Saturday, April 20, 2013

Down Town


        The rundown is as follows: Down Town is one of the strangest and messiest books I have ever read. That judgement takes into account that I read, reviewed, and own copies of both House of Leaves and Naked Lunch. I could throw around a lot of words like "singular" and "unique", and they'd be taken mostly as a cliche. Mainly because a lot of book critics beat them into the ground. But here's the thing: Down Town is actually pretty unique. It's a hodgepodge of New York City historical in-jokes, children's fantasy, fairy tale, clean-earth allegory, and mythology all rolled into one rather bizarre but entirely endearing kludge of a book. Having read it, I'm still not completely sure I read everything I just read, and yet it's perfectly coherent. It's a beautiful, flawed mess.

          And it's those flaws that keep me from writing this off as a complete success. For all the endearing passages and beautiful descriptions, for all the moments it's a wonderful exciting story, there are parts that come out of left field. Characters act in occasionally random patterns. The book swings back and forth between being breathless and describing everything in lavish and lurid detail. Its rhythm is hard to follow, its characters are cyphers save for the main character and his parents, and the ending, when taken as a whole, is as much of a glorious mess as the book that precedes it. 

          BUT! In all of this, once I pushed aside the cynical detachment and actually sort of got behind what Down Town actually was, I learned to love it. It's a beautiful, insane mess with occasional illustrations that get somewhat more unhinged as the book goes along. It's charming, and has such a sense of wonder about itself that it's hard to ignore. It's worth the time to get lost in their world for a while, and I heartily recommend finding it any way you can. More, as always, below.

"It's the End of the World, Fianna!"
"No it ain't, Finn! It's only the beginning!"

                I found this book twice. Both times, it just sort of seemed to be waiting for me to find it, something I'd think was odd if it weren't for the fact that most books find their way to me in a similar way. At least the ones that stay with me. The first time was in Montclair Book Center. I'd gone there with a large wad of cash saved from my latest turn as a mercenary light board operator, and this time instead of my usual meandering transit through the paperback science fiction and fantasy section, I decided to head to a different part of the store. I'd never been down into the Hardcover section in the basement, and it was like discovering another world down there. A dusty, dimly-lit world, but one I enjoyed. They had all kinds of obscure things down there. Hardcover copies of Against the Day, books by Kim Newman and Stephen King that I hadn't ever heard of...and over in the corner of the science fiction and fantasy hardcovers, there was a book that caught my eye. 

                I immediately picked it up and brought it home, especially when it referenced such favorites as The Neverending Story in the jacket description. It was also one of the few books I had that was autographed by the author. I never got around to reading it, but somehow, when I was at the train station to go to Live Earth about two years later, I found the same book sitting on the Leave A Book, Take A Book rack put there by the local library. Different inscription, but signed by someone. This time, I actually tried reading it, but given that I was going to a rock concert, reading was probably the last thing I could do, and I wound up leaving it on the same rack. Years later, after several moves and two more nervous breakdowns, I found the book on my bookshelf and picked it up, starting to read.

                 And it is...well, it's a mess. People often talk about books or albums or the like having identity crises. Not knowing quite what it is. Well, Down Town, a book by Viido Polikarpus and Tappan King, is not that. It knows exactly what it is, and it isn't trying to be too many things at once. It simply is. And in some cases, it's refreshing to have a book that simply is

                 Down Town is the story of Cary, a young boy who is stuck in New York City following a divorce and the death of his great-grandmother. One rainy summer day, he goes shopping with his mother, and after a fight with her he runs into the subway. He then suffers a blow to the head and wakes up in Down Town, a sort of alternate version of New York inhabited by tiny imps, strange paint-spewing creatures, and a collection of time-displaced New Yorkers going back centuries. Down Town is, in fact, the past. All of it, mixed together into a bizarre world of squares and lanes and separate dimensions squeezed on top of each other like an overcrowded layer cake. Cary is quickly apprehended by, then escapes, the evil forces of Miles Brand and his gang, the Badmashers, all of whom seem to be interested in a microdisk Cary accidentally took from his mother.

               And then things get weird.

                The disk turns out to be something of a symbol, all of it connected to a prophecy of a chosen one who will bring an end to the dark days of Down Town. Cary, who just wants to go home and be done with all of this, has to undertake a perilous quest to find the Watchman in Time Square and somehow save all of Down Town from Brand and his masters, the Gnomes of Wall Street. His one reluctant ally in this is the tomboyish Allie and her gang of lost children, the Scamps. On his way, they will interact with Celtic and Scandinavian myth, travel by bending time, and hopefully bring peace to both worlds. Though the dangers are fierce, and the gods themselves can be unhelpful, there's at least a chance that Cary will succeed. 

               I suppose the thing I like the most about Down Town was the descriptions. The descriptions of places in the books can sometimes go on for pages of detail, all of it helping to create an image of the lavish world it represents. This is the book's greatest strength. Be it the hellish environment of Wall Street, where the Gnomes play games with people's wealth and lives (literally), or the strange environment of Hell's Kitchen, where the best food is made but the weather is hottest; Down Town loves its locations and tries to make them as much a function of the story as the actual plot. It does a good job, too, in that the descriptions actually outshine the illustrations in the book, illustrations which are often either intermittent or have very, very little to do with the plot.

                 Another thing I like about the book is that it has a lot of charm to it. Down Town, unlike, say, Zamonia (from Rumo), or Fantastica (from The Neverending Story), Down Town seems like a safer place to live than most. Even in its scariest forms, it seems like a place one would want to get lost for a while. Maybe not permanently, but at least for a little while. The characters, those that aren't despicable, are incredibly lovable and the book has a feeling of comfort. Like Down Town is, in the words of Barry Hughart, a world you could pull around yourself and curl up in for a while. Even the creepiest creatures are actually kind of interesting to imagine, and strike the right chord of fairy-tale villainy without being seen as nightmarish. It actually does a lot to draw one in, despite the fact that it downgrades the danger just a little.

              Despite the charming, vivid world, Down Town is very uneven. Polikarpus and King populate their world well, but can't seem to keep a good handle on it. We're never really "let in" to the world when we read, as Cary and his pursuers keep up their chase well through the first half of the book. This has led me to instate something of a rule: If you want to make sure your world is as much of a character as the characters who populate it, do not have a desperate life-or-death battle taking up most of your story. People being chased and are afraid of getting caught by the bad guys don't have time to admire the beautiful scenery and really explore the world*. 

                  The other issue is how overstuffed the book feels. Polikarpus and King have populated their world with a combination of Scandinavian myth, Celtic myth (The Seelie Court makes an appearance), eco-friendly messages, wordplay, and in-jokes about New York history. Occasionally, it's hard to find the book's "ground", so to speak. Occasionally, it's not possible to fit everything into one book, something I myself am quickly learning as I try to write my own stuff. The authors manage to fit a lot into just under three hundred pages, and even then, they could have pared it down some. On top of that, you have passages of Cary's parents being worried about him. While this adds to the emotion of the book, it also adds another ball into the book's juggling act, and the authors can only keep so many in the air at once.

                    But I'm being cynical. This is, at the end of the day, a good book. It's only known by few, and it's got flaws, but what it also has is a lot of heart, a nice ending, and a heartfelt message to impart about technology, nature, and all the rest. So find this book. You may not want to buy it, but I guarantee you'll find something to fall in love with in here, be it the beautiful images, the breathless action, or the just strange and lovable quality it just sort of has. I know I've bought in, at least.

- LA Confidential by James Ellroy (Yes, I can review crime novels here. Besides, it's damn good
- Burton and Swinburne in: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder
- Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
AND A SPECIAL SURPRISE ON MAY 4th. Watch this space.

*This is now known as the Bioshock Infinite rule

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