Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow
BOOK REVIEW: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow
Tor Books, 2005, ISBN 0-765-31278-6
A good friend whose opinion I value recommended that I read something by Cory Doctorow. I had seen his name mentioned in passing and on various fantasy fiction lists over the years, but had never really had the itch to pick up one of his works. However, since Monica had recommended him, I hopped right on my library site and ordered up a passel of his books; Someone Come to Town, Someone Leaves Town was the first one to arrive.
About halfway in, I wasn’t sure if I was glad it had. Shortly thereafter, I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it any further. But by the end, I was pretty sure I had witnessed something miraculous.
Something Comes to Town, Something Leaves Town is not an easy book to read. Some parts of it are pretty darned technical for simpletons like me; other parts were so pervasively ugly that I could almost taste fetid flesh emanating from the pages. But it is so marvelously written that it’s hard to put down, even as you have to screw your courage up to turn that next page.
Doctorow is able to weave this twisted yet accessible tale by keeping a firm footing in normalcy even as reality splinters around us. Were he to present this tale to us in a voice less “ordinary”, it would have been absurd to the point of being unacceptable. Yet Doctorow’s main character relates his odd story in such unflinchingly normal terms that we can relate to it, so we accept what we generally would reject; what we would blanch at viscerally becomes horribly tragic rather than tragically horrible. That, in my opinion, is no less than genius.
At the very onset of the book, we meet Alan, a middle aged, somewhat eccentric (but neighborly) entrepreneur, who has just bought a house in a bohemian section of Toronto, who sets about refinishing the house with enthusiasm and a meticulous thoroughness. The first pages go into exquisite detail on the loving way that Alan finishes the wood in the house – floors, banisters, ceiling beams – in preparation for the myriad of bookshelves that will be installed with his abundance of books. It’s understandable, then, that the first inkling that he may be more than he seems (“Alan’s father, the mountain, had many golems that called him home. They lived round the other side of his father and left Alan and his brothers alone, because even a golem has the sense not to piss off a mountain, especially one it lives in.”) is almost easy to miss, or to shrug off as some kind of nonsensical metaphysical musing that will be explained later.
It is not very much later that we learn that this is no metaphysical musing, but a simple statement of being, unusual for most but very normal for Alan – as is the fact that his mother is a washing machine, and his brothers include a fortune teller, an island, a dead man, and a trio of nesting dolls. Accept this – without drama, as Alan does – and you enter a world where a young boy moves to adulthood as unobtrusively as possible, becoming adept at spinning lies and alternate realities so as to pass through ordinary settings such as the nearby small town and the local school, to eventually leave and find a job and even open various businesses in metropolitan Toronto.
With a meandering timeline that moves between present day Alan, and the Alan of his childhood where he takes care of his younger brothers, Doctorow jostles us between the ordinary-ness of coffee houses and the punk/goth/beatnik community of Kensington with the strangeness of living in a cave, dressing in clothes found by the side of the road or filched off of clotheslines, speaking to a father by wading in a subterranean pool, and a mother who comforts her children by rocking them with “her gentlest spin cycle”. This movement between the accepted and the absurd makes it easier to allow the oddities in Alan’s adult life, including his chance association with a visionary technopunk who wants to blanket metropolitan Toronto with ParasiteNet (a free wifi service built out of connections who’s hardware is scavenged from municipal dumpsters) and his next door neighbors (a student, her slacker younger brother, a young woman with concealed bat-like wings that regrow after they have been cut off, and her sadistic boyfriend).
But Doctorow also likes to keep the reader off-balance by other devices than just a bizarre background story and a kinetic timeline. One very effective device is to “float” the names of Alan and his brothers. At any given time, Alan could also be known as Avery, Andy, Adam, Adrian, etc. His brother Billy may be Bob or Brian or Brad; Charley may be Chris or Chad or Cameron; Davey may be Darrell or Doug or Dan, even in the space of one paragraph. While the characteristics of each brother remain unchanged, this fluctuation of names is a constant reminder of their underpinning eccentricity, and hints at their impermanence, or perhaps at their lack of need of identification inside – or outside – the familial unit.
It is, then, the bizarre dynamic between the brothers that brings not only the uncomfortable, but indeed, the sinister into the story. It’s not just the creepiness of the three brothers that live inside each other (Edward, Frederick and George… or Eric, Frank and Gary, whatever), or the strangeness of a brother who can see what will happen but refuses to interfere (Billy), but for the most part, the pure evilness of Davey that sets the stage for the horrific events that unfold in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.
Writes Doctorow, Davey was a hateful child from the day he was born. “He screamed from the moment he emerged and Alan tipped him over and toweled him gently dry and he didn’t stop for an entire year.” As he grew, he got worse. He was suspended from school for maliciously throwing rocks, he gleefully butchered Billy’s pet rabbits, and was constantly finding ways to attack and inflict pain on his barely tolerant brothers. Eventually he grew feral and violent with no conscience or remorse, threatening the safety and security of the insular family. Driven to desperation, the brothers finally rise against Davey with Alan delivering the fatal blow. But in true monster fashion, death was not the end for Davey, and it is his vengeful return that drives the most visceral action in the book. Doctorow’s descriptions of Davey and his malignant actions are truly horrifying; the decay and desiccation that is this monstrous being and the callous way he exacts his revenge is what kept me from reading the book after dark – it was simply too squicky.
But brilliant. Just when the story would get too much (with either horrific detail, or with technological detail in the passages regarding the ParasiteNet venture), Doctorow would ease back to the more “normal” human side of the story, keeping us from teetering too close to the edge of whatever abyss was looming, slowly building the tension (and the otherworldly aspect of the story) until the final crescendo, where all the disparate parts of the narrative finally converge and…. Well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.
This book, for me, was harrowing and at times I frankly didn’t enjoy reading it. It was difficult – not that it was challenging – Doctorow is masterful in being able to explain complex issues in simple terms, without it seeming to be a lecture. Rather, it was a difficult book to read because it did not romanticize violence nor did it give the reader an “easy out” with shallow characters and ambivalent actions. And it was ugly. But it was also an extremely rewarding experience, one I hope to repeat when I read Cory Doctorow’s next book. And I hope I get the chance soon.
If you don’t mind your fantasy fiction sometimes being dirty and grimy, and if you are willing to make an effort to experience rare talent, then do read Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. It may not always be a pretty book, but it will stay with you and fill you with a true sense of wonder. Uneasy wonder at times, but wonder.