Picture a collective disappearing act
Riffing off authors such as Gerald Murnane, Shaun Prescott builds an idiosyncratic vision that is simultaneously banal and powerfully moving. The Town is the debut novel of this short fiction writer from the NSW Blue Mountains. The narrator comes to an unnamed NSW country town to work part-time while writing a book on the disappearing towns of central-western NSW. He finds share accommodation with Rob in a townhouse and a job stacking shelves at the local Woolworths.
When he is not struggling with his book, he sits alone in a pub run by the laconic Jenny, or waits at the Michel’s Patisserie in the local plaza in the hope of interacting with the town’s artistic elite. When they fail to materialise he spends more and more time with Rob’s girlfriend, Ciara, who runs an underground music show on the town’s unlistened to community radio station.
The town is a place denuded of opportunity. Tom, a former musician, drives the local council bus, which never picks up any passengers because everybody drives. Rick, a young father who has lost his wife and child in a car crash, spends three hours a day trawling the aisles of the supermarket because it is cheap entertainment. Ciara can’t find any local bands to play on the radio, so she begins to manufacture her own simple organ music to play.
The town starts to disappear physically, at first small holes, then larger ones that cover entire blocks. Realising the hopelessness of writing about towns that have already disappeared, the narrator switches his focus to the town, but even the process of live disappearance proves elusive.
The Town is not the kind of writing that invests in the aesthetic luxury of its individual sentences. It is a disciplined deflection from realism that strives for a total effect. The most obvious influence on Prescott is Murnane with his groundbreaking convergence of the speculative energy of magic realism (an invention of the tropics) with the dry, flat minutely variegated landscape of “inner Australia”. The Plains, for instance, is magnificent in its dry abstracted speculation and imaginatively refigured squattocracy.
The world of the town with its store chains and franchises is more quotidian, which enhances the sense of the characters’ estrangement from their environment. Where Murnane’s filmmaker is questing, The Town’s characters struggle as much as anything for meaningful ways to mark time.
Losing towns is some- thing that has been occurring in Australian life since the arrival of Europeans. In central-western NSW, the gold rush town of Hill End was once the second biggest in the colony before it all but vanished in less than a generation. In recent times the rise of industrial agriculture and the loss of rural labour opportunities has seen smaller towns dwindle while regional centres such as Dubbo have grown.
The Town is fatalistic and fantastic in its evocation of this process. There are shades of Franz Kafka here, of characters caught in a precarious world where their agency has largely become irrelevant. It’s tempting to imagine the possible allegories but, as in The Plains, the vision is powerfully singular, resisting the incorporation into allegory at the same time as it tempts.
Part of this fatalism is also concerned with the notion of flux. Helen Garner once wrote that the role of literature was to conserve, so that there is a record of how things were when they have disappeared. It’s hard to be comfortable with flux. Part of us wants to show how we can control the world by keeping it the same. It’s one way of forestalling anxiety about our mortality.
But this effort is inevitably a failure. Progress is the positive spin on flux; that, although things change, they are changing for the better. It’s been the narrative of the Western world (and many other places) since the Industrial Revolution. Yet there’s a sense now with climate change, increasing populations and the growth in inequality that change has become disassociated from progress.
In The Town this process is accelerated for effect. The world Prescott’s protagonist is trying to record is disappearing faster than he can capture it. Eventually he and Ciara, millennial in their dependency on older generations, abandon the town for the city by stealing her parents’ car. But the city doesn’t exactly celebrate their arrival.
After being moved on from car camping at Bondi Beach they sell the car. In a personal corollary, they drift away from each other in the process of acclimatising to urban life. The narration is as dry and flat as the town where it is centred. However, the concluding affect of The Town is an elegiac swell that is strangely divorced from the characters, their town, and their destiny.
This is one of those rare books that bothers your thinking by making you feel uncomfortable without necessarily knowing why or how. The aftermath is a kind of freefall. It’s a remarkable achievement and a testament to how the small publishers rather than the big houses are producing Australia’s best and riskiest fiction. and critic. is a writer, poet
Shaun Prescott, below, offers a discomfiting portrait of a vanishing town