Book Review of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

by JoHarrington

It was hard to put down Cory Doctorow's third novel. The sometimes quite surreal world will stay in your mind for a long time afterwards.

The protagonist's name keeps changing. Sometimes it's Alan, sometimes it's Andy, sometimes it's Alvin or anything else beginning with the letter A.

His father is a mountain. His mother is a washing machine. His younger brothers are, respectively, a psychic, a psychopath, an island and a set of Russian dolls. None of this is a metaphor, but the cold reality of that world. Oh! And his girlfriend has wings.

It's amazing how quickly you accept all of this as fact; and how boring the 'normal' world appears as a result.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

The Extremely Ordinary Man in his Suburban Castle

Alan is passionate about DIY and his businesses. He likes meeting people and he enjoys coffee from the local cafe.

Cory Doctorow's third novel begins in a Toronto setting about as ordinary as it gets.  Alan has bought a property and he's enthusiastically doing it up. 

The innards are gutted and every room is lovingly redecorated to perfection.  This is a little more than slapping on some wallpaper. 

He sands every floorboard down to the planks, then varnishes them again.  He replaces every water pipe and electrical wire with new ones.  In fact there's more than a touch of OCD in the way that Albert tidies his new living space.

This all serves to persuade the reader just how wonderfully ordinary Alfred is.  He's middle aged, middle class, middle of the road Joe Bloggs.  Except he isn't.  He's not even entirely human.  In addition to an unconventional family and a very flexible given name, he has wonderful powers of self-healing.

Nevertheless, he passes for human and does so with an utter desperation born of not wanting to be different.  If there is a metaphor here, or some big underlying message, then it's in this very human desire not to be an outcast in society.

My Mother the Washing Machine

As unconventional families go, this one passes the boundaries so far that they cycle around to become ordinary from the other end.

I thought it was an analogy at first.  Perhaps Alan got his propensity to have a spotless home from his mother, who was house-proud to the point of distance.  She couldn't nurture her children, because she was too busy picking up after them.  She did so much laundry that she might as well be a washing machine.

No.  She actually was a washing machine.

Or maybe his father was so huge and didn't seem to even see his children, that he appeared as a mountain to a small boy.  And his brothers included the introverted one (an island), the one who always knew where to track him down (as if he was psychic) and the spiteful kid (a sociopath). 

But no. They were what they were and that was fabulous.

Alan survived a childhood where he had to constantly make up stories to his teachers to cover up the fact that his parents were never seen.  If they'd just looked out of the window, they would have spotted his father right there filling the horizon.

As a toddler, Alan had to learn how to feed and clothe the first of his younger brothers.  By the time he hit adolescence, he was also having to save their lives from the murderous intent of Davey, or Dennis, Dale, Dickens, Dick or any other name beginning with 'D'.  They named themselves according to the alphabet.

I couldn't get enough of this family.  I sat rapt reading the words and just lost in that mountain cave.  If the entire book had been about them, I'd have lapped up every word and still demanded more.

I found myself crying for the Russian dolls, and laying a hand on my own washing machine on the way past it.  They were more real than many of the 'ordinary' denizens of Alan's world.

Free WiFi in the Market

Imagine if information was truly free, as accessible to the poor as to the rich. Ah, what then?

There is a third story intertwined with the rest.  This follows the progress of Alan and his punk friend Kurt, as they attempt to install free WiFi throughout the neighborhood.  The venture is made even more interesting by the fact that all of their equipment is sourced from 'junk'.

It's here where Cory Doctorow's free information and cyber-politics are most in evidence.  I loved every moment of this too, as those ethics so closely resemble my own. 

As a story apart it was interesting, but at times felt a little jarring when juxtaposed against the surreal background of the Mountain's family.  At least once, I lost the thread of the plot, when I thought the current WiFi tale was a bit of back story, following an emotional journey back to the cave.

It is obvious that this was where Doctorow's passions lay.  There was also a level of amusement in seeing some Cyberpunk tropes turned on their heads.  None of us could predict the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys', once the usual suspects apparently swopped places.  Unfortunately that was all too realistic, as I've often discovered to my chagrin in my own activism.

Towards the end, there was also a slightly abortive step into the life of a writer. This has general appeal to me, but it wasn't really explored in too much depth.  It was just another facet of Alan's life; and another glimpse into his inner anxiety.  Alan appears as calm as one of his father's mountain lakes, but there are churning currents underneath.

I read this book over Christmas 2012.  Two months later, I'm still thinking of it to the point where I wrote this review.  That's how much I recommend it, in all its strange, dark fascination.

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Updated: 11/17/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 02/08/2013

It still keeps coming to mind a month later. While I was reading it, I was away from home. As I was travelling back, I wanted to know what happened next so much, I pulled over into a roadside cafe to read another chapter. Yes, it's an interesting book. :)

Darla Sue Dollman on 02/08/2013

This does sound like an interesting book!

JoHarrington on 02/07/2013

You barely notice the name changes after the first couple of times. He does swap them too often and you know to just look out for the initial. I definitely recommend it.

HollieT on 02/07/2013

This sounds like a very unique read! Although, I'm wondering if I could keep up with the various names without becoming confused. :)

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