of events and people so forgotten they may as well be from a different place. At times he is barely able to stay engaged in the project himself. Talking to Jenny, a surly bartender in a deserted bar, he lists the negligible fruits of his research: “Chiefly, that there was nothing to learn. She agreed that this was true.”
Despite this enervated state of sun-baked dissipation, the town—so comically inactive that there is only one bus, circling on a continuous loop without riders—reacts harshly to the notion that there is anything of worth outside its hazily defined borders. There are even “Town Extremists” who refuse critiques while vaguely suspecting things were better in the past: “The more remote the town’s so-called legacy became, the more passionate the townspeople were to protect and evangelise it.” A librarian the narrator speaks to on one of his fruitless research jaunts explains that those “demonstrations of pride were cries . . . that yes, we are here, and yes, we are important.”
But that rootlessly flaring pride, familiar to all witnesses of the ongoing rural-urban culture wars, curdles fast into violence. This is directed occasionally at the narrator (who discovers that a stranger named Steve “wants to bash you, probably because you’re writing a book about the town”) but more frequently at the town itself. Following a speech by the mayor, the narrator watches the drunk crowd tear up the park. “It was a yearly ritual to destroy a bulk of the park’s facilities,” Jenny tells him. She goes on:
There wasn’t actually much to destroy. . . . no one dared destroy anything which might land them in prison for a night. It was enough just to be seen to be destroying something, preferably of low value, and ideally belonging to a friend, or no one at all.
Later, the narrator starts a relationship with another lonely soul, Ciara, who is on her own benighted creative odyssey. Rather than failing to write a book about a disappearing town, though, she is engaged in series of interlinked quests to seek out the source of cassettes of undefinable keyboard music (“possibly composed en masse in a shady warehouse on the outskirts of a distant city”) and to create a sense of mystery in the town about a “secret room” she had created, thinking that even if people discovered it wasn’t true, “the fact of the rumor existing would have been its own reward.” Ciara is just as disappointed as the narrator in people’s lack of interest in her obscure and undefinable work, but also just as determined to follow it to the frustrating end.
Prescott has received many comparisons to Kafka. The lineage is certainly there in the novel’s depictions of foggy persecution and the townspeople’s muted reactions to incredible developments. But a more apt comparison might be Shirley Jackson, whose dark humor and well-tuned sensibility for how insular communities turn on both each other and outsiders closely mirrors Prescott’s, or even the shivery blankness of early Paul Auster.
The Town is a work of the time. First published in the author’s homeland of Australia in 2017, it easily reads as an allegory for the chilly anxiousness, dispirited purposelessness, and flatly brutal violence that appear to constitute the Western world’s future. It contemplates the current atmosphere of circuitous entropy and rootlessness in a way that is somehow both horrifying and humorous.
In one spectacularly surreal scene, the narrator discovers that not only has a hole to nowhere opened up in the middle of the town, but that the locals are responding in disinterested fashion to this horrifying event, “satisfied to write it off as a typical, if unusually deep, hole.” There may be a more apt metaphor for the current state of the world, which often combines terror and lassitude in equal measure, but it is difficult to imagine what that could be.