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 writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs, and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.