Book Review: 'Some Other Town,' By Elizabeth CollisonElizabeth Collison's debut novel follows a young art star who burned out and is now leading a hazily complacent life in her old university town — but that life is upended by an unexpected fling.
Five years before the opening of Elizabeth Collison's debut novel Some Other Town, Margaret Lydia Benning comes to a small, unnamed Midwestern town to study art. She has talent in spades: grim visions that manifest in surreal paintings — "A woman in pink diaphanous tulle, wild boars where her legs should be. Bloated bodies in rivers. Eyeless white heads. Severed hearts wet and still beating." — that excite her mentors and draw acclaim within her community. Then, just like that, the visions disappear. Her work slows down, then stops altogether. When her classmates move away, she stays.
Now in her late 20s, she's an assistant editor of design at a small publishing house outside of town. The job is comfortable. The house specializes in early reader books and is fattened on grant money, headquartered in an old tuberculosis sanatorium, and populated with a strange bunch of coworkers: One of them speaks almost entirely through a puppet with cereal bowls for a mouth. Another is obsessed with a ghost that she believes haunts the building and sabotages their work, turning sentences like "Joe Trout went off to his room" into "Joe Trout went off to his doom."
At home, Margaret mostly watches television, when she's not navigating around an eccentric elderly neighbor who steals things from her yard, enters uninvited, and sets fire to her possessions. She is not content, exactly, but complacent — and aware of it. "[These are] not the new sort of horizons optimists wake up to, oh look a new horizon," she says of her life. "Rather the comfortable same old horizons, boundaries on every side."
Then, there is a rift in her world, a chance meeting at a party with a visiting art professor named Ben. They become friends, and then more than friends, and then he disappears. The novel begins after he has vanished, and veers between her workday and home life and dreams, and her recollections of their meeting, their affair. She resolves to find him, struggling through the molasses of her days and the gravity of his memory. Sprinkled amongst her first-person narration are small pieces of Ben's, in third — self-serious and dreamy. Occasionally, their narratives intersect around a moment of their shared past, and then languorously float away from each other.
Floating is a good way to describe the general feeling of Some Other Town. The entire story, and its cast of characters, seem to drift outside of time and place. Locations are never specifically named — "Midwest university town," "Western state" — and despite a few cultural references that place it in the early 1970s, there is an eerie immutability to the narration. Aside from the absence of certain types of technology, it could be set anywhere in a 50-year span.
Despite the (deliberate) haziness of the setting, there is a strong Iowa City influence — Collison is an Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate, and certain details and certain allusions, including street names and a dive bar called The Hogshead, tip her hand — but in truth, it could be any college town where the cost of living is cheap, and scores of former students find it difficult to leave after their not-necessarily lucrative degrees are finished and their artistic or scholarly visions languish unfulfilled.
As the narrative deepens, the reader gets a sense that Margaret is, if not precisely an unreliable narrator, one who dispenses with information when it suits her, and that the whole story is built on quicksand. Her voice is wry, peculiar, and compelling, with echoes of Victor Shklovsky's defamiliarization technique, in which the narrative is made "unfamiliar" by focusing intently on ordinary events in a prolonged or strange way. The result is a kind of oddness, something akin to the voice of Shirley Jackson's protagonists, in particular We Have Always Lived in the Castle's Mary Katherine Blackwood. And so a story that could be familiar and clichéd is instead utterly transformed, becoming deeply specific, capturing the experience of blinking and discovering years have slipped past without notice.
"We ... come to depend on the things we are only resigned to," Margaret realizes in the midst of her chaos. And so the novel asks: how do you restart a stalled life? It's not a new question, but Some Other Town is certainly a funny, fresh, and real answer.
Carmen Maria Machado has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review and AGNI, among other publications.