Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 07-01-2005
320 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 04-30-05
There are no rules in fiction. You can write about whatever you want. That said, there are many rules with regards to writing. And while you can write about whatever you want in whatever way you so desire, the rules that apply to writing are there for a reason. They make it easier for the writer to communicate with the reader. Now of course rules, where they apply are meant to be broken, and you may do so with impunity, if you know them well enough. Cory Doctorow clearly knows the rules. Cory Doctorow must in fact be a freaking dictionary of the rules, because in 'Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town' he breaks them with such breathtaking skill that the enchanted readers of this fine novel will never be the wiser. Doctorow strings together wonderfully witty words into pithy sentences that have no right making as much sense as they do. He brings a powerful but lighthearted magic to a world we very much hope resembles the real world. 'Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town' evades every expectation you might reasonably attempt to apply to it with one exception: expect to enjoy this novel immensely.
Best known for cyberpunk and science fiction, in 'Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town', Cory Doctorow offers readers something familiar and something fantastic. Alan is a middle-aged man who moves into a new house in a funky, artsy neighborhood in Toronto. Next door, he has a house full of twenty-something art-punks. When Mimi, the Rubens-esque girl he takes fancy to reveals to him that she has wings, he handles the revelation with aplomb. After all, his father is a mountain and his mother is a washing machine. One of his brothers is an island, and another is a living set of three Russian nesting dolls. Two of them have just showed up on his doorstep, afraid that Davey, an unstable brother Alan and his other siblings killed years ago, has returned from the dead to continue terrorizing his family.
Doctorow handles the fantasy here so matter-of-factly, his writing verges on being hard-boiled. Neither he nor his characters dwell on the weirdness that comprises their lives. In fact, for all his fantastic (though not supernatural-seeming) woes, once Alan meets Kurt, the neighborhood technopunk, he joins Kurt in a scheme to set up wireless Internet coverage for most of downtown Toronto. Entrepreneurs, the telephone company, street kids and stranger things still scheme and stalk one another on the not-so-gritty streets of a bohemian college town.
Like any of the best books you might find, 'Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town' has to be read to be believed. And if you read it, you will believe it. Doctorow's prose is a great combination of straight-faced descriptions of strange things in close-up, touching character notes, humor and tension. Doctorow himself brings together these disparate elements in a seamless, slick style that never seems forced, weird, or nearly as odd some of what goes down. He stays on the right side of wisecracking, yet the smile will never leave your face. As for the rules, well, you'll enjoy seeing them fly right out the window. Alan and his siblings have been rather loosely named by their parents, so that Alan might also be called Alex, Andrew, Adam or some other name beginning with "A" and his brother Billy, might also be called Bob, Baxter, Bruce -- well you get the idea. Generally, the well-known rules of writing tell you to give your characters only one name. With Alan and his brothers, Doctorow punts that rule, yet he scores a goal with effortless execution and a clever concept that's fun to read as he evolves it in the course of the novel.
Doctorow's characters emerge instantly as clear-cut, entertaining and utterly real people you might meet were you to live in a sort of college-town bohemian setting. And with some exceptions, they're all genuinely sweet and interesting folks. No matter who you're hanging out with in Doctorow's novel, you're happy to be there. As for the unsweet exceptions, everyone knows a few jerks. Doctorow does jerks well. And Davey, Alan's mad, murderous brother, is simply a force field of disturbing evil. He's stoppable, though he might dig himself out of whatever pit he's cast into.
The structure of this novel is rather complex, weaving back and forth in time as it tells the story of Alan's past and present in parallel. This can lead to some murky moments as time expands or contracts to suit the story. But the complex structure enhances the tension in both timelines, and makes the novel ultimately more compelling. The absurd fantasy is handled so matter-of-factly that it seems every bit as believable as hard-boiled anarcho-entrepreneurial scheming. Doctorow believes every word he is writing with all his heart, and so will you.
Ultimately, 'Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town' unfolds its own wings and proves to be something of a romance, albeit a romance with a lot more plot than the usual boy-meets-girl. What's perhaps most remarkable here is that the story of the son of mountain who meets a girl with wings should seem so centered, so perfectly right-on-target, so utterly, prosaically believable. Readers will not feel that they’ve read a particularly strange or unusual novel until they try to describe it to others. Doctorow breaks the rules so gently, with such skill, that you don’t know they’re being broken until they've been reset into an entirely fresh and reasonable arrangement. This is your new fiction. It's sweet, smart, and hardheaded as a knuckle sandwich. It will knock you upside the head and leave you delightfully dazed. Is this fiction? Science fiction? Fantasy? Is this reality? It is now.