Small Town Series -- Penguin
Type
Review
Category
Reading

On the town

I bought The Town in a bookshop in my hometown, where I was after a long time away. In that space between when a thing or a place moves from one state to another, there’s the time when it isn’t either – like on the road past my house, everything stopped being farms, but weren’t housing developments yet either.  Shifting hills of gravel, a temporary and unmemorialised landscape. Like living in indecision long enough that existing in that state is its own choice.

the-townShaun Prescott’s The Town is an examination of futility and avoidance, of the dangers of defining ourselves by what we are not. It explores the limits of states like youth and adulthood, city and town. Though the exact moment when one place or idea becomes another is unclear, the novel makes physical the dangers of inertia and complacency. In these divisive times, when it seems like the most important thing we can do is clearly stake out our ideological ground, what is the value of writing that explores uncertainty?

People in the town and the city both define themselves by not being of the other. Complacency is dangerous; unwilling to shift from the town, because of a belief in its value, though no-one is sure where that stems from, residents and buildings disappear into the holes that start to appear everywhere. It’s unclear where they lead, if anywhere, but people do not return. The town is minimally populated with characters who don’t care for much outside of their immediate surroundings, and wouldn’t bother to leave, even if it means they might disappear too.

Initially a book about writing a book about the disappearing towns of Central West NSW, this premise narrows in scope to just being about the town the narrator is in, and then escapes as it’s swallowed by holes. The banal details and tone mean that even when holes appear, it all seems plausible and unsurprising. A kind of a tension between nonfiction and fiction.

The town is both vague and specific. Residents unmoored from meaning-making structures like family cling to what’s reliable, like new catalogue day at the supermarkets. One protests that the town can’t be in danger because the supermarkets are still operating as normal.

I knew for a fact that in a fortnight the Woolworths was planning on rolling out a two for $3 sale on Sanitarium muesli bar packs, and so perhaps it was true that the entire premises were unlikely to disappear.

There’s a small pleasure in seeing the minutiae of Australian life reflected in a book, when the kinds of books we’re used to reading that grapple with big ideas are set so distantly it’s hard to imagine how exactly those ideas fit into this landscape.

The book’s narrator is met with resistance in both locations – he’s obviously not a part of the town, and becomes a target for bashing by locals, but once he comes to the city, they say he’s not the type cut out to live there and should head out to the country. Young people are not yet of the town completely but once they start to care about Anzac Day and the town’s day they’ll become a part of it, stop digging for weird relics of the past or some deeper significance in the suburbs.

Prescott says it’s not a nostalgic book, but there’s a nostalgic quality to anything about the ephemerality of place and experience. There’s a musical preoccupation to the work – ‘If only I could make music about the town instead of writing about it’ – and you get the sense that Prescott is grappling with the limitations of the form. This, though, has the advantage of being able to designate the intended effect of described music for the reader: ‘It was sad, but not for any graspable reasons. It felt like an absence, but a warm, preferable absence. It did not mean anything at all.’

The narrator’s most significant interactions are with a local radio host who receives boxes of tapes without discernible origin, who broadcasts them to no listeners. The invented histories of the bands she describes are indistinguishable from the real thing.

It was all already decided for us, she always said, and when I asked who exactly made the decisions and what the decisions were, she pointed to the town, and then told me I should listen to more of the cassette tapes.

Like everything else in the town, it’s an exercise in futility. Writing about music, like writing about the sensation of a place, is an attempt to capture something vague and not concrete. Prescott’s narrator is documenting small-town life by documenting trying to capture it.

Physical borders are unclear, like the increasingly vague demarcation between youth and adulthood – different life states that bleed into each other, while the suburbs extend out further in sprawl, until it’s not clear where one place starts and another finishes. ‘Neither of us knew how it would happen – whether the threshold of the city would be marked in any way.’  The novel sits in a liminal zone, not quite one thing, not quite another.

 

 Lead image: Naomi Fenton

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Alex Gerrans lives in Melbourne. She writes about women, the body and illness. She is currently working on a thesis about Flannery O’Connor.

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