Shaun Prescott’s The Town is meta from the start. It concerns a wannabe writer who has taken up residence in a desolate town in the Australian Outback, with the intent to write a book on what he calls the “disappearing towns” of the region. To the writer, who also serves as narrator to the novel, this disappearance is quite literal, as becomes apparent later. Neither the narrator nor the town is ever named; it’s simply not that important. Before starting in on the book he’s attempting to write, the narrator gets a few things in order. He starts meeting some of the locals, listening to their stories, and exploring the surrounding area, all towards the pursuit of learning what the town is about, maybe diagnosing the phenomena of disappearance altogether. Yet the more he gleans about the town, the more he begins to understand there’s nothing to know at all. That’s not to say the town is devoid of interesting occurrences, long-held secrets, and fascinating characters; instead the more the narrator comes to understand about the town’s essential nature, the more byzantine and unknowable it begins to reveal itself as. Instead of rendering a place in its entirety, Prescott’s The Town is an evocation of an atmosphere, of a barely perceptible dread that hangs over his characters, suffuses out of the pages and into the reader, and suggests some things may lie forever beyond grasp. As the town begins to disappear into roving black holes, we feel the full weight of what was lost.
The Town is built of three named sections, “The Town,” “The Disappearing Town,” and “The Disappearing City.” The first of these sections follows the narrator’s inquiry into the town and its residents. The narrator develops something of a routine in the town, and a rapport with some of the other residents, like his roommate Rob, the bartender, Jenny, Rob’s girlfriend, Ciara, a regular customer at the grocery store, Rick, and the bus driver, Tom. The perspective never shifts from the narrator, and as such, we’re reliant on him to relay the oft-somber if not outright tragic tales of the townspeople to us.
Though seemingly every major town event culminates in a brawl of some sort, the facade of the town is a quiet one, near-indistinguishable from any town off the highway. Yet, the stories the residents tell throughout the novel speak to a deep sense of mystery bubbling up just underneath the surface. Tom, the bus driver and former guitarist describes a somber drone concert he organized of a group of out of towners that left the audience enraptured at the venue for several days. Ciara hosts a radio show at midnight that she says no one listens to, which features unlabeled cassette tapes she’s sent in bulk anonymously, containing strange keyboard music. Most striking of all, Rick explains the brutal circumstances that have left him unemployed, wandering the supermarket clinging to the nostalgia of childhood optimism. These stories are harrowing and poignant. While they don’t advance the narrative, they build the intense atmosphere and sense of ennui that the novel relies on.
Much of the book—and especially this first section—is essentially plotless, so unlike other books focusing on a single town, like Saša Stanišić’s masterful Before the Feast, Prescott isn’t able to rely on a driving sense of narrative to propel the stories we hear from the residents forward. Instead, the effect is much closer to something like John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester, another book featuring mysterious tapes more guided by tone and mood than simple story beats. The Town is deeply affecting, and haunting in a way that few books can achieve. Stylistically and thematically, the novel works in a way similar to our own memory, blurring the lines between exposition and implication. And of course, this suggests a world larger than the scope of the book itself. Unfortunately, without the backbone of intersecting narrative to gird these stories, most of them are isolated in a way as to be totally disconnected from one another. Though the characters are all afflicted by the same feeling, it doesn’t bind them together, instead isolating them regardless of their shared emotions.
Of course, this alienation fits right at home with the novel, so it’s difficult to count that among its flaws. In fact, many of the characters are flat in a way that would normally be a sign of inelegance, but here contributes to the dreamy, nightmarish quality of the town. Everything feels tenuous, like it might evaporate at any moment, or that certain characters might simply cease to exist. This is deeply powerful towards building the mood the novel creates, but does come at the cost of emotional resonance; we never feel like we know any of the characters as well as we could. Even Rick, the grocery store patron, whose past is perhaps the most desperate and sad, delivers his story in his second encounter with the narrator. Poignant as it may be, it comes across feeling somewhat unearned.
In fact, it’s Ciara who is the most interesting character, and rendered the most wholly, surpassing even the narrator. In the first section, she reads as a sort of spacey but well-intentioned woman, content to drift along in the town’s tides. We gradually start to see a second side to her, a new hidden depth not present in almost any other character. Ciara desperately struggles against the flow, attempting to shake up the town in any way possible. She begs listeners, if there are any, to call into her radio show, just to prove she’s not alone. She shapes the town itself into this inner longing, building secrets she hopes anyone will discover and find interesting.
It’s not until the end of the first section and into the second that the full scope of the disaster is shown. Mysterious black holes start opening in the town, starting with one centered in the main park. While this seems like it might be a source of terror for the residents, this initial hole is met with inquisitiveness, mostly. Meanwhile, the narrator is finding himself more and more pulled into the absurdities of the town, more reliant on its whims, and sent into disarray as the town shrivels beneath his feet.
Though he continues to delve deeper into the town’s culture and atmosphere, the narrator is never seen as more than an outsider, which leads to tension between him and his fellow residents. Much of this stems from the writer’s attempt to distance himself, not only from the town, but from the weirdness within. It’s a strange quandary: the writer suffers from the same malaise the residents do, but through his attempts to minimize his pain and so, his involvement, he’s also prevented from coming to any deeper understanding, unlike what Ciara is able to find by leaning into the unknowable.
As the town drifts away, the narrator and Ciara wander the remaining streets, distributing her endless supply of cassette tapes at random, while musing about the town’s essential nature. More than one character in the novel inquires aloud about some sort of unseen threshold, between this town and the next, between childhood and adulthood, between knowing and not knowing, that seems to have passed everyone by. The narrator shares these concerns as well, mostly expressed in the sense of longing about his book, longing to be the official arbiter of a place, to belong somewhere, anywhere, and of course to express understanding. As the town’s fate becomes increasingly sealed, the narrator and Ciara plan to flee to the city, one final attempt to get away.
The Town is a somber prose poem of a novel. While it lacks a guiding narrative through line (even the plan to run to the city doesn’t materialize until the last third of the book), it makes up for it with a powerful and haunting mood. Prescott’s vision of the town is perpetually on the cusp of disintegration, ready to fall away to sun and sand at the slightest provocation. He builds a world that begins in the mind of our narrator, before eclipsing him and us along with it. The Town has many mysteries left unsolved, but the effect is accomplished all the same; it’s a book that eulogizes itself in the process of being read. Knowing what we’re losing doesn’t soften the blow at all. It’s only once gone we can truly understand what’s missing.
By Shaun Prescott
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Published February 4, 2020