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An Embassy for Nowhere

Shaun Prescott The Town cover
The Town
by Shaun Prescott
Brow Books
256pp
29.99 AU
Published August, 2017
ISBN 9780994606822

1.

There are three modes in which most stories about Australia’s regional towns can be categorised: horror (‘New to the ‘Yabba?’); affectionate satire (‘Goodbye, Porpoise Spit!’); and that particular nostalgia we cultivate for small-town life, a Wintonesque keening for place and belonging for which there seems to be no cure.

While the reality of regional life can approach all three of these modes and sometimes cycle quickly through them in a day, regional towns, particularly ones with few economic opportunities, are more likely to be characterised by paralysis and boredom. A lack of interest in art, a meek or uninspired cultural output, an absence of audiences or colleagues, a sense that real life is elsewhere – for creative workers, the experience of small town life doubles down on Australia’s already strong sense of cultural inadequacy. The yearning and FOMO of the regional artist are partly for a perceived community that may not exist anywhere (I am always relieved when I attend an event in Melbourne or Sydney and realise everyone else also knows each other only from Twitter), partly for an end to one’s fear of terminal marginality, and partly for something intangible that we sense we were promised but that remains always off-screen. You could call it authenticity.

There is a joke among regional authors that we will inevitably be put on some panel discussion at a big city festival to talk about our ‘sense of place’ or our ‘relationship with landscape’, as if that is all we can discuss; as if we need to be reminded that the rest of the national discourse happens elsewhere. Though there are certainly advantages to living regionally (hello, clean air and affordable housing), the literary establishment, concentrated on the urban coast, tends to reinforce our peripherality. Tasmanian writer Ben Walter recently argued in Overland that the experience of the regional writer amounts to structural marginalisation. And yet Australian stories are so often set away from cities; we refer constantly to the regional as a site of meaning. Actually living in a regional town – especially if you write or make art or music in one – is therefore an experience of inhabiting the space between the map and the terrain.

2.

Shaun Prescott’s eminently strange novel, The Town, begins by rejecting outright any ‘sense of place’. The town in this novel is nameless. It is a site that refutes specificity, character, and indeed meaning itself. As a librarian tells its narrator early on: ‘There are no books about this town… Nothing of note has ever happened in this town, and by the time it does, there will no longer be any point in remembering it.’ The town is identified only by its vague location: the Central West of NSW. In other ways, including in its sense of its own insignificance, the town is stubbornly generic. We learn that the narrator is writing a book about the disappearing towns of the Central West. We can assume that he thinks this one is at risk of disappearing too.

The prototype, or I might say, the formal paradigm for this novel is Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, which also begins with a writer, in that case a filmmaker, arriving in a remote town in order to attempt a unique form of expression, which he also mostly does by hanging round the pub. The feeling of familiarity that begins The Town for readers of Murnane might seem at first derivative, but it is more useful to think of this as an echo, an homage, or even a sample.

In the 35 years since The Plains was first published it is curious that so few writers have sought to refer to it directly in fiction. Perhaps this is out of respect for its uniqueness as a book, or (I think more likely) writers are wary of entangling ourselves in its insoluble paradoxes of image and representation. The metaphysical is either embarrassing or dangerous, like a neglected paddock suspected of harbouring snakes.

Where Murnane’s plainsmen are individualist intellectuals, Prescott’s townspeople are a much less inspired (though more fairly gender-representative) bunch. The first third of this book, titled ‘The Town,’ introduces a cast of characters whose existences are narrow and purposes absurd. We are in the satirical mode, though it’s more anthropological than affectionate. There is Rob, the narrator’s housemate, who is interested only in sport and drinking and who provides Prescott with opportunities for typically arid humour: ‘I told him that I was writing a book about the disappearing towns in the Central West region of New South Wales. He said he was going to have a beer.’ There is Jenny from the pub, a pub that is always empty, a woman constantly irritated by the narrator’s questions; her hostility and impatience with him are at once comic and understandable. There is Ciara, the only person who seems interested in the narrator’s proposed book, a woman who hosts a show on the local community radio station that no-one listens to and whose musical projects are later elaborated in more detail. There is Tom, who drives an empty bus around the outskirts of the town, the ‘tentacle roads’ that lead everywhere and nowhere, and who also has a musical past. There is Rick, who has tried and failed spectacularly to leave the town and now finds solace only in visiting Woolworths.

Though the town’s name is never specified, familiar brands proliferate: it sports a Big W, a Bakers Delight, a McDonalds and a Bunnings. On arrival, the narrator wanders around one of two rival plazas imagining his life in the town through its brands: ‘I looked at the Sanity and thought about the CDs I would buy once I had found a job. Then I browsed the Angus & Robertson and made mental notes of the books I would purchase, and read, and discuss with the people I would meet in the café…’ Prescott is evoking a familiar cultural loneliness here, familiar at least to those of us who grew up before the internet became all-pervasive, but like much of The Town there is more going on beneath the surface. His decision to name these tired brands also situates the novel in a contemporary capitalist realm where meaning and identity are corralled by labels that are ultimately empty of meaning and identity. Naming these corporate outlets has the ironic effect of further de-specifying the town. The signifiers are familiar but the spaces themselves are cloned territories designed for anonymous consumption and pointless labour. They refuse to fulfil their promise of belonging. Later, Rick says he loves hanging around the Woolworths because it is ‘an embassy for nowhere.’

All the while the landscape hovers outside the town in a form reminiscent of the Horizonites’ ‘zone of haze’ in The Plains, a liminal space where sky and land might meet, a site of vague potentiality. Prescott describes this as a ‘shimmer’ that dissolves the town at its edges but also forms a kind of border through which it is difficult or undesirable to pass. The shimmer is an image that begins and ends the first third of this book, almost as a refrain. When I turn the page and find it also begins the second part, it feels like a tape has restarted, almost as if this book is playing back a recording of itself.

I don’t think this is an accident. Musical motifs – bands, cassette tapes, radio – are everywhere in The Town, and its structure is riddled with loops and refrains. If there is a core figure to this novel it is music: inaccessible music, unheard or indescribable music, the production of recordings that come from nowhere and arrive nowhere, sound that is meaningless noise, or noise that obscures meaning. Ciara is the vehicle for much of this – her radio station receives mysterious tapes, and she distributes posters for imaginary bands that put on non-existent concerts. There are references to her belief in an underground or an imagined community of listeners, but such people are never found. These images recall pre-internet years spent listening to slightly out-of-range community radio stations, desperate to connect with some imagined like-minded individual. Ciara’s character will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the nineties and grazed the floors of record stores and the classified pages of music magazines looking for other young people who understood the fundamental emptiness of all scenes but were desperate to belong to one anyway.

Ciara explains that she used to hang out with the metallers, who tolerated her proclivities for noise and weirdness, but that ultimately they parted ways. She spends many hours each day distributing cassette tapes of ‘mysterious music’. Music is an escape for her, but not a very good one. I felt sorry for Ciara and kept hoping she would find zines, which is presumably what happened to Shaun Prescott. He has spent much of his career so far as a music writer, and has a long association with zines. Zine communities tend to nurture eccentricity, rather than encourage professionalisation, but when they have done both they have produced some of our most interesting writers – Anwen Crawford, Vanessa Berry, Tom Cho. Brow Books, able to move between the worlds of ‘underground’ and ‘serious’ literature, is well placed to reap the benefits of the former’s embrace of the unique; I hope that it will also reflect the diversity that zine culture, and indeed The Lifted Brow, so carefully cultivates.

If music promises a means of escape, its promise is not fulfilled. The main form of escape for the town’s inhabitants is alcohol, and one of the funniest scenes in this first third of the book is the town’s celebration of ‘its own special day’, where the town’s residents gather in the park for an event both bizarre and familiar. Our narrator plays Virgil to this scene, describing the townspeople at chill remove but to comic effect: ‘It annoyed them to have the mayor speak during an event designed for drinking.’ The mayor’s speech (inaudible, of course) is followed by an apparently meaningless ritual of destruction.

3.

In his book The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher argued that the defining characteristic of the weird in fiction is the portal, ‘notable for the way in which it opens up an egress between this world and others.’ The notion of the portal resonates neatly with Prescott’s requirements for regional characters to seek some form of escape, at first via subculture. In the first part of The Town, the portals or thresholds are alluded to in several forms: as music, as shimmer, in the description of a historic railway station where no trains pause, and so on. But in the second part of The Town, ‘The Disappearing Town,’ these portals become physical. A hole appears, and the disappearance of the town, for which we have been amply prepared, begins.

It was more of an absence than a hole, neither black nor dark nor any other colour or shade. A part of the world had apparently just vanished.

As Fisher explains, ‘weird fiction always presents us with a threshold between worlds… the centrality of doors, thresholds and portals means that the notion of the between is crucial to the weird.’ The escape can never be accomplished, because the tension comes from liminality. Like the crack in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, the hole provides a stimulus for the revelation that all is not well on the surface, in the place we call reality.

But music also begins to function as a literal portal in this second section of The Town. In an extraordinary scene, a band plays a haunting concert: ‘The music had sounded alien, remote, like nothing else the audience had ever heard. More than a mere sound, it had come to resemble a portal, an access point to a foreign region.’ The music continues for days, until the audience has to be hauled away. This hypnotic effect seems to access something buried or hidden in the audience, some ore of dark feeling that has not yet been refined into sorrow or loss. The town and its inhabitants are only ever one discord away from a psychotic break.

Gradually, through scenes that reiterate the by-now familiar banality of the town, its disappearance is elaborated. The tape plays back with some distortion, becoming a soundscape of decay and breakdown. The hole grows larger and multiplies. As the holes expand, logic and reality collapse. The self-destructive impulses of the townspeople become starker, even poignant. Although Rob believes that the hole may signal some sort of environmental disaster, it does not feel catastrophic to the townspeople, for whom real catastrophe is still elsewhere – indeed, Ciara suggests to the narrator that the town is not significant enough to have something disastrous happen to it.

These holes evoke sinkholes and the damage wrought on landscapes by fracking or coal mining. They suggest the epidemic of suicide that stalks regional towns. People fall or leap into the holes and never reappear. We don’t know where they go. Perhaps they are memory-holes, amnesiac absences. Prescott soon discovers the holes offer the sort of metaphor he can throw anything into and wait in vain to hear it hit the bottom.

There are other kinds of holes. Some of the townspeople, the youth, undertake a sort of archaeological dig, but they are unable to identify the value of anything they unearth. This dyschronic or anti-historical quality evokes the liminal again, what one of Murnane’s landowners describes as ‘a history that had almost come into being.’ The disappearing quality of this town severs it from time as well as place. It is as though all this digging is a kind of searching for something that everyone knows is not there.

If Australian literature is obsessed by the regional, it is partly, I believe, from a hope that a grounding identity might be found in it – a sort of Lasseter’s Reef of the soul. But much of our writing about landscape unearths only a sense of hauntedness. Landscape is evoked as a site of trauma or loss. In legal circles as well as psychological, it has been argued that trauma attaches to the perpetrator of an atrocity as well as to the victim. This idea resonates deeply with Australian fiction, which often takes place in a landscape that bears witness to atrocity; in many cases, the land itself is made to remember our atrocities so that we don’t have to. As Tony Birch pointed out in an interview published at Overland, this is a cheap trick: actual atrocities are committed by people, and the evocation of a haunted landscape severs the chain of human accountability.

The town’s disappearance is not only a result of its insignificance, but can be seen as an allegory for our wilful national erasures. Prescott’s use of allegorical strategy inevitably leads to questions of genre. If we understand magical realism to be a specific strategy of decolonisation, and fabulism sounds much too whimsical, then what are we left with? It may be useful to see The Town as an example of what Jeanne Delbaere-Garant called psychic realism: ‘a physical manifestation of what takes place inside the psyche.’ In this case, the psyche is collective.

Though it lacks the highbrow credibility of the various realisms, maybe weird is specific and encompassing enough. But who cares? That it is boring to discuss genre illustrates not a difficulty in categorising books but a difficulty in the categories themselves. We live in a cultural age where nothing feels new and everything is available. Disparate sampling has become the norm. The trick lies in the unique blend.

The Town allows the banality of the town to bleed into the weirdness, so that the universe tilts quickly without the mood changing. At times, the repetitions, the cumulative bitterness and the extremely deadpan tone can become wearying; I found myself taking breaks from the book. Prescott’s conceit requires a formidable amount of emotional detachment, and that lowers the reader’s investment in anything like a story; but the slow fatalism of The Town does eventually accumulate a mossy growth of sadness.

If we accept Fisher’s suggestion that the weird is always about thresholds between this world and somewhere else, The Town is strict about that ‘somewhere else’ remaining hidden. People do exit via the holes, even somewhat gleefully. But rather than being haunted by the absences of these potential Mirandas, the townspeople merely shrug and accept the loss as ordinary – so accustomed to their own mediocrity that even the extraordinary feels dull.

4.

In the third and I think least successful part of the book, ‘The Disappointing City’, Ciara and the narrator manage to leave, escaping across the mountains to the city. While the town in The Town is generic, scrubbed clean of its specificities and thus perfectly suited to allegory, the city is unavoidably recognisable as Sydney. The more connections it is possible to make with real geography, the more The Town’s symbolic power deflates. This movement to the city also renders the characters’ struggles to figure out their town’s meaning less interesting. In the city there’s no requirement to define the character of the place, to make it stand for something. Its significance is assumed, and therefore irrelevant.

The narrator abandons his book, and Ciara abandons her tapes. The discovery of a book in the library that tells the story of the town fifty years ago, ending on an optimistic note about the train station being opened, is another hauntological moment: we yearn for the promised future that has vanished from under our noses.

The printed book is as much dead technology as the cassette tape, as much an artefact of its time, and just as subcultural. The book and the cassette tape are anachronistic objects, so their abandonment seems no great loss. When the shimmer is breached, the narrator loses interest in his project, and the weirdness loses some of its power. In the third part of The Town, the references to familiar places – familiar to me at least – become distracting. The game changes from an episodic, cumulative investigation of concepts and characters, and becomes about figuring something out. It punctures its own conceit, and to some extent deflates it. It is a self-destructive impulse, and one that I suppose is worthy of a resident of the town.

The Town is a book that undermines itself, and that too seems to be part of Prescott’s game. In the same way as metafictional awkwardness excuses its own pretensions by pointing them out first, the closing scene, in which the narrator witnesses an Anzac Day parade and wonders if he will ever find a place he belongs, seems to tremble with a sense of its own disappointing sincerity before it disappears into the shimmer.

The Town offers an experience of profound estrangement, not only from place and landscape, identity and community, but from reading a book, and perhaps even from meaning itself. Prescott is commendably unafraid to wander in among the tangled paradoxes Murnane has left lying in the field for him, and to kick them apart in his search for meaning, even if that leaves him with nothing left to kick except himself.

5.

There’s a line of Margaret Atwood’s that I keep handy, from her stirring obituary of Doris Lessing: ‘When the wheel spins, it’s on the edges that the sparks fly.’ Just as I am regularly asked to speak about a ‘sense of place,’ I find that I am often called to defend the intellectual contributions and unique voices of Australians from regional areas, among other alleged outsiders. Atwood’s line reminds me of something I learned as a child: that to be outside the centre, to be considered weird, is not a disadvantage but a lively source of power.

As Australia’s population becomes more urbanised and our political discourse increasingly monotonous, it is always a thrill to discover writers who offer something that feels genuinely strange. Prescott’s skill lies not in turning away from the usual portrayals of regional Australia, but in turning toward them from his own unique direction. The Town digs at the foundations of authenticity, culture and identity, revealing (and possibly contributing to) dangerous levels of subsidence. It is an unusual and unashamedly intellectual novel, but it does not take itself too seriously. Now that Prescott’s work has been unearthed for a general audience, I sincerely hope that he keeps digging, and does not disappear.

Works Cited

Margaret Atwood, ‘Doris Lessing: a model for every writer coming from the back of beyond’The Guardian, November 2013.

Tony Birch, interviewOverland, March 2017.

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, ‘Psychic realism, Mythic Realism, Grotesque Realism: Variations on Magic Realism in Contemporary Literature in English’ in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Lois Parkinson Zamora & Wendy B. Faris (eds), Duke University Press, Durham & London 1995.

Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, Repeater Books, London 2016.

– ‘There are Non Times as well as Non Places’, presentation, 2011.

Tom McCarthy, Remainder, Alma Books, UK 2005.

Saira Mohamed, ‘Of Monsters and Men: Perpetrator Trauma and Mass Atrocity,’ Columbia Law Review, Vol. 115, 1157, 2015.

Gerald Murnane, The Plains, Text Classics edition.

Ben Walter, ‘You can be a successful writer but only if you live in Melbourne or Sydney’, Overland, April 2017.