Review: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

I have just put my copy of Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town on my book­shelf. I am reminded of the main char­ac­ter, a middle-aged ex-retail­er called Alan, who is asked dur­ing the course of the book, “Have you read all these books on your book­case?” He replies, “Naw. What’s the point of a bunch of books you’ve already read?” I could not find this inform­a­tion in the hard copy of the book itself, because I made no notes, but it was easy to down­load the plain text of the book from Doctorow’s web­site. You see, his nov­els are avail­able for free online. It doesn’t seem to hurt sales. In my case, I read the first chapter on his web­site, pootled on over to Amazon, bought that suck­er before I’d taken a second drag on my tea.

The story begins with a middle-aged man called Alan refur­bish­ing his house in a trendy dis­trict of Toronto. He loves sand­ing, and so he should: his fath­er was a moun­tain. His moth­er was a wash­ing machine. That’s right. His fath­er kept the roof over their heads and his moth­er kept their clothes clean. There’s more. Alan’s young­er broth­er, Bradley, is psych­ic. Charlie is an island. Davie is dead, and wants revenge on those who killed him. Edward, Frederick and George are triplets; they fit inside one anoth­er like a Russian doll. There is a dark pool at the centre of fath­er-the-moun­tain where its great slow thoughts can be heard above the put-put of the dies­el gen­er­at­or power­ing mom.

Once Alan’s house is fin­ished, he attempts to integ­rate with the com­munity, start­ing with his imme­di­ate neigh­bours. Some of them are friendly. Others treat him with con­tempt. One, Krishna, recog­nises that Alan is not pre­cisely human. Krishna sets out to make life hard for Alan by align­ing with the dead broth­er, Davie, who demands revenge his mur­der­ers, start­ing with Alan. While the enemies are tough, the friends are true friends: Mimi, for instance, is a young woman with nas­cent, downy wings on her back. They grow again each time she cuts them back. Like Alan, she looks on at soci­ety from an uneasy orbit.

As the nov­el unfolds, Alan’s efforts to integ­rate – mostly by erect­ing a huge wire­less net­work with his punk friend Kurt – are hampered by the stalk­ing Davie. At points, we are flung back to Alan’s early life on the moun­tain, and begin to appre­ci­ate the depth of his ali­en­a­tion from human­ity. These flash­backs serve to height­en our desire to see Alan – a fun­da­ment­ally good man, des­pite all he has done and had done to him – get con­nec­ted along with his wire­less pro­ject. There is some­thing sad in Alan that reminds us of old sci­ence fic­tion stor­ies in an auto­maton would mim­ic human beha­viour and har­bours dreams of integ­ra­tion into human soci­ety. The invit­a­tion nev­er comes, of course. Sometimes it is bet­ter to leave town and start a soci­ety of your own. Doctorow’s nov­el wants to tell that you can’t escape your weird­ness. If you were born in a wash­ing machine under a moun­tain, then get used to it. If you have wings on your back, don’t cut them off. Spread them and fly.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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