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To Live Twice: Town of Shadows by Lindsay Stern

Town of Shadows

by Lindsay Stern

Scrambler Books, 2012

A bit of a departure for us this column. Typically I review books that I think the readers of Artvoice will have heard of. I have an interest in increasing the readership of this newspaper and one way to do that is to write about things other people actually care about, even if that means reading a book that is horrifying and lame and in fact a total waste of time.

Sometimes, however, I kid myself that it is appropriate for me to be pedantic and to discuss literature that I think you should read (as in the cases of the Russian texts I’ve reviewed) whether or not you want to. Now is one of those times, and I think I’ve earned it after reading that damned Dave Eggers book.

Enter Lindsay Stern, a prodigiously talented new voice out of New York City. This fall she published her debut novel, Town of Shadows, a beautiful, unequivocally original prose achievement. Amazingly, she is a senior in college, a fact that makes this recent graduate and aspiring novelist feel slothful indeed. Town of Shadows is utterly unlike anything I have ever read and I would recommend without reservation that you read it too.

At its most basic, this novel is the story of the inhabitants of a town run by a fascistic, oppressive mayor. “Plagues happen for a reason,” he says, shortly after banning the use of all vowels. His edicts and their enforcement are the sorts of hellish absurdities that we find in good science fiction: They are logical extensions born of seeds of truth, and their impossibility allows the author to explore the philosophical issues that in the real world remain subterranean and unanswered.

Which, fine, that is interesting. But what I just wrote does little to capture the unflinching novelty of Stern’s prose, or the unpredictable itinerary of her philosophical investigations. I could not shake the feeling that each of the novel’s sentences was unlike any I had ever read before. The entire novel is a neologism. It is fascinating as a student of prose to watch how Stern achieves this. Perhaps most importantly, she intersperses very cool definitions of words throughout the narrative. Reading them is like having a new pair of eyeballs. E.g. “Self, n. A hidden crowd.” Or also for instance, “To age, v. To bury music.” My favorite: “Truth, n. An axis. Knowledge, n. Its asymptote.” It is difficult to describe how well these work in the context of the novel. Suffice it to say that they work very well.

Town of Shadows eschews the typical conventions of the novel form in favor of a more novel form. Characterization, for instance, is nearly absent despite the presence of at least two characters we might call main. Figures float in and out of the narrative present like, appropriately enough, shadows, and their consistency is further complicated by Stern’s interest in forms that have, to my knowledge, hitherto been absent from the purview of innovative prose writers: recipes, equations, and directions. In one scene, a character writes a sentence with the structure verb verb verb pronoun verb verb verb: “To drown is to breathe what should be swallowed.” Or consider third step in the directions of how to swim: “Notice water’s modesty in feigning monochromatism.” Now that is really very fine.

The most admirable quality of Stern’s prose is her attention to the sentence and the word. The reader feels he is in the capable and comfortable hands of an expert. He feels that way because, in fact, he is. And incredibly, none of this seems self-indulgent. Think for a brief moment about how hard that is to do. To be labeled self-indulgent is sometimes enough to level a writer’s whole career, to reduce his oeuvre to the product of an unattractively precocious intellect and a laptop. Such is the gravity of the reading public’s desire to ignore someone who might actually say something new. And Stern with the deft confidence of a veteran sidesteps the problem entirely with Town of Shadows. The book is a work of art, one that is free of the often unattractive postmodern tendency toward formal self-examination.

Town of Shadows sort of reminds me of something by Diane Williams. The difference, however, is that whereas Williams in her technicolor microfictions uses rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration until the devices themselves seem exhausted and threadbare, Stern expresses a calmer intoxicated wonder, as if in the fractals of the veins in an umber leaf she finds the most powerful affirmation of life. And yet Stern avoids the sort of breathy-toned NPR voice that I hear in my head when I read a writer who is too self-serious. She cares about people, life, and philosophical questions of actual substance, and she is totally unafraid of going toe-to-toe with them, armed only with a pen and some paper.

Town of Shadows is one of the most beautiful works of prose I have read in a long time. It is totally original, with a sense and structure all its own, and it is clearly the product of a subjectivity unlike any other. Read it! Worse comes to worst, you’ll be able to say you for a moment took a ride on the literary nouvelle vague, and that you saw the avant garde and lo, it was good.

Books like this are the reason small publishers like Scrambler Books are going to thrive in the next decade. Let the Random House give Lena Dunham a $3.7 million advance for an advice book; in the meantime, talents like Stern will continue doing real work.

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