I want to live in cities, but I want to explore towns. In my limited experience of city life, there is far too much for a visitor to take in, too many different logics and systems to parse, it’s not possible to learn anything with any sense of finality. And there’s pleasure in that, of course.
But I’ve lived in several towns, and I know them to be just as strange and forbidding as cities. Towns are civilisation in miniature, but they’re likely to reveal their logical lapses and quirks quickly. On the other hand, they are less likely to have recorded histories, and you’re less likely to find a “definitive text”. That’s what I find fascinating about them, and why I chose to write a book set in one.
Fictional towns often allegorise whole nations, whole eras. They can map an expanse of the writer’s mind, or a culture’s mind, or a period’s mind – or all three at once.
1. Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook
John Grant, a Sydney-born teacher, has taken a job in a remote town in the Australian outback. On his way home for a holiday, he gets stuck in Bundanyabba: a dusty, alcohol-soaked mining town whose locals want nothing more than to get our hero very drunk. Which he does, before mowing down kangaroos in the surrounding outback. Bundanyabba is terrifying in its remoteness, its insularity, its booze, and I suppose it resonates in Australia because, taken as a whole, its horror isn’t made up.
2. Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
Carpentaria is set in Desperance, a fictional town in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland. The Indigenous Australian communities are at odds with one another, and in turn at odds with the white population. The town has several names: where the whites live, it’s Uptown; where some of the Indigenous Australians live, in tumbledown huts strapped together by discards from the whites, its Picklebush. The urbanites in Brisbane want to rename it Masterton. But really it’s Desperance: the type of place most Australians won’t be familiar with, but which bears the strong racial and cultural demarcations that are common and enduring in this country. It’s Australia’s greatest novel.
3. Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
Satantango is so vividly drawn that I’m terrified to read it again, lest the images it has generated in my mind get erased or “taped over”. The small town in Satantango is in a state of near ruin, with most inhabitants having fled for less muddy, less miserable pastures. This town haunts me because it has seemingly come untethered from time: it’s neither explicitly old nor modern; it’s a strange twilit nowhere. You’re tempted to find an allegory, but if there is one, it’s buried. It’s township as spirit, as the half-breath you lose when you remember our predicament.
4. Blueprints for a Barbed Wire Canoe by Wayne Macauley
Macauley’s novel is set on a plot of houses at the far fringes of a city, a modern development populated under a flaky proviso: that a highway will soon connect it to civilisation. But the road never materialises and the freshly zoned town depopulates, leaving a handful of marooned survivors. Macauley’s novel demonstrates how terrifying Australia’s expanding cities can be, the way they sprawl along pathless six-lane arteries in every direction to nowhere. How will those who cannot afford a car survive? What will happen to these commuter suburbs in a post-car world?
5. The Shadow Over Innsmouth by HP Lovecraft
Innsmouth is a mysterious and reviled settlement, avoided due to the surreal proclivities of its inhabitants. The scene setting is crucial: the ornate architecture, the secretive citizens, the labyrinthine hotels. I long to visit dream-like towns like Innsmouth, places marked by their hard divergence from mainstream society. In a world of post-capitalist homogeny, where so many towns are populated by the same shops, plazas and petrol station signs, Innsmouth permits the imagining of unusual locations scattered throughout familiar lands, marked not by their seeming familiarity, but by their conspiracy with the unknown.
6. Twisted Clay by Frank Walford and The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn
These novels are set in Katoomba, the town in the Blue Mountains where I live. The town hugs the cliffs over the Jamieson Valley, surely the most intimidating mountain expanse in the country. Neither of these novels is strictly about the town, but their preoccupation with outsiders, and the level of detail in them, lead me to feel that they’re as much about Katoomba the “dark brooding bastard”, as Peter Doyle recently described it, as they are about their central characters.
7. The Notebook by Ágota Kristóf
If a novel has the power to illustrate a town’s shape and mood without resorting to painstaking description, then it becomes as real as any town that actually exists. And the small Hungarian town in The Notebook is startlingly vivid for me. Within the first dozen pages, I had internally mapped the streets that lead away from its twin protagonists’ home. Set during the second world war, the story is told in the diary entries of two young twins struggling to contend with the reality of wartime Hungary. Thanks to their unadorned descriptions of place, the reader is not left with a deficiency of imagery, but rather the opportunity to imagine more than any detailed account could permit.
8. The Sinistra Zone by Ádám Bodor
This is a baffling and vulgar novel set in a small eastern European town inside what is called the Sinistra zone: a bleak and mountainous outpost governed by a mysterious dictatorship. Or at least, those are the facts I gleaned from this Hungarian novel when I read it several years ago. It’s as bizarre as it is unsettling, and, like the work of another Hungarian great, Krasznahorkai, it’s hard to pin the story down to a certain time. It’s equally difficult to come away with any powerful sense of having learned anything, but the image of the small settlement and the people (as well as the bears) that the outsider protagonist Andrei encounters have endured in my mind with greater clarity than most other books I’ve read.
9. Super-Cannes by JG Ballard
Super-Cannes focuses on Eden-Olympia, an exclusive business park in France whose elite inhabitants enjoy a self-contained community. Rereading it recently, I was put in mind of the campuses of mega Silicon Valley institutions such as Google and Facebook. The latter recently announced its plans to develop a campus in California boasting 1,500 housing units, a grocery store and a pharmacy. Buzzfeed declared that: “you’ll never have to leave Facebook’s new campus if you work there.” Corporate towns are the future.
10. What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry
I’ve read this to my daughter countless times. It takes place in Busytown, so named because its animal inhabitants are very busy. All of the industries support each other. The farmer sells to the market, and the wheat growers also mill the flour, which is then shipped off to the local baker. The lumberjacks fell trees, and the wood is used to build houses nearby. Children’s authors write books upstairs, which are then sold in stores downstairs. Rarely does a working person survive a day without witnessing some devastating-yet-comical disaster. Folk are jailed for stealing bananas. Women are paid for their labour with shoddy jewellery. Busytown has the resources to fund its own space travel too, but what on Earth for? Just more of this, in space? Busytown on Mars?
- The Town by Shaun Prescott is published by Faber & Faber. To order a copy for £10.99 (RRP £12.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.