July 2, 2006

Weirdness and the outsider in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at July 2, 2006 11:49 PM

My intention for the short capsule book reviews in the open threads is simply to say whether or not I liked the book in question. For Cory Doctorow's novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, I wanted to comment further on some of the themes present there, so I've put this commentary in a separate post (i.e. this one). Specifically, many of the characters in the novel have supernatural origins and are trying to fit into mundane human society; however, their inherent weirdness tends to leave them feeling like outsiders. One of the things that makes this novel appealing is that the approaches the various characters take to their outsider status are familiar to those of us who are weird in ordinary, non-supernatural ways: indeed, the characters nearly provide an exhaustive list of the ways weird people deal with mainstream society. I'm a total amateur when it comes to literary criticism, but this was a particularly interesting topic to me as someone who has taken several of these approaches over the years.

Some spoilers below the fold.

To begin with, who are the outsiders in the novel? Doctorow marks them by not giving them names: Alan and his brothers shift freely between names, preserving only the first letter (which indicates their birth order); Mimi's real name is never spoken, and the appelation "Mimi" is chosen by Alan who fills in the alphabetical gap in the sequence Krishna-Link-Natalie. Perhaps Doctorow had in mind the Doors: No one remembers your name/ when you're strange.

Of Alan's brothers, several choose to remain outside human society altogether, with various attitudes accompanying this distance. Charlie is perfectly content with his status, but then he's not human at all—perhaps we should be asking whether he feels like an outsider in the community of landmasses surrounded by water. Edward-Frederick-George are a more interesting case, as they clearly have a longing to be around other people, but are ultimately unable to leave their mountain home and join a larger community; their one visit to Alan (before the conflicts that drive the plot of the novel) is a disaster in this regard. And there is Davey, who has no hope of passing as normal, and as a consequence feels a powerful anger and resentment towards those who do. Symbolically, Davey does double duty here: on the one hand he represents this kind of rage that can arise out of loneliness and isolation, but he's also an embodiment of Alan's own weird origins that Alan himself is unable to escape.

Alan himself is a much more complicated case: he is trying to live in human society, and it seems like he is fairly successful, but he is unwilling to sacrifice his identity, and so his weirdness is striking to everyone who meets him, and alienating to many (such as Natalie). It's this lack of compromise that has him, in the end, withdrawing completely from humanity. What I found troubling about the ending is that Alan has a clear need to connect with other people, as evidenced by his almost aggressive introduction to his neighbors at the beginning of the novel, and his evangelism for Kurt's wi-fi scheme. (Although in my capsule review I declared this subplot "unnecessary", it really does emphasize what Alan is interested in: namely, making connections with other people.) So what rang false about the ending was the way Alan seemed content even though he was in a (literally!) insular state compared to his former integration with humanity.

In a sense Mimi is the opposite of Alan: she is completely willing to compromise her identity in order to fit in, even though this requires the excruciating process of cutting off her wings. There is a parallel between the story of Alan getting his library card, and the story of Krishna cutting Mimi's wings for the first time: both of them become persons for the first time. But while Alan merely needs to follow the sometimes arbitrary rules of society in order to fit in, Mimi must perform a powerful act of self-abnegation. However painful this may be for her, it pays off as an end to her isolation. Here again the ending was a bit jarring, as she ultimately withdraws from society—I suppose the idea is that she and Alan are content with each other, but I'm not enough of a romantic to buy that. But she can also fly, which counts for a lot.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I'm a bit weird myself, so a natural question to ask is which of these characters I identify with. The truth is that I've exhibited all of these attitudes at one point or another. But Mimi is a strong candidate. Much of my own weirdness derives from my shyness, and this is a particularly isolating characteristic. Over the years I unconsciously developed preferences for solitary activities, since I was most comfortable when I didn't have to interact with anyone else. However, the end result was that pursuing the things I most enjoyed led me to feel more and more lonely and isolated, until I realized that in order to be truly content (rather than merely comfortable) I would largely have to give up my favorite activities, and find pursuits that forced me to interact with other people. So this denial of identity that Mimi experiences is very familiar to me. But there is a character who is even more familiar to shy people. When you don't want people to notice that you're weird, one approach is to make sure that people don't notice you at all. Which brings me to the remaining outsider in the book, Bradley. For me, the most memorable exchange in the book is between him and Alan:

"I look conspicuous. Visible. Used to be that eyes just slid off of me. Now they'll come to rest on me, if only for a few seconds."

Andy nodded. "Sure, that's right. You know, being invisible isn't the same as being normal. Normal people are visible."

In fact, in order to be seen and observe "normal people" without drawing attention, Bradley deliberately becomes a destitute vagrant who is naturally ignored by passers-by. Indeed, this is quite effective in getting people to ignore you, but I can attest that nothing so drastic is necessary. Generally speaking, all it takes to get most people to ignore you is a few subtle cues of body language and eye contact (or lack thereof)—subconscious signals that you don't want to be approached or talked to. This is something that I acquired instinctively after years of being shy, and now find myself in the process of reversing those instincts. Because, as Alan points out, normal people are visible. Being invisible will get you physically closer to other people, but it doesn't help make any connections, so ultimately it's self-defeating. Although Bradley isn't explicitly shy (just trying to hide his weird nature), the metaphor of shyness-as-invisibility has been employed by other writers: the Buffy episode "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" comes to mind, as does the Larry Niven novella A Gift From Earth.

So while I find myself identifying most with Mimi's approach, until recently I was more like Brad. However, many people I know are most like Alan, and I have a lot of respect for those who are unwilling to compromise their identities even in return for closer connections. But (if anyone has actually read this far) what other approaches to outsiderdom did Doctorow leave out? And (if anyone else here read the book) which characters do you identify with?

Tags: Books, Life

Alternatively, Doctorow could have had Echo & the Bunnymen in mind.

You're a bit weird? OK...

Unwillingness to compromise, eh? Sounds vaguely familiar... but there is a very high cost that one has to be willing to pay.

I'm trying to work on the eye contact thing. I don't avoid it for the purpose of people not talking to me (though I can think of times it's likely had that effect), but somehow that seems to be part of the ground state of my mannerism Hamiltonian. It goes along nicely with the frown that tends to be the ground state of my face Hamiltonian. Go me!

Posted by: Mason | July 4, 2006 12:27 PM
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