Tuesday, 2 August 2011
Novel Review - Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctrow
Cory Doctrow is a man, I am told, of multiple vocations - on top of his sci-fi writings he also spends a lot of time trying to usher us more comfortably into the world of internet. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town was a book released free on the webs at the same time as it was published. I might be a young person, but it seems I'm more of an elderly gent in spirit - reading novels or novellas on my computer screen annoys me. Paperbacks all the way.
But in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town the sci-fi author brings us the unusual urban fantasy I've ever come across. Reading the blurb makes it sound comedic: one day, two of Alan's brothers turn up on his doorstep. The third of the twins is missing, and since they are Russian stacking dolls they cannot eat. It seems another brother who they tried to murder, Davey, is back and he's looking for vengeance. It's not easy when your dad's a mountain and your mum's a washing machine. On top of this ultra-bizarre situation, he discovers that his nextdoor neighbour has wings and an asshole boyfriend, and soon he's crusading with a local tech-punk to bring the whole area free internet.
It's quite a mix, and all of the different strands aren't linked particularly well until near the end. It feels like they are jsut too arbitrary and different, and the subplot about the girl with wings seems to be missing from the middle of the book. There are a lot of time jumps in this book, flashbacks that are mostly handled well - mostly the flashbacks had been between his growing up and his present. This makes thigns tricky when he starts flashing back to different parts of the present, which confuses the story's progression.
The strangeness of the book is not played for laughs or even for the fantastical: Doctrow treats having a mother who's a washing machine and a brother who is an island as mundane thing. The character has never known anything else, and this is his reality. It's this approach that makes the book such an unnerving one, at times disturbing even. He takes thing that should be farcical and drains away any impulse to laugh. It makes the world he creates strange and compelling and weirdly closer to ours than other urban fantasy I can recall reading.
Identity, of course, is an overriding theme here. Fitting in, and the stress of otherness. Unlike his brothers Alan appears human, but when he grows back a thumb whilst young he realises that he isn't. No one in his family seems to have that set a name either, as Alan is constantly referred to by different names beginning with the letter "A", same with his brothers. The girl with wings tells him that "Mimi" is as good a name as any when he asks her name, and his mum and dad remain nameless.
What made this novel such an unbalancing read was Davey, the antagonist. As antagonist's go, he's properly terrifying and disturbing. He's like a personification of malice and anger, a creature that seems to resemble a child's corpse, yet incredibly strong and dangerous and more than willing to kill people in slow and painful ways. Some of things Davey does during the book leaves you with a really bad taste in your mouth, and I can't help but feel he might be a step too far, making sections of the book unpleasant to read. Nonetheless, I found I was genuinely fearing for the characters, so he was definitely an effective character.
I had a funny journey with Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. I read it, and really enjoyed the style. But soon the structure and the disturbing nature of some of the book, coupled with the other plot being not all too engaging (bringing internet to the people) made me pretty sure I was not enjoying myself. Then I finished it, and found myself bursting with praise. This is a remarkable and original book, and complex and interesting one. It's the type of story that is likely to get better after you've read it, sitting and maturing in your mind. I'm glad I read it, and if you can take the premise seriously, definitely check it out.