Shaun Prescott, The Town, Faber & Faber, 2018.
But there had been a war. Everyone was certain of it, though it had been a long time since.
This is Australia: an unnamed, dead-end town in the heart of the outback. A young writer arrives in New South Wales to research local settlements that are slowly vanishing into oblivion - but he didn't expect these ghost towns to literally disappear before his eyes. When an epidemic of mysterious holes threatens the town's existence, he is plunged into an abyss of weirdness from which he may never recover.
Dark, slippery and unsettling, Shaun Prescott's debut novel achieves many things. It resurrects the existentialist novel; excavates a nation's buried history of colonial genocide; and tells a love story that asks if outsiders can ever truly belong. Through a glass darkly, The Town examines the shadowy underbelly of Australian identity - and the result is a future classic.
With this long-awaited and utterly unique debut novel, Shaun Prescott announces himself as a compelling new voice. The Town is magnetic, revealing the true depth of Australia: the good, the bad and the captivatingly ugly.
Community radio host Ciara receives dozens of unmarked cassette recordings every week and broadcasts them to a listenership of none. Ex-musician Tom drives an impractical bus that no one ever boards. Publican Jenny runs a hotel that has no patrons. Rick wanders the aisles of the Woolworths every day in an attempt to blunt the disappointment of adulthood.
In a town of innumerable petrol stations, labyrinthine cul-de-sac streets, two competing shopping plazas and ubiquitous drive-thru franchises, where are these people likely to find the truth about their collective past - and can they do so before the town completely disappears?
Shaun Prescott's debut novel The Town follows an unnamed narrator's efforts to complete a book about disappeared towns in the Central West of New South Wales. Set in a yet-to-disappear town in the region a town believed by its inhabitants to have no history at all the novel traces its characters' attempts to carve their own identities in a place that is both unyielding and teetering on the edge of oblivion.
Community radio host Ciara receives dozens of unmarked cassette recordings every week and broadcasts them to a listenership of none. Ex-musician Tom drives an impractical bus that no one ever boards. Publican Jenny runs a hotel that has no patrons. Rick wanders the aisles of the Woolworths every day in an attempt to blunt the disappointment of adulthood.
In a town of innumerable petrol stations, labyrinthine cul-de-sac streets, two competing shopping plazas, and ubiquitous drive-thru franchises, where are the townsfolk likely to find the truth about their collective past – and can they do so before the town disappears?
Shaun Prescott’s debut novel The Town follows an unnamed narrator’s efforts to complete a book about disappeared towns in the Central West of New South Wales. Set in a yet-to-disappear town in the region—a town believed by its inhabitants to have no history at all—the novel traces its characters’ attempts to carve their own identities in a place that is both unyielding and teetering on the edge of oblivion.
For admirers of Gerald Murnane, Wayne Macauley, Robert Walser, and Thomas Bernhard, this novel speaks to who we are as people and as a country, whether we like what it says or not.https://www.theliftedbrow.com/the-town/
“This novel signals its author as someone who understands what literature is for. It is one of the strongest and strangest contemporary Australian novels I've seen, an uncompromising look at regional Australia and small-town life, through the eyes of an unnamed narrator whose flat tone of voice and obsession with the book he's writing make the reader wonder exactly how we are intended to see him and thus to interpret what he says. The narrator is as much a mystery as the subject of his book, which is, he says, "the disappearing towns in the Central West region of News South Wales". As though to prove that, great holes begin to appear in the streets of the unnamed town in which the narrator has arrived. It's possible to see the influence of Gerald Murnane in this book, in its style and in its focus on the strangeness of banality, but it's not so much derivativeness as a similarity of vision.” - Kerryn Goldsworthy, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald
“This is one of those rare books that bothers your thinking by making you feel uncomfortable without necessarily knowing why or how. The aftermath is a kind of free-fall. It’s a remarkable achievement and a testament to how the small publishers rather than the big houses are producing Australia’s best and riskiest fiction.”
Ed Wright, The Australian
Ed Wright, The Australian
“a deep dive into weirdness that reads like a blend of Donald Horne and García Márquez ... a gentle, if gnawing, safari of the existential dread on which Australia is built.”
The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
“We read this brilliantly weird debut from Shaun Prescott on our holidays a few weeks back and have since bored almost everyone we know by continuously droning on about it.”
By virtue of its topography, Australia has always been able to produce tales that simply couldn’t work in Britain. To those of us who have never visited, it appears in the imagination as a vast space encircled by a beautiful coastline close to which cling cities, towns and their sprawling suburbs, while the largely uninhabited interior – dusty, hostile and unknowable – could comfortably host 31 United Kingdoms. A place to get lost in.It’s a concept not always entirely challenged by that Australian literature which has found favour abroad. Walkabout by James Vance Marshall, Wake In Fright by Kenneth Cook, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey and Dirt Music by Tim Winton are united by the thematic trope of escape – from town to outback, from adversaries and the law, from the self. “Australia” is often the lead character.
Shaun Prescott’s oddly moving debut The Town stretches such themes of escape, flight and identity into new shapes. His is a microcosmic Australia reduced to a town so drab it has no name, to which a young budding writer, also nameless, moves to write a factual book about “the disappearing towns of the Central West of New South Wales”.He finds a place without purpose, where a creeping sense of malevolence is manifested in the malls and maze of culs-de-sac. A passenger-free bus endlessly circles, a train station receives no trains, while a character such as Ciara, a musician and DJ, obsessively leaves thousands of cassettes of her eerie synth music about the town and broadcasts to nobody. Posters advertise gigs featuring imaginary bands, and teenagers congregate to dig holes: “If you weren’t satisfied with the town, but couldn’t pinpoint what was unsatisfactory about it, digging holes was what you ended up doing.” As the narrator takes a job at Woolworths and his historic research is met with blank looks, his book falls by the wayside and in his fellow inhabitants he finds failure as almost pre-destined. Characters are often defined by repetition or the things they don’t do, as in the novels of Magnus Mills. They do have a flair for beer and casual violence, though, gathering annually to drunkenly destroy the park or each other. Here fighting is a folk tradition, a ritual, part of the community’s fabric.
In his acknowledgements, Prescott thanks the Wiradjuri people, on whose land the book is set; otherwise white Australia’s bloody past is not mentioned. We know it is there, though, just beneath the surface. The Town is perhaps an allegorical mirror reflecting the evils of ignorance and xenophobia that lurk in all humans, everywhere, and the fragility of existence. It’s a gripping but grim depiction. - Benjamin Myer, New Statesmen
There are three modes in which most stories about Australia’s regional towns can be categorised: horror (‘New to the ‘Yabba?’); affectionate satire (‘Goodbye, Porpoise Spit!’); and that particular nostalgia we cultivate for small-town life, a Wintonesque keening for place and belonging for which there seems to be no cure.
While the reality of regional life can approach all three of these modes and sometimes cycle quickly through them in a day, regional towns, particularly ones with few economic opportunities, are more likely to be characterised by paralysis and boredom. A lack of interest in art, a meek or uninspired cultural output, an absence of audiences or colleagues, a sense that real life is elsewhere – for creative workers, the experience of small town life doubles down on Australia’s already strong sense of cultural inadequacy. The yearning and FOMO of the regional artist are partly for a perceived community that may not exist anywhere (I am always relieved when I attend an event in Melbourne or Sydney and realise everyone else also knows each other only from Twitter), partly for an end to one’s fear of terminal marginality, and partly for something intangible that we sense we were promised but that remains always off-screen. You could call it authenticity.
There is a joke among regional authors that we will inevitably be put on some panel discussion at a big city festival to talk about our ‘sense of place’ or our ‘relationship with landscape’, as if that is all we can discuss; as if we need to be reminded that the rest of the national discourse happens elsewhere. Though there are certainly advantages to living regionally (hello, clean air and affordable housing), the literary establishment, concentrated on the urban coast, tends to reinforce our peripherality. Tasmanian writer Ben Walter recently argued in Overland that the experience of the regional writer amounts to structural marginalisation. And yet Australian stories are so often set away from cities; we refer constantly to the regional as a site of meaning. Actually living in a regional town – especially if you write or make art or music in one – is therefore an experience of inhabiting the space between the map and the terrain.
Shaun Prescott’s eminently strange novel, The Town, begins by rejecting outright any ‘sense of place’. The town in this novel is nameless. It is a site that refutes specificity, character, and indeed meaning itself. As a librarian tells its narrator early on: ‘There are no books about this town… Nothing of note has ever happened in this town, and by the time it does, there will no longer be any point in remembering it.’ The town is identified only by its vague location: the Central West of NSW. In other ways, including in its sense of its own insignificance, the town is stubbornly generic. We learn that the narrator is writing a book about the disappearing towns of the Central West. We can assume that he thinks this one is at risk of disappearing too.
The prototype, or I might say, the formal paradigm for this novel is Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, which also begins with a writer, in that case a filmmaker, arriving in a remote town in order to attempt a unique form of expression, which he also mostly does by hanging round the pub. The feeling of familiarity that begins The Town for readers of Murnane might seem at first derivative, but it is more useful to think of this as an echo, an homage, or even a sample.
In the 35 years since The Plains was first published it is curious that so few writers have sought to refer to it directly in fiction. Perhaps this is out of respect for its uniqueness as a book, or (I think more likely) writers are wary of entangling ourselves in its insoluble paradoxes of image and representation. The metaphysical is either embarrassing or dangerous, like a neglected paddock suspected of harbouring snakes.
Where Murnane’s plainsmen are individualist intellectuals, Prescott’s townspeople are a much less inspired (though more fairly gender-representative) bunch. The first third of this book, titled ‘The Town,’ introduces a cast of characters whose existences are narrow and purposes absurd. We are in the satirical mode, though it’s more anthropological than affectionate. There is Rob, the narrator’s housemate, who is interested only in sport and drinking and who provides Prescott with opportunities for typically arid humour: ‘I told him that I was writing a book about the disappearing towns in the Central West region of New South Wales. He said he was going to have a beer.’ There is Jenny from the pub, a pub that is always empty, a woman constantly irritated by the narrator’s questions; her hostility and impatience with him are at once comic and understandable. There is Ciara, the only person who seems interested in the narrator’s proposed book, a woman who hosts a show on the local community radio station that no-one listens to and whose musical projects are later elaborated in more detail. There is Tom, who drives an empty bus around the outskirts of the town, the ‘tentacle roads’ that lead everywhere and nowhere, and who also has a musical past. There is Rick, who has tried and failed spectacularly to leave the town and now finds solace only in visiting Woolworths.
Though the town’s name is never specified, familiar brands proliferate: it sports a Big W, a Bakers Delight, a McDonalds and a Bunnings. On arrival, the narrator wanders around one of two rival plazas imagining his life in the town through its brands: ‘I looked at the Sanity and thought about the CDs I would buy once I had found a job. Then I browsed the Angus & Robertson and made mental notes of the books I would purchase, and read, and discuss with the people I would meet in the café…’ Prescott is evoking a familiar cultural loneliness here, familiar at least to those of us who grew up before the internet became all-pervasive, but like much of The Town there is more going on beneath the surface. His decision to name these tired brands also situates the novel in a contemporary capitalist realm where meaning and identity are corralled by labels that are ultimately empty of meaning and identity. Naming these corporate outlets has the ironic effect of further de-specifying the town. The signifiers are familiar but the spaces themselves are cloned territories designed for anonymous consumption and pointless labour. They refuse to fulfil their promise of belonging. Later, Rick says he loves hanging around the Woolworths because it is ‘an embassy for nowhere.’
All the while the landscape hovers outside the town in a form reminiscent of the Horizonites’ ‘zone of haze’ in The Plains, a liminal space where sky and land might meet, a site of vague potentiality. Prescott describes this as a ‘shimmer’ that dissolves the town at its edges but also forms a kind of border through which it is difficult or undesirable to pass. The shimmer is an image that begins and ends the first third of this book, almost as a refrain. When I turn the page and find it also begins the second part, it feels like a tape has restarted, almost as if this book is playing back a recording of itself.
I don’t think this is an accident. Musical motifs – bands, cassette tapes, radio – are everywhere in The Town, and its structure is riddled with loops and refrains. If there is a core figure to this novel it is music: inaccessible music, unheard or indescribable music, the production of recordings that come from nowhere and arrive nowhere, sound that is meaningless noise, or noise that obscures meaning. Ciara is the vehicle for much of this – her radio station receives mysterious tapes, and she distributes posters for imaginary bands that put on non-existent concerts. There are references to her belief in an underground or an imagined community of listeners, but such people are never found. These images recall pre-internet years spent listening to slightly out-of-range community radio stations, desperate to connect with some imagined like-minded individual. Ciara’s character will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the nineties and grazed the floors of record stores and the classified pages of music magazines looking for other young people who understood the fundamental emptiness of all scenes but were desperate to belong to one anyway.
Ciara explains that she used to hang out with the metallers, who tolerated her proclivities for noise and weirdness, but that ultimately they parted ways. She spends many hours each day distributing cassette tapes of ‘mysterious music’. Music is an escape for her, but not a very good one. I felt sorry for Ciara and kept hoping she would find zines, which is presumably what happened to Shaun Prescott. He has spent much of his career so far as a music writer, and has a long association with zines. Zine communities tend to nurture eccentricity, rather than encourage professionalisation, but when they have done both they have produced some of our most interesting writers – Anwen Crawford, Vanessa Berry, Tom Cho. Brow Books, able to move between the worlds of ‘underground’ and ‘serious’ literature, is well placed to reap the benefits of the former’s embrace of the unique; I hope that it will also reflect the diversity that zine culture, and indeed The Lifted Brow, so carefully cultivates.
If music promises a means of escape, its promise is not fulfilled. The main form of escape for the town’s inhabitants is alcohol, and one of the funniest scenes in this first third of the book is the town’s celebration of ‘its own special day’, where the town’s residents gather in the park for an event both bizarre and familiar. Our narrator plays Virgil to this scene, describing the townspeople at chill remove but to comic effect: ‘It annoyed them to have the mayor speak during an event designed for drinking.’ The mayor’s speech (inaudible, of course) is followed by an apparently meaningless ritual of destruction.
In his book The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher argued that the defining characteristic of the weird in fiction is the portal, ‘notable for the way in which it opens up an egress between this world and others.’ The notion of the portal resonates neatly with Prescott’s requirements for regional characters to seek some form of escape, at first via subculture. In the first part of The Town, the portals or thresholds are alluded to in several forms: as music, as shimmer, in the description of a historic railway station where no trains pause, and so on. But in the second part of The Town, ‘The Disappearing Town,’ these portals become physical. A hole appears, and the disappearance of the town, for which we have been amply prepared, begins.
It was more of an absence than a hole, neither black nor dark nor any other colour or shade. A part of the world had apparently just vanished.
As Fisher explains, ‘weird fiction always presents us with a threshold between worlds… the centrality of doors, thresholds and portals means that the notion of the between is crucial to the weird.’ The escape can never be accomplished, because the tension comes from liminality. Like the crack in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, the hole provides a stimulus for the revelation that all is not well on the surface, in the place we call reality.
But music also begins to function as a literal portal in this second section of The Town. In an extraordinary scene, a band plays a haunting concert: ‘The music had sounded alien, remote, like nothing else the audience had ever heard. More than a mere sound, it had come to resemble a portal, an access point to a foreign region.’ The music continues for days, until the audience has to be hauled away. This hypnotic effect seems to access something buried or hidden in the audience, some ore of dark feeling that has not yet been refined into sorrow or loss. The town and its inhabitants are only ever one discord away from a psychotic break.
Gradually, through scenes that reiterate the by-now familiar banality of the town, its disappearance is elaborated. The tape plays back with some distortion, becoming a soundscape of decay and breakdown. The hole grows larger and multiplies. As the holes expand, logic and reality collapse. The self-destructive impulses of the townspeople become starker, even poignant. Although Rob believes that the hole may signal some sort of environmental disaster, it does not feel catastrophic to the townspeople, for whom real catastrophe is still elsewhere – indeed, Ciara suggests to the narrator that the town is not significant enough to have something disastrous happen to it.
These holes evoke sinkholes and the damage wrought on landscapes by fracking or coal mining. They suggest the epidemic of suicide that stalks regional towns. People fall or leap into the holes and never reappear. We don’t know where they go. Perhaps they are memory-holes, amnesiac absences. Prescott soon discovers the holes offer the sort of metaphor he can throw anything into and wait in vain to hear it hit the bottom.
There are other kinds of holes. Some of the townspeople, the youth, undertake a sort of archaeological dig, but they are unable to identify the value of anything they unearth. This dyschronic or anti-historical quality evokes the liminal again, what one of Murnane’s landowners describes as ‘a history that had almost come into being.’ The disappearing quality of this town severs it from time as well as place. It is as though all this digging is a kind of searching for something that everyone knows is not there.
If Australian literature is obsessed by the regional, it is partly, I believe, from a hope that a grounding identity might be found in it – a sort of Lasseter’s Reef of the soul. But much of our writing about landscape unearths only a sense of hauntedness. Landscape is evoked as a site of trauma or loss. In legal circles as well as psychological, it has been argued that trauma attaches to the perpetrator of an atrocity as well as to the victim. This idea resonates deeply with Australian fiction, which often takes place in a landscape that bears witness to atrocity; in many cases, the land itself is made to remember our atrocities so that we don’t have to. As Tony Birch pointed out in an interview published at Overland, this is a cheap trick: actual atrocities are committed by people, and the evocation of a haunted landscape severs the chain of human accountability.
The town’s disappearance is not only a result of its insignificance, but can be seen as an allegory for our wilful national erasures. Prescott’s use of allegorical strategy inevitably leads to questions of genre. If we understand magical realism to be a specific strategy of decolonisation, and fabulism sounds much too whimsical, then what are we left with? It may be useful to see The Town as an example of what Jeanne Delbaere-Garant called psychic realism: ‘a physical manifestation of what takes place inside the psyche.’ In this case, the psyche is collective.
Though it lacks the highbrow credibility of the various realisms, maybe weird is specific and encompassing enough. But who cares? That it is boring to discuss genre illustrates not a difficulty in categorising books but a difficulty in the categories themselves. We live in a cultural age where nothing feels new and everything is available. Disparate sampling has become the norm. The trick lies in the unique blend.
The Town allows the banality of the town to bleed into the weirdness, so that the universe tilts quickly without the mood changing. At times, the repetitions, the cumulative bitterness and the extremely deadpan tone can become wearying; I found myself taking breaks from the book. Prescott’s conceit requires a formidable amount of emotional detachment, and that lowers the reader’s investment in anything like a story; but the slow fatalism of The Town does eventually accumulate a mossy growth of sadness.
If we accept Fisher’s suggestion that the weird is always about thresholds between this world and somewhere else, The Town is strict about that ‘somewhere else’ remaining hidden. People do exit via the holes, even somewhat gleefully. But rather than being haunted by the absences of these potential Mirandas, the townspeople merely shrug and accept the loss as ordinary – so accustomed to their own mediocrity that even the extraordinary feels dull.
In the third and I think least successful part of the book, ‘The Disappointing City’, Ciara and the narrator manage to leave, escaping across the mountains to the city. While the town in The Town is generic, scrubbed clean of its specificities and thus perfectly suited to allegory, the city is unavoidably recognisable as Sydney. The more connections it is possible to make with real geography, the more The Town’s symbolic power deflates. This movement to the city also renders the characters’ struggles to figure out their town’s meaning less interesting. In the city there’s no requirement to define the character of the place, to make it stand for something. Its significance is assumed, and therefore irrelevant.
The narrator abandons his book, and Ciara abandons her tapes. The discovery of a book in the library that tells the story of the town fifty years ago, ending on an optimistic note about the train station being opened, is another hauntological moment: we yearn for the promised future that has vanished from under our noses.
The printed book is as much dead technology as the cassette tape, as much an artefact of its time, and just as subcultural. The book and the cassette tape are anachronistic objects, so their abandonment seems no great loss. When the shimmer is breached, the narrator loses interest in his project, and the weirdness loses some of its power. In the third part of The Town, the references to familiar places – familiar to me at least – become distracting. The game changes from an episodic, cumulative investigation of concepts and characters, and becomes about figuring something out. It punctures its own conceit, and to some extent deflates it. It is a self-destructive impulse, and one that I suppose is worthy of a resident of the town.
The Town is a book that undermines itself, and that too seems to be part of Prescott’s game. In the same way as metafictional awkwardness excuses its own pretensions by pointing them out first, the closing scene, in which the narrator witnesses an Anzac Day parade and wonders if he will ever find a place he belongs, seems to tremble with a sense of its own disappointing sincerity before it disappears into the shimmer.
The Town offers an experience of profound estrangement, not only from place and landscape, identity and community, but from reading a book, and perhaps even from meaning itself. Prescott is commendably unafraid to wander in among the tangled paradoxes Murnane has left lying in the field for him, and to kick them apart in his search for meaning, even if that leaves him with nothing left to kick except himself.
There’s a line of Margaret Atwood’s that I keep handy, from her stirring obituary of Doris Lessing: ‘When the wheel spins, it’s on the edges that the sparks fly.’ Just as I am regularly asked to speak about a ‘sense of place,’ I find that I am often called to defend the intellectual contributions and unique voices of Australians from regional areas, among other alleged outsiders. Atwood’s line reminds me of something I learned as a child: that to be outside the centre, to be considered weird, is not a disadvantage but a lively source of power.
As Australia’s population becomes more urbanised and our political discourse increasingly monotonous, it is always a thrill to discover writers who offer something that feels genuinely strange. Prescott’s skill lies not in turning away from the usual portrayals of regional Australia, but in turning toward them from his own unique direction. The Town digs at the foundations of authenticity, culture and identity, revealing (and possibly contributing to) dangerous levels of subsidence. It is an unusual and unashamedly intellectual novel, but it does not take itself too seriously. Now that Prescott’s work has been unearthed for a general audience, I sincerely hope that he keeps digging, and does not disappear. - Jennifer Mills, Sydney Review of Books
“The tone of the story is sustained and mesmeric, as it examines the unthinking rituals of our everyday lives, and our complex relationships with the past. It’s also very funny.”
Mandy Sayer, The Australian
Mandy Sayer, The Australian
And Borges thought he could provide them, too. He thought he could write a book in which the real killer is obscured but not hidden; hard – but crucially, not impossible – to find. Reading is its own form of detective work after all, and Borges thought he could make his audience active participants in the drama.
Shaun Prescott’s The Town is full of such impossible books. The most important one, the writing of which takes up the bulk of Prescott’s novel, is a non-fiction account of disappearing towns around the Central West of New South Wales. Its author, The Town’s measured, seemingly unflappable anonymous narrator, wants to end the work with a scene that might “truly horrify people” – with an image of “a crisp green grass plain” full of “naked people being flayed by a cloaked figure.”
This, he feels, is the only way to “reflect my vague notion that the disappearing towns of the Central West of New South Wales needed to be as important to the reader and the world as they were to me”; a way of tying together the strange, aimless work he dictates into a small hand-held recorder, and then listens back to while packing shelves at Woolworths.
Sure, the scene would be a lie; a fiction. But, having followed eight chapters worth of carefully reported, factual analysis, it would somehow become real by proxy. It would become a kind of spiritual truth, the narrator feels, able to say something about disappearing towns of the Central West of New South Wales that the facts themselves cannot.
That we never read the narrator’s book – that it remains itself an idea rather than a real world, consumable object – is kind of the point. After all, The Town is, in some ways, a novel concerned with futile artistry; with the idea that there are things that we can think but cannot do. It is a novel of musicians without audiences, and publicans without customers, and librarians trying to write books about their sadness that they well know they will never be able to complete. It is a book about impotence; about stored up potential, and how quickly it can go to waste, like the legs of a retired weightlifter turning to fat.
There is also the temptation, on first pass, to read Australia’s cultural obsession with disappearance into The Town – to see it as an examination of the way we collectively lean on the myth of white vanishing so as to assuage our genocidal guilt, and to express our discomfort living in a landscape we know has the power to actively expel us. There is the sense threaded throughout the novel that its aimless, morally unconflicted “heroes” are aliens themselves – that they have no kinship to each other, or to the burnt land they stand on. No critic has called The Town a mix between Franz Kafka and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock yet, but no-one would blink if they did.
There are also, if one is ready to look for them, clues in there to suggest Prescott’s novel is about gentrification; about the subtle disappearance of blue collar workers, and blue collar towns, and the Akira-like absorbent properties of the middle class. After all, the novel’s salt of the earth, true blue Aussie types are wind-blasted figures dragging themselves around an almost wholly deserted landscape; avatars trapped in a video game that has not been played for many years. They are, quite literally, going extinct, threatened by the nearby city they feel will engulf them.
But Prescott is not writing Borges’ impossible book, so it is ultimately futile to drag The Town for bodies, and discarded murder weapons, and clues. The Town is not about anything the way a broken shin bone is not about anything, and to reduce it to simple social commentary or criticism is to go full witch doctor, and attempt to draw auguries out of a mound of steaming entrails.
No, by the time The Town’s brutally understated conclusion rolls around, no lesson has been imparted; no great moral has been unearthed. It is a hole dug in the middle of the outback; a door that leads to nowhere. And in its artful, brutal emptiness, it is one of the very best books you will read this year. - Joseph Earp, The Brag
“The Town moves with a gentle command amid the obvious reference points of Calvino, Kafka, and Abe, but it also invokes less-celebrated English-language predecessors, like the novels of Steve Erickson, and Rex Warner's The Aerodrome. In the manner of Erickson and Warner, Prescott seeks the universal in a meticulous paraphrase of the here and now, and finds the dislocation hiding in locality, to show us just how lost we really may be.” - Jonatham Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude
“A bizarre novel—a séance for Kafka, Walser and Calvino—that tackles the ever-disappearing boundaries between youth and aging, between music and silence, the past and present. In a spry and lonely voice, Shaun Prescott has written an ominous work of absurdity.” - Catherine Lacey, author of Nobody Is Ever Missing and The Answers
“Mind-bending, often hilarious, and sometimes heart-wrenchingly sad, The Town is one of the most original and exhilarating Australian novels I’ve ever read.” - Wayne Macauley, author of Some Tests, Demons, The Cook, Caravan Story, and Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
“The Town really got under my skin. There's a deceptive lightness to Shaun Prescott's style, and so this is a book that really creeps up on the reader; all of a sudden you're swept away by, even bound to this thing that's so mournful, intense and unsettling. It will stay with me.” - Lisa McInerney, author of The Glorious Heresies
“The Town reads like an underground classic it its own right, but whether it's a classic from the near past or from the near future is difficult to tell. In any case, Australia will never be quite the same again. Shaun Prescott has chipped off a bit from the withered heart of this country and held it up to the fluorescent light: the opposite of belonging to the earth is almost, but never quite belonging to The Town.” - Miles Allinson, author of Fever of Animals
“Shaun Prescott's debut novel is a dense singularity, an exploration of the idea of nowhere as the centre of the world, and a stark paean to loneliness, entropy, and marginal existence - sustained by the kind of slow, luminous prose that feels like the equivalent of staring straight into the sun.” - David Keenan, author of This Is Memorial Device
The novel starts with its unnamed narrator moving to a small Australian town, where he’s stacking shelves at one of its many supermarkets and working on a book about disappearing towns in the area. He has trouble convincing the townsfolk of these places, since they no longer exist, even as the town they’re in is slowly edging towards the same fate. Alongside his research into disappearing towns, the narrator drinks beer at an empty pub, hangs out with his flatmate Rob’s girlfriend, while she distributes cassette tapes around town, rides the town’s only bus (which no one ever catches), and frets about being bashed for no reason by a townsperson he doesn’t know named Steve Sanders. The Town is a novel filled with outsiders: people who suddenly find themselves adults even though they still feel like they’re teenagers, a music scene wholly invented by a radio host who has no listeners, and a seasonal disco that inevitably turns into a huge brawl every time it’s held.
Prescott has a real skill of presenting the banality of everyday life in a way that is wholly original and strange, but his real achievement here is that each aspect of this novel is expertly balanced, and the distanced tone manages to make the story’s most bizarre aspects seem commonplace. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll get a more original Australian novel this year. - Chris Somerville, author of We Are Not The Same Anymore, Readings
Shaun Prescott’s The Town is an examination of futility and avoidance, of the dangers of defining ourselves by what we are not. It explores the limits of states like youth and adulthood, city and town. Though the exact moment when one place or idea becomes another is unclear, the novel makes physical the dangers of inertia and complacency. In these divisive times, when it seems like the most important thing we can do is clearly stake out our ideological ground, what is the value of writing that explores uncertainty?
People in the town and the city both define themselves by not being of the other. Complacency is dangerous; unwilling to shift from the town, because of a belief in its value, though no-one is sure where that stems from, residents and buildings disappear into the holes that start to appear everywhere. It’s unclear where they lead, if anywhere, but people do not return. The town is minimally populated with characters who don’t care for much outside of their immediate surroundings, and wouldn’t bother to leave, even if it means they might disappear too.
Initially a book about writing a book about the disappearing towns of Central West NSW, this premise narrows in scope to just being about the town the narrator is in, and then escapes as it’s swallowed by holes. The banal details and tone mean that even when holes appear, it all seems plausible and unsurprising. A kind of a tension between nonfiction and fiction.
The town is both vague and specific. Residents unmoored from meaning-making structures like family cling to what’s reliable, like new catalogue day at the supermarkets. One protests that the town can’t be in danger because the supermarkets are still operating as normal.
I knew for a fact that in a fortnight the Woolworths was planning on rolling out a two for $3 sale on Sanitarium muesli bar packs, and so perhaps it was true that the entire premises were unlikely to disappear.
There’s a small pleasure in seeing the minutiae of Australian life reflected in a book, when the kinds of books we’re used to reading that grapple with big ideas are set so distantly it’s hard to imagine how exactly those ideas fit into this landscape.
The book’s narrator is met with resistance in both locations – he’s obviously not a part of the town, and becomes a target for bashing by locals, but once he comes to the city, they say he’s not the type cut out to live there and should head out to the country. Young people are not yet of the town completely but once they start to care about Anzac Day and the town’s day they’ll become a part of it, stop digging for weird relics of the past or some deeper significance in the suburbs.
Prescott says it’s not a nostalgic book, but there’s a nostalgic quality to anything about the ephemerality of place and experience. There’s a musical preoccupation to the work – ‘If only I could make music about the town instead of writing about it’ – and you get the sense that Prescott is grappling with the limitations of the form. This, though, has the advantage of being able to designate the intended effect of described music for the reader: ‘It was sad, but not for any graspable reasons. It felt like an absence, but a warm, preferable absence. It did not mean anything at all.’
The narrator’s most significant interactions are with a local radio host who receives boxes of tapes without discernible origin, who broadcasts them to no listeners. The invented histories of the bands she describes are indistinguishable from the real thing.
It was all already decided for us, she always said, and when I asked who exactly made the decisions and what the decisions were, she pointed to the town, and then told me I should listen to more of the cassette tapes.
Like everything else in the town, it’s an exercise in futility. Writing about music, like writing about the sensation of a place, is an attempt to capture something vague and not concrete. Prescott’s narrator is documenting small-town life by documenting trying to capture it.
Physical borders are unclear, like the increasingly vague demarcation between youth and adulthood – different life states that bleed into each other, while the suburbs extend out further in sprawl, until it’s not clear where one place starts and another finishes. ‘Neither of us knew how it would happen – whether the threshold of the city would be marked in any way.’ The novel sits in a liminal zone, not quite one thing, not quite another. - Alex Gerrans, Overland
In his debut novel, The Town, Shaun Prescott uses rural Australia as his blank canvas. His narrator arrives in an unnamed, featureless town in the Central West of New South Wales, with the intention of writing a book – already titled The Disappearing Towns of the Central West. The narrator’s ‘book’ is an attempt to find a larger meaning in the disappearance of these towns – to pluck art out of oblivion.Instead, what the narrator finds is a series of pointless repeating motions: a publican opens each day, and serves no customers; a bus driver has no passengers, but drives the route daily, waiting at each stop for exactly ten seconds. It’s the monotony of the mundane, made pointedly ridiculous: “The people in the town lived as if they would never die, but they were not heroic or foolish like in books and music. They were only there.”
Nothing arrives to shake the townspeople out of their monotony – which is to say, something does arrive, but it doesn’t wake the sleepwalkers. The town ambles on, and remains featureless. The Town’s metafictional plot, such as it is, threatens to do the same. Its language is its landscape and you are soon part of a strange, wandering struggle for meaning that becomes essential to you.
French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the term ‘non-place’ to refer to spaces where human beings meet but remain disconnected – think an airport terminal, or a shopping mall. ‘The town’ is a non-place, and in this social void the narrator’s own neuroses are magnified: “At times when it was impossible to avoid coming into direct contact with Rob we would talk about our plans for the weekend, even if it was Tuesday.”
Like the publican and the bus driver, the narrator soon becomes trapped in his own pointless task of writing a book. What began as an act of self-assertion – a bid to leave a permanent mark, his name on the cover of a book – becomes something much more like survival. Not writing a book, the narrator says, “would render my whole existence pointless”.
The Town is a book about annihilation: not the explosive, memorable kind, but its exact opposite – the annihilation that comes from fading away. When Donald Horne wrote his nation-defining work The Lucky Country back in 1964 he was concerned with the increasing homogeneity of culture across Australia. Horne saw that outback Australian towns were becoming cultural figments: “the mythic landscapes of the writers and painters”.
Shaun Prescott comes at this idea from a different angle: his concern is the effect that homogeneity has on the soul. The narrator strives and fails and strives again to complete his book, the task continuous and circuitous and desperate. Is anonymity the same thing as oblivion?
Gerald Murnane’s 1982 masterpiece, The Plains, seems another obvious reference point for Prescott’s work in The Town. The Plains depicted an infinity of emptiness, an almost brutal brightness where some kind of mystery resided and resisted being defined.
Reading The Town, I was reminded of sign I saw in a front garden in Hay, a town of 3,000 in the Riverina. In bold letters it proclaimed: “On this exact spot, in 1936, nothing happened.” I can’t remember the name of street where I saw the sign, and nor can I remember what year I saw it.
The Town’s narrator is neurotic, perhaps; or maybe he’s just more conscious than the rest of us of the meaninglessness of most of ordinary life, and is rightly disturbed at those left lost in the margins.
Shaun Prescott’s debut novel is a story of absences, holes and disappearings. An unnamed narrator arrives in an unnamed town in the central west of New South Wales. As he works on a book about the disappearing towns of the region, the narrator uncovers the lives of townspeople who, though they don’t seem to especially like the town, are convinced that the ratio of happiness to wretchedness is the same everywhere, even in the city. Before long, holes start to emerge: the town is literally disappearing. The Town is the second book published by the Lifted Brow. It adopts a very Australian kind of magic realism to ask questions about culture and belonging in a country estranged from its past. The Town is understated but compelling; the narrator’s deadpan voice recalls the lone existentialist figures of Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Outsider, but contrasts this with a dream logic reminiscent of Twin Peaks. This is hypnotic literary fiction for readers who make as much meaning from a McDonald’s car park as the Sydney Harbour Bridge. - Sarah Farquharson, Books+Publishing
With a straightforward yet magnetic sense of style, Prescott takes the literarily well-worn landscape of the isolated Australian town and draws out its familiar desolation to a slow-burn existential anguish that recalls both Kafka and more modern chroniclers of the absurd, like Delillo or Pynchon. If this all sounds a little heavy, Prescott keeps the angst at arms-length with a deadpan wit as he portraits the idiosyncrasies of the town’s tragicomic inhabitants. It’s a damning interrogation of what happens to a place when it forces its citizens into rituals hoping to make meaning from nothing, but it’s never didactic, and always entertaining.
The Town is the second novel published by The Lifted Brow’s press, and makes good on the promise for weird and thoughtful Australian writing. In it’s own dreamy, unreal way, it’s one of the few recent Australian novels that feels like an authentic depiction, rather than propaganda. For this reason, it’s essential for anyone looking for good local reading material. - Cameron Colwell, Grapeshot Magazine
“Shaun Prescott’s début novel shares obvious conceptual territory with the fiction of Franz Kafka and Gerald Murnane” - Shannon Burns, Australian Book Review
The sense of some deeply melancholic encounter haunts the pages of Australian writer Shaun Prescott’s winningly glum debut novel, aided by elegiac musings on belonging and estrangement, growth and decay, places and voids, portals and dead-ends. An unnamed writer arrives in an unnamed town, rents a room, finds a congenial cafe and a tolerable pub, and starts to write a treatise on “the disappearing towns of the Central West of New South Wales”. Like much about this simultaneously realist and absurdist novel, that word “disappearing” hovers at the line between the figurative and the literal. Are these towns merely in decline or are they literally vanishing? Both, it would seem, and before long, circumstances suggest that the one the writer has settled in is itself disappearing. He adjusts his focus accordingly, chronicling the local process of entropy as it unfolds around him, in ways that range from the banal to the apocalyptic.
At the realist level, The Town scrupulously catalogues the physical desolation of places that have lost whatever purpose they once had but drift on out of habit, an enervating dreck of shopping plazas, petrol stations, ring roads, littered parks and fast food chains. And as the writer gets to know various individuals around town, so this desolation begins to acquire a human face.
Almost all these characters are studies in failure of one kind or another. There’s Tom, the ex-musician who drives the town bus on which nobody ever travels. There’s dim, truculent, small-minded Jenny, who runs the failing pub. There’s the xenophobic town bully, Steve Sanders, rumoured to be spoiling for a fight with the writer. There’s Rick, who seeks nothing loftier than a job at a supermarket but gradually surrenders to bong-induced lassitude. There are crowds of nameless teens and townsfolk who spend their days getting drunk and stoned and then brawling or vandalising the place.
The one possible exception to the general haplessness is Ciara, a DJ at the community radio station (which of course no one listens to), who at least has yearnings for a more vivid existence, and whose job opens up an interesting theme of music as a conduit to richer realities. She and the writer strike up an ambiguous friendship that provides some tension, though in keeping with the book’s fastidiously low-key affect, it doesn’t go anywhere decisive.
A gentle, deadpan comedy of listlessness prevails. Everything partakes in it. People get drunk till they reach a state of “aggressive sadness”. Houses are mysteriously abandoned. Businesses downsize and close. The town starts to resemble “a depressed country [music] festival suspended in a 2am lull”. The prose itself mimics the general sense of dwindled options: “Usually I ate boiled spiral pasta with grated zucchini and mushrooms. Sometimes I would also add cheese.”
Occasionally someone tries to leave, and it’s here that the book’s absurdist DNA starts to reveal itself. There’s a station, but trains no longer stop there, and most of the roads that ought to lead out in fact end in cul-de-sacs. A forbidding shimmer lurks on the horizon. Technically it’s still possible to drive off, so we’re not quite in the realm of The Prisoner or The Truman Show, but most attempts end in failure. The people making them are struck by terrible misfortunes or else, as in Sartre’s Huis Clos, they open the doors of their respective hells only to find they can’t summon the will to step out.
As the metaphysical weather darkens, so this state of inertia extends not only through space but also through time. The town may have seen better days, but suddenly no one can remember them – or indeed anything else about its history. The narrator realises that he, too, is beginning to forget where he came from: “I tried to trace the highways east and west of the town in my mind, but my memory faltered at the shimmer.” And not just the past but the future – all eternity – seems threatened by the encroaching paralysis. As Sanders, the bully, declares in a splendidly bizarre scene in which he materialises in quadruplicate: “This is how things are going to be from now on. This is how they’re going to stay. History can end, you know. It doesn’t have to keep going … ”
These tropes may not be entirely original, but they’re executed with a mixture of conviction and laconic humour that gives them a fresh appeal. At one point holes start appearing all over town, some small, some enormous. People, buildings, whole blocks disappear into their seemingly bottomless depths. The fabric of reality itself appears to be eroding, but the townsfolk carry on doggedly, remarking “It’s not your typical hole” or at best “It’s probably an environmental disaster”, while municipal workers put up tape and boards, and the police mount “infrequent” patrols around them. The muted reaction captures the diminished scope of the human imagination – its hopeless inadequacy in the face of imminent extinction – with painful wit.
Do these ideas catch fire, dramatically, in the way the best speculative fiction does? Perhaps not quite – the human element is a little thin, even allowing for the fact that the book is partly a portrayal of societal enfeeblement. But it’s an engaging, provoking novel nevertheless, intelligently alive to its own metaphorical possibilities, and leaving behind a powerful vision of the world ending, not with a bang, but a whimper. - James Lasdun
Small Town Boy: An Interview With Author Shaun Prescott - The Quietus
The unnamed town at the heart of Shaun Prescott’s debut novel is a nondescript place, filled with shopping malls and petrol stations, supermarkets and parking lots. It is surrounded by “tentacle roads”, patrolled by a bus that no one ever boards. There’s a radio station with no listeners, and a pub with no customers. A highway leads out of the town, but when the narrator – also unnamed – walks down it, the outside world appears unreachable. “It was only possible to see the full extent of the town if you spent many years there,” he notes. “Only then could you see the barriers shimmer at its edges, and know what the edges meant.”
Nothing ever happens in this town, people tell the narrator, who is a writer researching vanishing settlements. They can’t understand why he is trying to write a book about it. At first, we don’t really understand, either – but underneath, a weird underbelly is lurking.
The Town was published in Australia by small press Brow Books to great acclaim, and is now published in the UK by Faber. In person, Prescott is polite and unassuming, exactly as you’d imagine an author whose first novel was published by a not-for-profit small press. He’s softly spoken and has not given many interviews. “I’m really bad at talking, which is why I write. I’m fairly inarticulate in speech,” he says.
His novel, however, is being touted as an “uncanny masterpiece” and “a stunning reincarnation of the existentialist novel”. Another review declares: “This novel signals its author as someone who understands what literature is for.” (Good lord, I think.) Comparisons have been drawn with Calvino and Kafka, Borges and Márquez. How does that feel?
“It’s pretty weird,” he laughs. “I don’t think that people are saying that I am as good as them or anything like that. Kafka is my favourite writer. The Castle is undeniably a blueprint for me. Every longer novel that I have tried to write has always started with the arrival of someone in a town. Who is doing it and why has varied dramatically, but that novel had a huge effect on me. I’m happy that people recognise that I am in love with Kafka. It’s true.”
Prescott grew up in Manildra (population: 485) in New South Wales (like his novel’s nameless town). He was the first person in his family to go to university, and studied journalism. He worked for a music magazine and now writes about video games, commuting into Sydney from his house in the Blue Mountains a few days a week. Despite no longer living in Manildra, the town still loomed large in his imagination.
“I always desperately wanted to leave, as teenagers often do,” he says. But his dreams still take him back.
The town is identifiably Australian, but in another sense it is an everytown with which many of us can identify. It’s what the cultural theorist Mark Fisher might have called “boring dystopia” – a place embodying the banal melancholy of late capitalism, culturally flattened and emptied of history. Yet the concerns underpinning the narrative are specifically Australian.
“I was interested, on the one hand, in myself and the obscurity of my family tree,” explains Prescott. “I don’t actually know who I am in terms of the nationalities that are in my blood. That holds true for most of the settler cultures in Australia. Everyone wants to be Australian, but no one really knows what that is. And the truth of what it is nowadays is actually quite bleak and horrible.”Prescott is firm when he says that he did not want The Town to be didactic. It manages not to be, while at the same time hinting at small-town ignorance and violence, the fear of the other that arguably underpins some of the resurgent white nationalism seen around the world. “All visitors were vague threats, distant and unchallenged,” the narrator notes. “Those who arrived from the city were not to be trusted, while those who arrived from further inland were suspected of possessing a more authentic claim to country life than anyone in the town.” The novel also contains a satirical streak, made more amusing by the narrator’s deadpan delivery and failure to pick up on social cues. He lives in regular terror of being “bashed” by thugs and watches the townspeople engage in petty acts of destruction: “It was a yearly ritual to destroy a bulk of the park’s facilities after the mayor’s speech, Jenny explained. After a full day of drinking in the sun, it was the only gesture that people could muster.”
It’s funny, I say. “I think it is,” Prescott agrees. “I amuse myself, anyway.” A friend’s mother threw it in the bin because she thought it was miserable, he says: “I think it might be more menacing than expected. I didn’t think it was that menacing while I was writing it. I find the narrator really funny. He’s got this cute precocious seriousness about him that I really adored inhabiting, because I’ve been there. I’m probably still there.”
The cluelessness of the narrator is amusing: in a knowing hint to authors everywhere, he keeps boring people about his book, blithely unaware that no one is interested. He is told by the town’s librarian: “Nothing of note has ever happened in this town, and by the time it does, there will no longer be any point in remembering it.”
Except, of course, it has. “To claim that nothing has happened in a town in the central west is an obvious lie. There were a lot of frontier wars and violence against Indigenous Australians,” Prescott says. “So it obviously does have a history but no one knows what it is because there is a real dearth of information about non-urban Australia.”
The country’s white nationalists, he says, are “very violently opposed to the idea that Australia could be anything but great. Potentially the frustration is born of the understanding deep down that none of that is actually true. We were born of colonial violence and genocide and there is nothing that we can really do to ever erase that.”
Prescott’s setting embodies that collision between buried trauma and the nondescript banality of small-town life, and the nature of his concerns as a writer is perhaps why his prose is lacking in that specific, fashionable austerity that is so typical of Anglo-Saxon writers.
That’s not to say Prescott’s writing is florid – it is remarkably pared back, but contains a mischievousness and imagination found in the best continental writing. Among Prescott’s favourites are Hungarian authors László Krasznahorkai, Ádám Bodor and Ágota Kristóf; he likes their willingness to banish realism. “The culture of writerly advice, particularly on social media, really makes my skin crawl,” he says. “The point of books is that you open them and anything can happen. To limit it in any way just seems counterproductive and hateful to literature.” It’s a refreshing stance. And, if this weird novel is anything to go by, one that will work out pretty well for him. - Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett ShaunPrescott: 'Australians were born of genocide and we can't erase that'
Shaun Prescott is a writer based in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. He has self-released several small books of fiction, including Erica From Sales and The End of Trolleys, and has been the editor of Crawlspace Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Guardian, and Meanjin, among other places, and The Town is his debut novel.