Pic­ture a col­lec­tive dis­ap­pear­ing act

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed Wright

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

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