Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ex Libris: Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

(Given that I couldn't regularly access the Internet where I was over the holidays, the succeeding posts are post-dated.)

Among Cory Doctorow’s novels, the one that really caught my attention was Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.

(Part of that, of course, is my preference for fantasy or horror, leaving sci-fi a distant third. But that’s neither here nor there.)

But then again, among all his works, it was only SCTSLT (for short) that was tongue-stuck-out-mouth stranger-than-strange. In fact, my first impression is that it was North American/Canadian version of magical realism.

Consider this: Alan had a mountain for a father and a washing machine for a mother. He had for six brothers: an island, a series of Russian nesting dolls, a prophet and a dead boy. Though he looks normal, Alan can heal real fast and grow any part of his body if it's cut off. (Vice versa, the cut-off part can grow into another version of Alan.)

In a weird life like his, Alan wants a normal one. He becomes a successful self-made entrepreneur and after befriending the dumpster-diving punk Kurt, decides that he wants to help him give the whole city of Toronto free Internet.

Then one day he meets a girl who has her wings cut off (but they’re always growing back) and he also learns his dead brother has come back in his life to kill him. And he has to learn how to accept the weirdness in his life in order to live a normal one.

And that, I think, is the theme running throughout SCTSLT: the schism between surreal and the real in Alan’s life. Doctorow has a big job in trying to balance and even integrate these two elements in the story.

Unfortunately, despite Doctorow’s best efforts, the two don’t seem to gel very really well. Doctorow switches back and forth in chapters in describing Alan’s present life as well as narrating what it was to grow up strange for Andrew.

For the separate storylines, he’s successful. He’s made Alan’s younger life fascinating reading, whether it’s feeding for a Matrioshka doll for brothers or dealing with the neighbourhood golems on his father’s mountain slopes.

In fact, even the naming of the brothers is an oddity to be savoured: Alan is also known as Adam, Arnold, Alex (and all names starting with the letter A). His brothers follow suit, from B to C to D and E and so forth.

The current storyline isn’t as catchy as the past but it’s readable because Doctorow makes interesting characters and Alan is likeable enough. (Though I do think he is a bit of a pushover for my taste, like a friendly dog that wants to be patted.)

But for both narratives, Alan’s strange life sticks out when he conducts business in the world around him. Whether it’s going to school when he was younger or as he helps build the free WiFi network when he’s older, the strangeness in Alan’s life doesn’t turn people’s heads around as much when they find about it.

Obviously, Alan tries to avoid making his two worlds come in contact. This is a good strategy for Doctorow so as to avoid explaining the hows and whys of Alan’s strange life. Unfortunately, the overall story requires that the two worlds collide and this is where the two storylines show that they don’t gel very well.

And this, I think, is the crux about writing magic realist stories. As I’ve realized in my own writing, the surreal must be accepted as real in order for the story to work. Alan’s strange life is an important aspect of the story: without it, there is no story.

But Doctorow also wants to write a story about giving away free Internet and this combination of science fiction (or even modern technology) and magic realism makes for strange bedfellows. If this weren't surreal or magical realism, then Alan's life couldn't be analyzed from a sci-fi perspective (i.e. his father a mountain? his mother a washing machine?).

Overall, I like Doctorow’s work. But in the end, sci-fi’s need for questions weighed heavily on the assumptions inherent in the magic realism aspect of the story. So even though I thought the story failed, it was a fascinating failure for me and worth the read nonetheless. (Rating: Two paws out of four.)

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