Sunday, 9 March 2014

This Town Will Never Let Us Go

Lawrence Miles This Town Will Never Let Us Go (2003)

This potentially could have been one of the greatest novels ever written, or at least one of my own personal all-time favourites, and I mean in terms of top three rather than merely a right ripping read. This Town Will Never Let Us Go should have ideally fallen somewhere between William S. Burroughs and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 - albeit Slaughterhouse 5 had it focussed on culture rather than war; and it comes so close. Rather than conceding to chapters, it divides into six hours, each subdividing into sixty real time minutes of narrative, and its probably happy coincidence that these six groups of sixty invoke a sum perspective of 360°, like a pack of cards thrown into the air landing in such a way as to tell a story, and not only the right story, but the only story they could possibly tell. That anyone could mistake this for anything so crude as the Doctor Who spin-off it's okay to lend to your friend who likes Grant Morrison is both profoundly depressing and proves the novels central point about the reduction of complexity to a series of meaningless soundbites; although I suppose in all fairness there's so much going on that it may take a few reads to appreciate its subtleties.

To start at the beginning, or at least a beginning, one detail of Lawrence Miles' Faction Paradox mythos centres upon the notion of a War in heaven fought by powers we would be unable to understand, and that some of these powers, fearing what humanity may one day become, have sterilised human culture around the beginning of the twenty-first century, eliminating our potential for progress and thus resulting in what you now see as the world outside your window, or more accurately, the world as seen on your television screen - all meaningless wars, crap boy bands, and hamburgers. Faction Paradox itself is, I suppose, Miles' notional Sex Pistols - if that isn't too liberal an analogy - presenting the possibility of opposition to this ghost point of humanity, as he terms it.

Faction Paradox has ostensibly been here since the start of the universe. This is why the posters seem so familiar, and not just because you saw them on your way home from a club while you were still off your face, not just because the blacks, whites and glaring reds smashed their way into your impressionable skulls while you didn't know what you were doing. Faction Paradox is all about history, about breaking a military deadlock that's been around forever, and if it hasn't been around forever yet then that's the way it'll seem soon.

I don't see much of a Philip K. Dick influence in Miles' writing, although it may be a thematic relative, and both authors share more or less the same archetypal enemy, namely entropy, the forces which would reduce everything to gubbish or kipple or grey static; or in this case, human culture as a serpent endlessly eating its own tail. So not only does This Town Will Never Let Us Go strive to be something more than a science-fiction novel, it could be argued that it's not even fiction in the strictest sense, such is its documentary quality:

These supermen, these great empire-builders, these wonderful people capable of fighting battles which intersect with the town in such a casual fashion... if they can destroy individual buildings from a distance of a billion, trillion miles, or cause an individual to be struck down by lightning without ever leaving their homes, then why does the War exist at all? Why these "rockets", these things which tear open the pavements and leave such huge, gaping wounds in the sides of pizzerias?

Again, the only answer is that the War requires it. It's often said that the War is in some way about history, about the way it shapes the future, about the design it leaves imprinted on the face of the world. Why bomb the squares? Why send the missiles through the streets, burning away any pedestrian or vehicle that might get in the way?

Because otherwise, how would anybody know there was a War, at all?

I say documentary because in terms of actual content, it's surprising how little of the narrative serves the framework by which the discussion is supported. That is to say that it's there if you want it, and to provide a semblance of order, but the narrative is secondary to what is being said, hence the occasionally ludicrous - or at least almost entirely mythic - details such as Miss Ruth in her celestial tower of unlabelled video cassettes, or Valentine's symbolic voyage into the underworld as a weird inversion of the myth of Orpheus, all conducted in the spirit of what ultimately may be taken as a quest for meaning:

'I just think it's dangerous, that's all,' Valentine tried to explain, although he suspected he wasn't going to make much of an impression. 'You know there are kids now who grow up copying the TV ads? That's just, you know... how they see themselves. They don't want to be like people, they just want to be like the characters in the ad breaks. That's how they want to look and dress and... everything.'

The cast of characters seems initially problematic, all being conspicuously young and lacking significant experience beyond that typical of any members of their age group who understands the world almost exclusively through television - in other words the same boring fuckers who turned up in all those Doctor Who books time after time to ask what do we do now?; except, I guess that is partially the point, or at least that less generic characters may have got in the way of the story. These are youthful people, not fully formed and still learning the rules presented in contrast to a future without possibilities, change, or anything too divergent from that which appears in the media for the sake of a story.

There is a danger this all could have come across as being a bit too pleased with itself for its own good, like one of William Gibson's commentaries on the superficiality of modern media which were never actually so interesting as that which they criticised - thinking mainly of his earlier novels here, by the way - and I presume this comparison may not be entirely arbitrary given the reference to sky the colour of television near the beginning of the third hour, a perhaps deliberate echo to the increasingly mythologised opening sentence of Neuromancer. If occasionally skating dangerously close to the edge, Miles nevertheless largely avoids the pitfalls of self-conscious post-modernism by occasionally taking the piss out of either himself, or at least our expectations:

You take a family heirloom, any heirloom, say something passed down by your grandfather. You take it back in time and you give it to your grandfather when he was a child, so he can pass it down to you. Where does the heirloom come from, who makes it in the first place, insoluble conundrum, yaddah yaddah yaddah, God in Heaven even pointing out that it's tedious is tedious. (Metacliché: something so drab that it can't even be safely deconstructed any more).

Where does this leave Miles, one might wonder. Stood on thin ice, I suppose, as a novel which seemingly aspires in part to the directness of a pop song - and actually uses the term pop song without irony - stretches to the length of a sprawling concept album. It's not so much that Miles' observations lack truth as that they occasionally seem to lack perspective, apparently deriving from the views of someone with their nose pressed to one specific screen, and so that which proposes to take an apparently global view of culture, comes across as ironically parochial in some respects, for example:

There are things they've forgotten. They've forgotten that for every human being who worships a starlet, there are two who loathe her beyond measure.

This in reference to the rise and fall of Tiffany Korta, the pop star at the centre of the novel, the human sacrifice I suppose. It's not that she doesn't get the job done in terms of narrative, but comments such as the above define a focus which will only work for a limited group of people rather than, I would argue, culture as a whole, because for every three people with a strong opinion on someone resembling a conflation of Shakira and Christina Aguilera, there are another twenty who couldn't give a shit, and thirty who've never heard of her. I would suggest that culture as a coherent whole is too big to be one thing, and if it were, would be optionally dominated by no strong opinion either way and none of the above, so with the best will in the world, Tiffany Korta is reduced to the level of a conversation about a 1970s television show, which seems inconsistent to her role in the story. It probably doesn't help that as we enter the fifth hour certain aspects of the narrative suggest an understanding of culture in which the story of the Sex Pistols were accurately encapsulated by The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. There's a certain naivety which isn't quite concealed by the arch commentary.

'I used to belong to this group,' he says. 'This... kind of... revolutionary group. I thought it was revolutionary. When I was seventeen.'

'Everything is, when you're seventeen,' says Inangela the great wit and prophet.

Yes, exactly, although I'm still not sure any of this necessarily diminishes the sum total of the book which, even without the precise nature of the events described in terms so clear as those dedicated to their effect, and even with the potential cynicism of reducing human behaviour to a pattern of sentiment and habit imposed upon impermanent matter, still does what it set out to do with a fairly satisfying conclusion. It also leaves a somewhat pessimistic aftertaste, mainly because of the nature of that to which it sets itself in opposition, spectacle and hysteria:

Their ability to take new risks and think new thoughts is diminished, for fear that they'll make it happen again, or perhaps bring on something even worse. Words vanish from the English language. Certain ideas become unspeakable. The world becomes less complex, and as it becomes less complex the probability of anything this remarkable taking place again is reduced. And so on and so on, until all things are equally flat and secure and no thought can be tolerated at all.

I began this, my third or fourth re-read, roughly convinced of This Town Will Never Let Us Go as being amongst the greatest novels ever written, at least that I've read, which admittedly may not be saying much. Absorbing a lot more detail this time around, so far as I can tell, I'm more aware of its possible failings, in spite of which I think I've probably got more out of it too.

Oh bollocks. I can't deny it. Warts and all, this remains a truly phenomenal novel.

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