This is one of those reviewing traps there’s no point struggling with. It’s almost impossible to write about Cory Doctorow’s novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town without mentioning straight off (with the kind of gleeful chomp-smacking a reviewer does when he knows he’s going to tell his readers about a really unusual plot device) that the central character’s father is a mountain and his mother a washing machine; that one of his brothers is an island; that another is a malevolent little fiend that could have come from an unholy mating ritual between Gollum and little Chucky from the Child’s Play movies; and that the three youngest brothers are co-dependent nesting dolls.
Doctorow is co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing, with its famous tagline “A Directory of Wonderful Things”, and one of the wonders of this novel is how it puts some of the information about Alan’s family to metaphorical use but also literalises it. The mountain and the washing machine can of course be symbolic (think uncommunicative fathers who provide a roof over their children’s heads but otherwise loom remotely in the background, or mothers who seem to spend all their time labouring in housework), but you’re not allowed to lose sight of the fact that Alan’s mother really is a washing machine: when she goes into labour, she “rocked hard, her exhaust pipe dislodged itself and a high-pressure jet of cold soapy water painted the cave wall with suds”. And his father really is a mountain: he quakes and causes mini-avalanches when he’s angry, and besides sheltering his family he provides a home for gold-creating golems who help teach the children how to speak.
The book takes none of these things for granted: it isn’t the kind of weird book that’s comfortable with its own weirdness. Alan knows his family is very strange and often wonders how they came to be this way. Being the one best equipped to assimilate himself with the outside world, he spends years running first a bookshop, then a clothing shop and a collectibles shop – but on the few occasions that he tells “normal” people about his background, they are taken aback. Importantly, however, they never seem to be as astonished as they should be, which makes one think that this book is set in a world similar to ours in most ways, only marginally more accepting of strangeness.
Most of the above is background, not central to the narrative. As we join the story, Alan is painstakingly fixing up a house in a bohemian Toronto colony - this is apparently his preparation for the writing of a book, but he never actually gets around to it. Instead, he goes out of his way to socialise with a group of students living next door, and shortly afterwards gets involved with a technopunk named Kurt, whose (brilliant? crazy?) idea is to provide all of Toronto with free wireless Internet, using junked hardware pieces and a little entrepreneurial skill. Meanwhile, trouble is coming to town: Alan’s psychopathic brother Davey, who had been murdered by his siblings years ago, appears to have returned for vengeance.
Have I left out anything? Oh yes, there’s Mimi, a girl with wings. And her antagonistic boyfriend, Krishna, who seems to be in thrall to Alan’s evil brother. Flashbacks to various points in Alan’s past run alongside the main narrative and eventually impinge on it to the extent that one loses all sense of chronology. And then there’s Doctorow’s treatment of his characters’ names. At one point early on, Alan calls himself “Adam”, and thereafter he is randomly referred to by just about any male name beginning with A – it often changes in the space of a single sentence. This pattern is also followed with Alan’s six brothers, whose names begin with the letters B through G. It makes sense in a strange way, because these are characters who never have a real sense of their identity, of how they fit into the world of human beings and human names. And it isn’t confusing, because no other character name in the book begins with any of those letters.
It’s difficult to say what Someone Comes to Town… is “about” (in the sense that that term might be used for more conventional books), but its treatment of the hierarchies of strangeness and the many ways in which people look at each other and at themselves reminds me of the work of Murakami: specifically in the way Doctorow takes bizarre settings or plot twists and then inserts some very direct, instantly identifiable observations about human behaviour into them. (Alan’s fetishizing of Mimi’s wings also vaguely recalls the girl with the perfect ears in Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase.) There’s a bit of Philip K Dick as well, in the book’s account of the ways in which human lives have become affected by technology – to the extent that people often seem extensions of the machines they are working on.
It goes without saying that this book isn’t for all tastes. But Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is nowhere near as gimmicky or self-indulgent as it sounds. It’s very inventive and it clearly relishes that inventiveness, but rarely does it seem forced or over-clever. And though the more technical passages are quite dense, you can treat them as MacGuffins if you want (though they probably weren’t intended as such: the author is involved with the Electronic Frontier Foundation besides being an activist for the liberalizing of copyright laws, and making technology accessible to the common man is an issue close to his heart). The best approach to this book is simply to read it, allow the weirdness to wash over you, and relish the way Doctorow introduces fears, insecurities and dreams that anyone can relate to, at just those points when things seem to be getting most strange.
Link: free download of the book available here.