Friday, September 10, 2010

Burning Down Town

Upon receiving a kindle (review post to come) as a wedding present (thanks Uncle Steve!), I immediately began downloading every free things I could get my cheap-ass paws on (Mrs. The Abigail, on the other hand, has proven more inclined to use her kindle to download a huge number of free first chapters). This (of course) led me to the work of the illustrious (and prolific) Cory Doctorow.

(I like parentheses - don't you?)

Anyway, I've been wanting to read Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town for a long time, but I am cursed with two conflicting traits: poverty and an inability to read extendedly off computer screens without causing tiny, but surprisingly heavy, gnomes slam-dancing drunkenly in my temples. A pdf version of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town has languished unread on my hard drive for about two years. But no more! With the kindle, both my poverty and my inability to read pdfs extendedly have been conquered, and the experience of reading Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is mine at last!

Honestly, it was kind of an anti-climax.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town isn't a bad book. It begins well enough, with classically Doctorowian descriptions of mesh networks and house renovation that left me feeling like the book had made me smarter already, an entirely pleasant experience. The main character, A - he answers to any male name beginning with that letter - is the son of a mountain and a washing machine. His brothers B, C, D, E, F, and G are, respectively, a precognitive, an island (he takes after their father), a murderous little shit, and a set of nesting humans. That last is about as gross as it sounds, but the characters themselves are kind of endearing. As A struggles to integrate himself in normalcy, start writing his story, help a neighborhood punk named Kurt blanket the neighborhood in free wireless, and get to know his neighbors - including an attractively plump girl called Mimi who has wings and her sadistic boyfriend - the novel's themes emerge. We have the healing and life-enhancing power of community versus the modern trend towards stagnation and the appealing idea that information technology can be a part of the solution. We have geeks and freaks - Alan and his family, Mimi and her wings - struggling to be a part of everybody else's world. We have a post-cyberpunk universe in which middle aged computer dudes are struggling to maintain relevancy and realize the punkish dreams of their youth and big business is less a looming villain and more just another bunch of people trying to do their best to get by and make things better. It's a promising start.

The only critique I will level at the main body of the book is that A's strangeness is a bit content-free. His family includes a washing machine and her husband the mountain, a man who can see the future, an immortal zombie sociopath, an island, and three guys who live one inside the other, he was raised by golems and talks  his father by spelunking. As for A himself... he grows back lost body parts like a lizard and is a bit of a nerd. Nearer to the end, when another character tells A that he's the weirdest person she's ever met and she'd rather take her chances with her teenager-seducing girlfriend beating room-mate, it falls a bit flat. She's never even seen him regenerate lost bits.

Things fall apart near the end, however [SPOILER ALERT], when A's confrontation with his murderous brother comes to a head. The plot's coherency begins to disintegrate under pressure, with scenes that seem oddly out of place and some strange pacing decisions. Doctorow starts experimenting with interesting (or at least unobjectionable) narrative techniques, such as a neat little poetic repetitions/parentheses thing and metafictional tangents that parallel real life. These ideas would be great... except that they're entirely out of place and dangerously jarring in a novel that up till then has followed a pretty basic plot/flashback counterplot structure.

The ending is the biggest betrayal of the beginning's promise. I don't know which pit of Doctorow's soul still holds the geek self-hatred we all grapple with, but the damned thing crawls up and poops all over the final chapter. The book closes with A fleeing alongside his winged girlfriend, leaving his two remaining brothers to kill each other, leaving his house and all his possessions in flames, and leaving his friend Kurt to continue their free wireless project, alone. The last scene is A and Mimi living in pseudo-marital bliss on A's brother the island, recreating the isolation of A's youth. Even more than the closing chapters' general incoherence, this conclusion was extremely disappointing. It's no use trying to live in the real world if you're a weirdo, kids. The best you can do is try, suffer, screw up, and eventually flee back to your crazy family, abandoning your projects and friends. If you're lucky, you'll bring your cute winged girlfriend home with you.

It's better than Joss Whedon, who keeps his self-hatred on a leash and regularly lets it poop on entire seasons of his television shows, but it's still really frustrating.

This is not to say that Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town isn't worth reading. I enjoyed the journey a great deal, even if the destination was a bit of a downer. I was particularly fascinated by Mimi's relationship with her former boyriend, an abusive whack-job named Krishnah. In order to maintain her life as a run-of-the-mill club-goer, she regularly lets him cut off her endlessly-growing, endlessly-regenerating wings. The parallel to extraordinary people who let themselves be trapped in relationships with the ordinary and spiteful, who continually push them back and tie them down, make them safe and "normal," and abuse them whenever their true selves break through, is heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, the book isn't really about Mimi and Krishnah, or Alan and his family, or free wireless meshworks. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town isn't really about any coherent thing. For all the beautiful novels it could have been, it remains merely the entertaining but mediocre novel that it actually is.

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