Lindsay Stern - Enter the Town of Shadows, where noise is ‘the color of rain,’ and the self is a ‘hidden crowd.’ Indeed like shadows, the town’s inhabitants are elusive—slipping in and out of mirrors, wandering down secret corridors of the mind, hiding in the spines of houses—and perpetually at risk of disappearing or being ‘deleted.’
Lindsay Stern, Town of Shadows, Scrambler Books, 2012.
"That the fresh and haunting new voice Lindsay Stern exercises in TOWN OF SHADOWS is difficult to classify ought to serve only to make it impossible to ignore. Rife with arch urgency, brief density, and fruitful disregard for traditional genre bounds, Stern's debut is an important addition to the recent rejuvenation of the novella form. Through its razor-sharp technique, translucent diction, and elliptical vignette structure, TOWN OF SHADOWS peels layer from layer to reveal a complex, perspicacious author who is unafraid to trouble the water where poetry and prose mingle. Stern's youth and precocity are certainly striking, but don't let them dupe you: here is a young Lydia Davis or Anne Carson unspooling only the beginning of a corpus all her own. Lindsay Stern defines the term 'one to watch.'"—Laura Goode
"TOWN OF SHADOWS is Winesburg, Ohio coated in arsenic, stippled with word math, and carved on a butterfly's body. What Lindsay Stern creates here is throttling and gorgeous, a child's hand grasping for a lightning storm trapped in a white balloon."—J. A. Tyler
“Enter the Town of Shadows, where noise is ‘the color of rain,’ and the self is a ‘hidden crowd.’ Indeed like shadows, the town’s inhabitants are elusive—slipping in and out of mirrors, wandering down secret corridors of the mind, hiding in the spines of houses—and perpetually at risk of disappearing or being ‘deleted.’ Lindsay Stern’s brilliant, urgent vignettes depict a people struggling to make sense of the limits of language and time. A dark and fascinating debut.”
— Hanna Andrews
“An answer, Stern says, is little more than a question disguised. Town of Shadows is full of startling, undisguised questions. The precision and pardoxes of its logic, mathematical beauty and metaphor illuminate only more mystery, more wonder. This is the work not of an intellectual game, but of a visceral spiritual matter that exists and disappears, exists and disappears, even on and off the page as you read. I’m humbled and look forward to her next book.”— Bonnie Nadzam
“That the fresh and haunting new voice Lindsay Stern exercises in Town of Shadows is difficult to classify ought to serve only to make it impossible to ignore. Rife with arch urgency, brief density, and fruitful disregard for traditional genre bounds, Stern’s debut is an important addition to the recent rejuvenation of the novella form. Through its razor-sharp technique, translucent diction, and elliptical vignette structure, Town of Shadowspeels layer from layer to reveal a complex, perspicacious author who is unafraid to trouble the water where poetry and prose mingle. Stern’s youth and precocity are certainly striking, but don’t let them dupe you: here is a young Lydia Davis or Anne Carson unspooling only the beginning of a corpus all her own. Lindsay Stern defines the term ‘one to watch.'” — Laura Goode
“Town of Shadows is deeply moving, darkly imaginative and delightfully weird. It’s Thornton Wilder crossed with Tim Burton and David Lynch. Stern’s passion for language is infectious; she’s in love with words, and by the end of this brilliant novella, you’ll be in love too. A remarkable debut.”
— Patricia Morrisroe
“The debut of a force like Lindsay Stern’s should be greeted by a bureaucratic and naked applause:
Step 1: Remove clothes.
Step 2: Read Town of Shadows.
Step 3: Stand up.
Step 4: Clap, or whistle, accordingly.
Stern’s novella solves the equation it poses in Chapter Two:
Q: ‘thinking ÷ thought = ?’
A: This book.”
— Paul Legault
“thinking / thought” —Lindsay Stern, from Town of ShadowsImagine, as writer Lindsay Stern has, a schoolchild approaching the blackboard to answer word equations such as:
“sound + sound =”
“today / day =”
“thinking / thought”.
In her exquisite debut novella Town of Shadows, Stern gives sensible answers to the first two: sound plus sound equals sound and today divided by day equals now, not zero as a hapless student in the story would have it. But what is thinking divided by thought?
In the story, Alice, a rebellious student, has thrown this last equation up on the board along with her own answer: “I”. Here Stern presents the perennial theme of dystopic literature: the bold assertion of one’s individuality against a hostile, monolithic authority.
Alice is liberated through creation, through writing and answering her own word equation. The teacher disapproves: “Alice’s terms are invalid. Intelligent children do not think. They solve.”
Stern’s writing is meticulous, studied, and inward-facing: the prose of a young writer constructing her own private, fiercely imagined world, complete with a bureaucracy against which many of her characters — the dollmaker, the cellist, the horologist, etc. — struggle to assert and express themselves.
The dystopia here is fully and delightfully realized: vowels have been outlawed, artists have been “deleted,” mathematics has replaced speech as the “national dialect,” and in one of my favorite moments, the mayor arrives announcing “war season.” But the real battleground for Stern is language itself, in other words, “Alice’s terms.”
Stern’s clever word equations operate as Zen koans (e.g. What’s the sound of one hand clapping?). Indeed, “thinking / thought” is a perplexing, paradoxical riddle. Alice says the answer is “I”, but there is no “I” in her world. Stern both dramatizes the absolute assertion of the individual and shows how this same “I” dissipates into a private, imagined space that simply vanishes. For even as Alice revolts, Pierre, the novella’s protagonist, looks in the mirror and sees only the daffodil wallpaper behind him.
Alice makes sense of the equation. Thinking, that vast Big Mind, that cloud of all human mental activity, divided by thought, that singular instance of a thought in time, that Cartesian proof of the individual, equals I. But Pierre is just another shadow in the Town of Shadows. As Suzuki Roshi might say, “It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so.” Contemplating a koan is supposed to provoke enlightenment by demonstrating the inadequacies of logical reasoning. And, for me, this one seems to be working.
Throughout this slim volume, Stern plays with and reconfigures language in arresting and satisfying ways, in ways that make you not only stop and think, but stop and think differently. Her work gives off these flashes of insight by its relentless digging under the surface of language.
In addition to word equations, we see Pierre devising his own lexicon with entries such as “Happiness, n. selective sight” and “Icicle, n. a brief spear.” Stern also presents ten nifty “experiments,” such as “How to Swim” or “How to See,” complete with numbered lines as in a recipe:
Experiment 4: HOW TO FORGET
Light bulb, magnet, drill.
- Drill hole in bulb.
- Locate memory.
- With magnet, extract memory from eyes.
- Trap memory in hands.
- Notice the melody of wings on skin.
- Lift memory to bulb.
- Open hands.
- Watch memory flutter through hole, to filament.
- Turn bulb on.
- Notice the flames.
In this pursuit, she follows in the lineage of Borges, of Wittgenstein, and most of all, of Beckett, my favorite abstract novelist. In Beckett’s letters, he wrote, “My language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it.” He sought to “drill one hole after another after another into [language] until that which lurks behind it, be it something or nothing, starts seeping though.”
Each of the stories in Stern’s Town of Shadows is a beautifully drilled hole into language. Take a peek and see what lurks beneath. - Paul Griffin
What: a debut prose-poem novella
Who: the eponymous town of shadows
And: its cast of shadowy characters, including a rug doctor, a lepidopterist, bureaucrats, a bodiless mayor speaking from a gramophone that sputters ash, a child with an hour glass and a white balloon who might be god, etc.
Where: mirrors, shadows, bell jars, and graves
When: see “where”
How: absurdly, surreally, in the not-psychologically-penetrating mode of the fairy tale
Also, of course: non-linearly
Why: why not?
Why, put less glibly: trying the forms less travelled is always a worthwhile endeavor
Why, put another way: when writing about time, eschewing traditional narrative structure is probably a good move
Cleverness, dispersed throughout: a lexicon of pithy definitions, e.g. “Self, n. A hidden crowd” and “Photograph, n. A stunned pulse”
And: word equations on a black board at the town’s school, e.g. “thinking – thought = I”
Beauty, dispersed throughout: carefully chiseled sentences, like “The seasons had spun from autumn to spring so quickly that the blood in his thermometer splashed up and down, leaving a ruby film on the glass.”
Intellectual reactions: a fleeting, perhaps insecure desire to return to writing reviews in sentences and paragraphs
Visceral reactions: not many, except when a character shaves off his eyelashes
Aesthetic reactions: “hot damn, another beautiful sentence!”
Small risk taken and more or less averted: preciousness
Big risk taken, perhaps necessarily: the lack of a clear narrative arc
Setback of that big risk: the reading process slows mid-way, when you’re wondering how all the beautiful sentences and clever observations will add up
The payoff: a refreshing reading experience full of arresting imagery and fascinating if not provocative ideas that linger well after finishing the book. -
Truth, n. An axis. Knowledge, n. Its asymptote. (p. 81)Town of Shadows, told in vignettes, is the stories of the people of a town subject to the mathematical, bureaucratic oppression of its warmongering mayor. Besides the mayor and his faceless horde of bureaucrats, husband and wife Pierre and Selma are the only recurring characters. The transitions between the sixty-odd vignettes are negotiated by Pierre's writings: his lexicon (of which the above quote is an example) and his "experiments," including "How to Write," "How to See," and "How to Read." Pierre's experiments are magical, his lexicon filled with signposts rather than definitions, and it is people like Pierre—those with a sense of the wondrous—that stand against the mayor's vision for "a town of ones and zeros" (p. 86).
Stern's book is surreal, and her style ranges from breathtakingly numinous to bizarrely horrifying. Her writing is nearly flawless, playing with a diversity of images, emotions, characters, and situations in a poetic prose that neither spares the words it needs nor undertakes any it does not. The book is only 123 pages long, but it exhausted me: each vignette required digestion as I struggled against, or basked in, its conclusions.
Washing kept the pictures quiet. Gently the man scrubbed the knuckles of his left hand, then his right. He was scrubbing off the edges of a picture. The picture was of a boy in a bald meadow. The sky was blank except for a popping sound. The man listened, and saw that the boy was perforated. ("The Soldier," p. 82)
Stern's darker passages remind me of Blake Butler's novel There Is No Year (2011) or The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich (2010), but neither of these comparisons fully satisfies: both of these works are considerably grimmer than Stern's, and neither shines any lights to guide the reader out of the dark worlds they build. Town of Shadows, by comparison, holds out hope: even in the darkest moments, there is a light to throw those shadows, a body to form their dance upon the walls of Plato's cave.
I'm making that allusion as a segue, not a pretension. Stern cites Plato's cave parable (514a through 521d of The Republic) in her acknowledgements, and her studies in philosophy are a possible key for a reader trying to interpret Town of Shadows. (She's also an English student, for those of you who, unlike me, possess that particular set of keys.) And—although it can be unwise to interpret a book based on the bare handful of facts that we as readers have about an author—Town of Shadows, which is not a standard narrative by any stretch, inevitably requires a serious measure of interpretation.
When I first read the book, I felt that it was an existentialist novel: nearly every story evokes ennui, nausea, or emptiness. "The Banker" is a vignette filled with facelessness (a recurring image); in "The Executioner," a political prisoner commits suicide to preempt being put to death; both "The Lost Year" and "The Vivisection" evoke the arbitrariness of time. I felt that the overarching didactic was the impossibility of meaning or sensibility; I saw the conflict between the mayor's bureaucrats and the town's artists as the persecution of those who had, like "The Horologist" who claims "I've a tempo all my own" (p. 45), stepped outside the bounds of understanding, by those who were trying to circumscribe it with numbers, equations, and rules.
The second time through, this theme remained, but it was complemented by that hope of which I spoke before: the possibility that you might not live in the cave forever, but can be led out into the light of day—that you can escape, in short, the shadows. I began to sense, behind every vignette, the auctorially inflected presence of the noumenon: the senseless, unascertained object that lies behind or beyond the phenomenon, the agglomeration of sensations perceived by the subject. Sometimes, this is explicitly addressed, as in "The House": a man argues with a bureaucrat about the existence of his invisible house. "'If my house exists in thought,' he said, 'I can fashion it as I please.' He smiled politely. 'If I can fashion it as I please, I can fashion it real'" (p. 102-3). Once I started looking for it, this revelation was everywhere: every vignette, even the saddest ones, were in a sense a house fashioned real. Behind the nauseating nothingness of being, the mind begins to build a platform on which to stand. It's this hunger for truth, and the possibility of creativity, that pulls us out through the existential crisis.
The man's claim that he can fashion real things of thoughts is indicative of one of the major tensions in Town of Shadows, which is the one hanging between two opposing conceptions of being. The mayor and his bureaucrats are engaged in the "deletion" of artists and the forcible conversion of the townsfolk to literally mathematical language, progressing from word equations, to a prohibition on vowels, to the final statutory declaration of mathematics as the official language of the town. Says the mayor, "I have banished the artists. I have banished the vowels . . . today, I banish the currency of thought" (p. 73).
This is an interesting passage, classifying words, speech, and the imaginary play of artistry as the "currency of thought." To me personally, this theme feels tired: philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche have conceived themselves in opposition to perceived dominant trends (or as existing purely outside of regular discourse, being "timeless" rather than "timely"), and artists have conceived of the world in much the same way. In a speech to the winners of the 2012 Whiting awards, Jeffrey Eugenides incited young writers to "write posthumously," suggesting that to blaze one's own trail requires one to be literally apart, to be divorced from the fashion of the day (like Nietzsche's "solitaries").
Although this well-worn conflict was a bit of a hiccup for my reading, Stern's writing was enough to prove that we have nothing to fear of bureaucrats or mathematics taking away from the beauty of art; and I think that she already knows very well, and wants to share with us, how to escape or avoid restrictive conceptions of being. Town of Shadows opens and closes with the beginning and the end of the world, according to Pierre: the world begins with "the Child," who, upon taking apart her parents and her room, finds nothing behind them but dust and bone. Coming across a white balloon, the Child breathes her name into it and releases it. The world ends—or, maybe, never ends—when the Child tries to catch the balloon (and, concomitantly, her name), and finds it forever beyond her grasp. As suggested in Pierre's lexicon, knowledge approaches truth, but never reaches it.
Town of Shadows has a plot that concludes, and a parable that opens and closes it; but this is not a book that opens and shuts. In Being and Time, Heidegger argued that philosophy is a circular process, not a linear one, and in this way Town of Shadows has neither beginning not end: its parts relate to one another both in and out of order, and, having read it twice, I can only wonder what I will think of it the third time. Town of Shadows isn't even really a narrative; it has much more in common with Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra than it does with any novel. Although I usually donate my books to the library when I'm done with them, Town of Shadows will stay on my shelf—or in my hands as I comb its pages again. No doubt other readers will reach different conclusions than I about what this book "really means," but I'm sure they will be no less interesting or worthwhile. - Ben Godby
Town of Shadows is a treat for the imagination that rewards careful reading. The structure of the story is weblike; there is indeed a story here – the inhabitants of a surreal, dystopian town attempt to make sense of their lives as various events interrupt them, including but not limited to the actions of a dictatorial mayor – but the core of the story lies in the imagery and language used to show readers the inner and outer lives of the characters. Children solve word equations on a blackboard in school, working out the correct answer to today / day; if their answers are illegal, they are hauled off by bureaucrats for “deletion.” A lepidopterist writes living contradiction poems on the wings of butterflies. A rug doctor named Pierre loses track of his shadow. Citizens are forced to wear wooden cages on their heads to prevent the transmigration of their ideas. All of this and more is written in crisp, almost detached language that in fact heightens the eerieness of what transpires.
Language itself is a central preoccupation of Town of Shadows. The mayor of the town bans vowels and establishes mathematics as the official language of the people. The children of the town find secret corners and reclaim language and definitions for their own. And all throughout, characters use language and narrative to come to terms with the deeply odd and uncanny world they inhabit. The stories of most everyone in Town of Shadows are indeed tied to this desire for understanding, and the use of language as a vehicle for understanding – and, sometimes, its weaknesses in that regard.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Town of Shadows is how all these vignettes remain in conversation with one another to the very end of the story, connecting to one another through their surreal imagery and themes. These connections in turn form a shared lexicon that not only defines the world of the story, but becomes the story. So, readers should not be surprised if they feel compelled to engage in willful exercises of linguistic mapmaking, charting every equation, every pattern of image, every experiment devised by Pierre to understand the world, and every time Town of Shadows rewards or denies the fruits of his experiments. This leads to a satisfying experience where readers aid in recreating this world, willingly placing the pieces together to see the larger whole.
For information on ordering Town of Shadows, please visit the website for the publisher, Scrambler Books. The novella will also be available on Amazon within a couple of weeks and in audiobook format as soon as November of this year. - Adam Mills
I don't know what I expected from Lindsay Stern's novella, Town of Shadows, but it wasn't what I got.
Waiting for my car to be fixed, sitting in the dealership's plastic chair with all the other strange folk who drive cars that don't properly work, I flicked on my Kindle and decided I'd read a few pages while I waited. Luckily for me, the wait ended up being much longer than expected.
It's not a long read and so I was able to read it in about ninety minutes, but those are powerful pages and an emotional ninety minutes.
It's a peculiar book, relying on more than sentences and stories to give you the life it holds within. Full of odd math problems and experimental notations and lists and poetry and definitions that seem all wrong, Stern disorients the reader by dropping us in the middle of this town where nothing is quite what it seems to be, where absurdity and magic are just a skipped breath away.
For a long time the mayor required all citizens to wear small wooden cagesIt is these little touches of magic that grabbed me early on, held me close as it whispered the life of this strange little town full of strange humans doing almost human things that were just a few shades off.
on their heads. The idea was to trap their thoughts before they wafted
behind another’s eyes, between another’s ears. At first the results were
satisfactory. Then came the complications: the cages filled until the mayor
could no longer distinguish one face from the next. Through the bars he
discerned only light — red for politicians, for philosophers bright blue, and
for children the glint of candleflame. They were happily blind, watching
their thoughts unfold before them as the objects of the world ticked on.
Lately, Pierre has felt his brain expanding. Growing lighter, as if swollen withMaking the disorientation begin to feel natural, I found myself accepting Stern's definitions, agreeing with them, assimilating them into the fabric of my life. While the novella shifts and bends reality, like dancing shadows, it manages to grow in realness and even the oddity of this town of shadows feels right.
air. This morning, a thrust against the roof of his skull. Last night, a pressure
in his jaw. Before long, he suspects, the whole machine will burst. Words will
trickle through his ears, scamper back into the world. So as not to forget
them, he has built a lexicon:
Mirror, n. A palindrome.Loneliness, n. Wordlessness.Indigestion, n. Swallowed noise.
It feels true.
And as I sat there reading, my car forgotten, the people around me just noise, the world Stern created began to collapse and my heart collapsed with it. All that reality she wove so tightly together, making a world like one I would dream of if I only knew to dream that way, began to unravel and it hurt. It hit me hard, harder than I expected.
I was caught in that town with them and I never even realized, never saw it happening until the walls were all crumbling and then I was disoriented in a new way, falling back into the world beyond the page, where I had to go talk to a mechanic about what he did and then drive that car home to see what the rest of the day held for me.
I didn't know who Lindsay Stern was before opening Town of Shadows, but I don't think I'll ever forget now that I've closed it. - edward j rathke
Boog City (page 10)
“Pierre awoke to find he had lost his shadow. He is still sitting by the window, whistling hymns through two teeth. Beside him are a crinkled slip of paper, a flute, and a little tin cyclist painted red. He is naked. His wife Selma will not notice because she is blind. She is also mute, as she lost her voice cheering in the war. Even so, he can tell she is ashamed of him. He is always losing things.”
“On an autumn morning in Year 49, the people of Lüz awoke to find Memory reversed. Recollections of the day to come wafted into their conversations, their morning jokes. History loomed, swept of images. The future, meanwhile, fell into view.”
Lindsay Stern is an up-and-coming writer whose novella, Town of Shadows, was recently published by Scrambler Books. A native of New York City, Stern is currently finishing her B.A. in English and Philosophy at Amherst College. Town of Shadows has already received strong praise from authors such as Patricia Morrisroe, who lauds the book as being “deeply moving, darkly imaginative, and delightfully weird,” and Hanna Andrews, who calls Town of Shadows “a dark and fascinating debut.” You can find more information about Stern at her website.I recently interviewed Stern via email about her novella, as well as her approach to her writing, her feelings on the tension between “experimental” and “traditional” literature, and weird literature and art.
Weirdfictionreview.com: So, what kinds of stories did you read growing up? Do you recall reading anything that was definitely out of the ordinary, or weird or stranger than usual?
Lindsay Stern: I spent most of my childhood immersed in Roald Dahl — his wickeder stories, in particular. George’s Marvelous Medicine and The Twits come to mind. Later I moved on to Skin, his collection for adults. (In my case, unfortunately, life began to imitate art. If you’ve read Dahl’s Matilda, you’re familiar with Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the tyrannical headmistress who locks children in a closet laced with nails. There happened to be a small brick alcove in the playground of my elementary school, an academy for girls in New York City. Much to the chagrin of my popularity, I took Agatha’s cue and thrust my classmates into said alcove every afternoon.)
In any case, I can’t think of Dahl now without thinking of Salvador Dalí. Both have a way of throwing the ordinary into impossible relief. What I found so captivating about Dahl was how he managed to implicate the reader and the reader’s world. As strange as his stories are, they have a moral dimension. Reading Dahl, you never feel — as I sometimes do reading “experimental” fiction — that he’s speaking a different language. Instead, he twists our common lexicon into something anomalous and new.
WFR.com: Your novella, Town of Shadows, is markedly dark and postmodern/experimental at points, very surreal. What draws you to that kind of writing in the first place?
Stern: What seems postmodern to me about Town of Shadows is its attention to language. Many chapters consist of the writings of its protagonist, Pierre. I wanted to explore the intersection between my (third-person omniscient) narrative voice and his. The last chapter welds the two together, a fusion that coincides with his physical disappearance. I was also interested in the idea of language as a means of transgression. In the novella, the characters navigate life under the rule of a tyrannical mayor, who does things like banish vowels and declare mathematics the national dialect. Many of them use language — the writing of poems, proofs and definitions — as a way to withstand and defy that absurdity.
That said, I do try to distance my writing from the “postmodern” thought that truth is relative. You often hear a strain of that view in anthropology classes, or in the cliché “to each his own.” Beyond the fact that the view is self-negating (“the truth is, there is no truth”), it seems to me deeply patronizing, even schismatic. True, it promotes tolerance; but only by foreclosing dialogue. Bertrand Russell has a great quote that sums it up far better than I can: “Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for…the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.”
WFR.com: How much do you feel compelled to follow a “traditional” narrative in your writing, in general? Do you feel such a compulsion or obligation?
Stern: While I try never to impose a stylistic agenda (whether it be “traditional” or “experimental”) on a given piece, I do feel obliged to work within a shared grammar. Growing up, I went through a phase of free associative writing after discovering Gertrude Stein and the Cubists. While I admire their work, I worry now about estranging the reader. I used to see literature as a means of re-enchanting words — as solely aesthetic, rather than normative, in value. It didn’t matter to me whether the reader “got” my work. Why should it matter, I thought, if meaning was subjective? That line of thought seems solipsistic to me now. At least, it seems to contradict the idea that literature should make us feel less alone. We read, in part, to empathize; the thought is hardly new. And empathy presupposes something shared. In that sense, I do feel compelled to follow a “traditional” narrative, even as much of Town of Shadows defies that compulsion.
WFR.com: What writers or stories do you feel have been most influential for you and your writing?
Stern: Pierre, the protagonist of Town of Shadows, occurred to me several weeks after I discovered Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. The connection wasn’t incidental; both Pierre and Rushdie’s protagonist disintegrate over the course of their respective pages. Months later I picked up a copy Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio at the library. That book inspired the vignette structure of TOS. As I write these days, I keep a copy of Anne Carson’s Decreation and Norman Lock’s Grim Tales close at hand. Both of them deal in fragments, and manage to weave a whole out of seemingly incommensurable parts.
WFR.com: Many elements in Town of Shadows feel like parts of real life twisted into unrecognizable forms. How does that process work for you, i.e. taking something from the real world that could be inexplicable or weird and then converting it into a different form for your writing? Any particular moments from Town of Shadows where you want to show how that works for you?
Stern: Yes, I guess I did take a set of familiar paradigms — mathematical equations, logical proofs, and scientific procedures, to name a few — and redeploy them. It’s funny how things align in retrospect. I never set out to twist the ordinary into the unrecognizable, as you put it well. But that’s what happened. Here’s one example, taken from Pierre’s book of experiments:
EXPERIMENT 2: HOW TO SWIM
Water, hands, feet.
Water, hands, feet.
WFR.com: Can you recall any particular spark or point of inspiration that got you started writing Town of Shadows?1. Lift hands to surface.
2. Flap once.
3. Notice water’s modesty in feigning monochromatism.
4. Flap twice.
5. Lift mouth to surface.
6. Kick once.
7. Breathe to avoid becoming a thought.
8. Kick twice.
9. Watch: at high temperatures, water may shed.
10. Do not mistake evaporation for flight.
Stern: In April 2008, on a visit to Amherst College (where I’ve just begun my senior year), I stopped in a town called Northampton with my parents. We had lunch, then returned to the car. Just as I was opening the door, I spotted an awning across the street. The awning read, “The Rug Doctor.” The next morning I wrote an eponymous short story about Pierre. When I returned to Northampton that fall, the awning was gone. I can find no record that it ever existed.
WFR.com: Can you describe the process of writing Town of Shadows as a whole? Especially since the structure of the novella is so different from a traditional narrative arc.
Stern: As you might imagine, the process was far from linear. After reading Winesburg, Ohio in my parents’ living room, I ran upstairs to begin one of the chapters of TOS. It was June, and I resolved to write a chapter a day for the next month. I succeeded, more or less, and set the book aside by the 30th of July. That winter I wrote what I thought was a separate project: a series of experiments and definitions. One night, on a whim, I tried weaving those chapters in between the existing vignettes. By then it was apparent to me that I’d been writing in Pierre’s voice. I rewrote and rearranged, and then added a few more chapters on Pierre and Selma. To answer your question then, the process felt less like writing and more like braiding a series of parts into an unlikely whole.
WFR.com: How much would you say Town of Shadows exemplifies what you try to do with your writing? What kinds of directions do you think you’ll move in going forward with your career?
Stern: I’ve thought hard about this question — about what it is I try to do with words. I could give you a canned and nonetheless honest answer like this: I try and will continue to try to communicate some kind of truth about our situation here on this spinning rock. Here’s a better answer, which is also honest and which won’t make any sense. A little over a year ago, as I was finishing up Town of Shadows, I stopped at a pet store with a close friend. Inside, we encountered a parrot named Max. For reasons I’ll never know, my friend addressed the bird with the following question:
“What is being?”
Max adjusted his feathers, cocked his head, and sneezed.
WFR.com: It might be a bit soon to say, but how has the response to Town of Shadows affected you in the time leading up to and after its publication?
Stern: It’s all a bit surreal, as I’m still in college and hardly feel qualified to give interviews like this to literary venues I so respect. I’ve been leading somewhat of a double life recently, promoting the book as best I can in my hours off from class. All I can say is that I’m immensely grateful to Jeremy Spencer at Scrambler Books and to the writers and editors who have supported the book over these past few weeks. I’ve been overwhelmed by their generosity.
WFR.com: Do you have any other projects that you’re currently working on?
Stern: I am working on a full-length novel now, which I’ll submit as my senior thesis at Amherst. The book traces the genealogy of a fictional city, incorporating its surviving literature and laws. Its protagonist is an astronomer who discovers that the night sky is speaking in Braille.
WFR.com: Finally, what’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?
Stern: One of the strangest pieces of literature I’ve read, by Aram Saroyan, is only seven letters long:
lighghtWhat I find mesmerizing about that piece (poem?) is how it exposes the silence in a familiar word. Ten thousand more insertions of “gh” would yield no difference in pronunciation. In Saroyan’s words, “[the extra ‘gh’] adds an element to the word as if to make the phenomenon more palpable.” And yes, the silence in “lighght” does seem to reflect the phenomenon: the composition of white light — every beam of which contains, imperceptibly (silently), the entire color spectrum.
The strangest piece of fiction I’ve encountered is Borges’ “Argumentum Ornithologicum” (translated here by Mildred Boyer):
“I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Were they a definite or an indefinite number? This problem involves the question of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because how many birds I saw is known to God. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody was able to take count. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let’s say) and more than one; but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, but not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.”Linguistically, the paragraph is completely lucid. Its parts are simple: the thought experiment, the flock, the closing of the eyes. We think we’re with him, and then he takes us somewhere illegible. We’re left swimming in that final declaration, not understanding and yet feeling paradoxically that our lack of understanding is itself a kind of proof. Work like this — that creates out of comprehensible parts an incomprehensible whole — I find most exciting, because it mirrors our predicament. We can make out the things of this world — its objects and events — but we can’t agree on how they fit together. So we make up stories, religions, explanations. And when we think deeply enough, we admit that those stories fail. We can start to hate thought for its irresolution, for its failure to map what Borges calls the “inconceivable.” We can think, I don’t know, ergo, there’s nothing to know. That’s the trap; and that, for me, is what great art refutes.
One of the poems, “The Rug Doctor” began arrestingly:
Pierre keeps his autobiography under the sink. It reads:Pierre
March: Pierre is a boy of ambitions.
April: Pierre makes his living extracting salt from seawater.
June: Pierre and Selma buy a house with daffodil wallpaper.
July: A chandelier falls on Pierre.
August: Pierre recovers.
September: Pierre learns to play the flute.
October: For Halloween, Pierre is a frayed hem.
December: Pierre becomes a rug doctor.
I remember sitting back from the poem in a kind of awestruck stupor, my thoughts drifting back to the humiliating drops of latrine-sweat that I called poems in my own college applications. My response to the remarkable work now before me came in the form of her calendar:
January: Lindsay Stern sent me six poems, but they’re not really poems.February: I don’t know what to call these, but I like them.
March: These whatever-the-hell-they-ares are fucking great.
April: A teenager wrote these?! Christ.
May: This Lindsay Stern is really something. Does she know how good she is? I have to tell her how good she is. Dear Lindsay Stern, you are so, so good.
June: Has anyone seen the top of my head?
Four years later, I’m elated to discover that “The Rug Doctor” has returned as the opener to Stern’s haunting, elliptical novella-in-vignettes, Town of Shadows. Alternately illusive and elusive, TOS operates outside traditional constraints of plot or narrative, instead presenting a collection of short prose poems that become a sort of algebra of memory, or lexicon of sense; Town of Shadows could be called the synesthetic’s almanac. Not one to wait to publish her first long work until she had, say, graduated from Amherst College, where she’s just begun her senior year, Stern made her literary debut on August 25, when Town of Shadows was released by Scrambler Books.
Using her gorgeously unclassifiable text as source—after all, on page 46 of TOS, Stern asserts “Answer, n. A question disguised.”—I caught up with Lindsay to discuss age, light, calendars, Nabokov, and other dissections.
Laura Goode How old are you actually? How old is Town of Shadows? How old do you wish to be?
Lindsay Stern 1. Twenty-one. (According to Paul Ryan et al., however, I am already twenty-two, having existed before my own birth.)2. Four-and-a-half. Town of Shadows came into being on an afternoon in April 2008, when I spotted a shop in Northampton, MA called “The Rug Doctor.” The next morning I wrote a short story about a mender of carpets who loses his shadow. That character became Pierre, the protagonist of the book. I left the story alone for a year or two, and then picked up a copy of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio at the library one summer. I read the first chapter and charged upstairs to write. The novella grew from there. I finished the first draft during the winter of my sophomore year at college and sent it out to a few small publishers without expecting to hear back. In the end I was lucky enough to choose between two presses, and signed on with Jeremy Spencer at Scrambler Books—a fantastic editor and person. I’d returned to Northampton by then, only to find that the shop had disappeared. Eerie, considering what happens to Pierre.
3. Fifty-four. That number might seem odd to those unacquainted with the work of Kurt Gödel. Gödel was an Austrian logician who proved that all consistent arithmetical systems are incomplete—i.e. incapable of proving their own consistency. He also developed an intense fear of his refrigerator. In any case, thirty-three extra years would have given me a chance to roam this rock when he did. (The writer Laura Mahr and I visited his grave last year, after hours, and were unfortunately locked in the cemetery.)
LG If you had to write your own autobiography in an annual calendar of 2012, what would it contain?
LS January: Woke up with sleeping limb. [Fact]February: Extracted pins and needles from limb. [Fiction]
March: Accidentally escaped from computer program. Had been using avatar to fly. [Fact]
April: Feared time’s acceleration. Discovered that said fear was largely to blame for said acceleration. [Fact]
May: Began sewing quilt with pins and needles. [Fiction]
June: Skinny-dipped in pool of Marriott Hotel. Lost room key. [Fact]
July: Communicated with skin cell in wrist. Suspicion confirmed re: somatic feudalism. Told cell about capitalism. Was diagnosed with skin cancer the following week. [Fiction]
August: Dug hole in lawn. Jumped in. Emerged in Jakarta. Kept falling, into sky. [Fiction]
September: Felt sad about feeling sad. [Fact]
October: Finished quilt. [Fiction]
November: Coerced left hemisphere into admitting that fiction and fact alliterate. [Fact]
December: Wrapped limb in quilt. [Fact]
LG “Through the bars he discerned only light: red for politicians, for philosophers bright blue, and for children the glint of candleflame.”
If you were to emit a personal light, in what shade would it burn?
LS A synesthete told me recently that my voice was somewhere between burgundy and vermilion. This would accord with my chronic blushing, which got so bad in sixth grade that I would bolt when called upon. Apparently blushing was more embarrassing than fleeing rooms. To answer your question, then, I emit red light. Which would make me a politician, much to my chagrin.
LG “Mirror, n. A palindrome. Loneliness, n. Wordlessness. Indigestion, n. Swallowed noise.”
Define these words: Pallor. Nerve. Amanuensis. Aphasia.
LS Pallor, n. The ingestion of fog.Nerve, n. A leaf’s rib. (cf. Merriam)
Amanuensis, n. To prefer not to. (cf. Melville)
Aphasia, n. Loneliness.
LG “The best way out is the way in, he thought.”
Which ways in have you also followed out?
LS For most of my childhood I couldn’t bear to be physically alone. Not out of loneliness, but fear. All manner of grisly images would stalk my visual field. My father gave me some advice that seemed paradoxical at the time: “Write what you see,” he said, “the very worst of it.” Which I did. Sure enough, the demons lost some muscle. Avoiding them had been as fruitless as swimming parallel to an oncoming wave. Plunging in was the best way out. It’s funny how often that logic applies in conversation; how, for instance, acknowledging the elephant in the room can turn it into a mouse.
LG How do you think Nabokov would feel about your lepidopterist?
LS Strangely enough I hadn’t been thinking of Nabokov, consciously, when I wrote that chapter. The lepidopterist uses butterflies to defy the law of non-contradiction—the idea that two opposing propositions can’t be true simultaneously. If I remember correctly, Nabokov has a few lines in Lolita about love as the merging of “mirage and reality.” I think the lepidopterist would admire that insight, even as the book’s essential, damning mirage—Humbert Humbert’s—would elude him. (Several weeks before I wrote the chapter I’d had a quarrel with my advisor at college, the philosopher Alexander George. I had coughed up a naïve objection to the law of non-contradiction, which he’d calmly demolished. Professor George, if you are reading this, I am to blame for the caterpillars in your desk.)
LG “Lita knew from age twelve that no person was entirely human. Most were several degrees off, while others were unrecognizable. Lita’s mother, for example, was down to 96%.”
What degrees of human are poets? Fiction writers? Diarists? Prose poets?
LS According to Lita, poets are not human at all. They are spiders. As for the rest, I think her matrix would run something like this:Fiction writers: 60% [Excluding the work of Italo Calvino, who would clock in at 10%.]
Prose poets: See Italo.
LG Experiment 11: How to Limn. Go.
LS MaterialsClock, thumb, lake.
1. Dismember clock.
2. Tape thumb to hour hand.
4. Notice lake water whiten into cloud.
6. Notice rain.
LG “Victor had dissected every home in town. He came and left unnoticed, slinking down each house’s spine. From there he heard the sounds of other organs: the slosh of bathwater, the clicking stove, the fluttering of pages upstairs. Mother reading, Victor guessed. Those horizontal lives.”
Dissect the home in which you grew up. Dissect the room that has meant most to you.
LS Victor and I share—or used to share—a vertical existence. I grew up on the thirteenth floor of a co-op in New York City. The apartment was ideal for eavesdropping. Several corridors were so narrow that I could dampen my feet and shimmy up between the walls. There’s no hiding place like the ceiling. When my legs got tired, I would relocate to my bedroom. I’d stand at the window with a tweezers, squint, fit the metal tips around a passerby below and squeeze. (I realize now that Pierre does something similar, on the morning the mayor announces an imminent war. As the bureaucrats distribute the draft cards, Pierre rolls a tin cyclist along the windowsill, across the mayor’s face.)
Anyhow, when I was feeling less malignant I would write little notes, seal them in envelopes, and send them wafting down to the avenue below. I wish I could remember what they said. On the other hand, maybe not. I was rather haunted in those days. At four I threatened to stab my au pair. She returned to Europe.
LG Dissect the room at the end of your mind.
LS I can’t help but think here of a passage by David Foster Wallace, where he describes Kafka’s work as a kind of door upon which readers pound and pound, needing admission, only to find that the door opens outward—that, as he puts it, they’d been “inside what they wanted all along.”
And there you have it. - Laura Goode