Shaun Prescott The Town

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

Brow Books, 264pp, $29.99

The Town is Shaun Prescott’s full-length fic­tion de­but and the sopho­more novel from The Lifted Brow – the avant-garde Aus­tralian lit­er­ary mag that, since mov­ing into trade pub­lish­ing last year, has cham­pi­oned writ­ers whose ideas and ex­e­cu­tion run against the grain of com­mer­cial lit­er­ary trends. Take this book: a deep dive into weird­ness that reads like a blend of Don­ald Horne and Gar­cía Márquez – although it con­tains lit­tle of the magic re­al­ist’s joie de vivre. Call it mag­i­cal fa­tal­ism.

Small towns to the cen­tral-west of New South Wales are dis­ap­pear­ing. Our un­named nar­ra­tor ar­rives in an un­named and yet-to-dis­ap­pear town, with a mis­sion to write a book about the mys­tery. That’s about the ex­tent of the plot, but that’s eas­ily ex­cused be­cause plot is be­side the point here – noth­ing hap­pens, in the same way that noth­ing much hap­pens in life.

Bor­ge­sian sur­re­al­ism butts up against mod­ernist drudgery; our nar­ra­tor takes a job at Wool­worths, rides a bus no­body ever boards, drinks in a ho­tel that has no pa­trons, is men­aced by a bel­liger­ent lo­cal with a shift­ing iden­tity and be­friends a com­mu­nity ra­dio host who plays un­cat­e­goris­able mu­sic sent to her anony­mously via cas­sette record­ing. With each new char­ac­ter, we get a vi­gnette, a char­ac­ter sketch, which col­lec­tively make up a so­ci­o­log­i­cal map of the Aus­tralian ev­ery­town.

It’s here, in the minu­tiae, that The Town’s charms come to light. The nar­ra­tor, prim and re­signed, elu­ci­dates the cor­ners of ru­ral life: lone­li­ness, parochial­ism, the en­nui of un­em­ploy­ment, the ca­pac­ity for bongsmoke to el­e­vate rock mu­sic to high art. It’s a book to be en­joyed in the same way Mu­rakami is – a sur­ren­der to the calm, med­i­ta­tive monotony that the nar­ra­tive hinges on.

It’s not per­fect. It takes mas­tery to write about sta­sis and bore­dom and re­main con­sis­tently com­pelling, and this doesn’t quite get there. At times the mood is bro­ken by a run­away metaphor – a long tract deals with a col­lec­tive am­ne­sia wo­ven of colo­nial guilt, while the phe­nom­e­non of dis­ap­pear­ing towns, hinted at by the young drift­ing to­wards the city, is si­mul­ta­ne­ously played as both al­le­gory and deus ex machina.

And while the read­ing pub­lic de­serves a mora­to­rium on meta-fic­tion about young men strug­gling to write books, The Town is for­given. Prescott’s nar­ra­tive gam­ble pays off, pro­vid­ing the reader with a gen­tle, if gnaw­ing, sa­fari of the ex­is­ten­tial dread on which Aus­tralia is built. ZC

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