Ones and Zeroes Creeping:
An Interview with Lindsay Stern
Lindsay Stern’s work has appeared in American Circus, Weird Fiction Review, PANK, and The Faster Times, among other publications. Town of Shadows is her first book not also a tattoo or dimensional codex.
Front Porch: Can you talk a little about the creation of Town of Shadows?
Lindsay Stern: About five years ago, on a visit to Northampton, Massachusetts, I noticed a little shop off the thoroughfare whose awning read, “The Rug Doctor.” That afternoon I jotted down a few notes of what became the spine of ToS—the story of Pierre, a rug doctor who loses his shadow. A few months later, I discovered Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio one afternoon at the library, and was so taken with its architecture that I returned to writing fiction (before ToS, I had written mostly poetry). In the vein of “The Rug Doctor,” I assembled about thirty vignettes about a nameless town and its inhabitants, whose mayor declares war on various forms of expression. He banishes artists, then vowels, and finally English itself, declaring mathematics the national dialect. Finally, I wove the vignettes together with the writings of Pierre, including an autobiography, a lexicon, and a book of experiments. I’d returned to Northampton by that point, and found no trace of the shop. Eerie, considering what happens to Pierre.
FP: Besides the darkness at the heart of the town, ToS has characters that offer little bits of hope, like Clarence in “Eyelashes.” Was it important to you to include this contrast?
LS: Absolutely. I didn’t set out to conceive an entirely dystopian world. The point, for me, was to see if and how my characters could find redemptive spaces within a structure that threatened constantly to annihilate them and their instruments of thought. Often they do so by redeploying the very systems—logic and math, for instance—the bureaucrats use against them. A horologist sets his clocks at different speeds. A wanderer uses a technically valid (albeit circular) argument to convince a bureaucrat that his imagined house is real. Schoolchildren, instructed to solve word equations, invoke arithmetic to pose subversive questions of their own, including “thinking / thought = ?” and “mind / brain = ?” The truth is, of course, that almost all of these remarks about what I “set out” to do have crystallized only in retrospect. My thanks to Ben Godby at Strange Horizons for waking me up, in his review, to many of the patterns I mention here.
FP: At first, there’s a great dark humor to the town leaders attempting to control the citizens. That is, until you encounter stories like “The Ward,” where the tone turns chilling and the charm and quirks are replaced by horror. Did you put a lot of thought into the reader’s participation with the book, as this implies?
LS: I heard from one reader that he felt, after reading the book, what he described as “a wash of sadness.” Another seized on one particular image, a swimming pool filled with drowned hens, in support of her general bafflement with the book. When it came to classifying it, I knew I would alienate readers. Because it’s not a novella, exactly, nor a novel, nor poetry. The emotional note I was aiming for—the one I so loved in Winesburg, Ohio, and in the work of Norman Lock—was one of tragic whimsicality. A contradiction, no doubt. But personally, it’s difficult to fathom the brute fact of existing on a round rock in the middle of nowhere, briefly and for no conclusive reason, without appealing to something other than logic.
FP: The townspeople of ToS appear as though they’re fighting the town bureaucrats by having such strange, surprising lives. Or, perhaps, the world around them is so unusual it’s uncertain if the bureaucrats could ever truly win. What are you thoughts on the townspeople versus the bureaucrats?
LS: What I hoped to avoid was a clean binary between the bureaucrats and the townspeople. I was interested not in lamenting, in a fatalistic vein, the arbitrariness of power, nor in championing some vision of the individual contra society. I was hoping instead to explore the implications of the mayor’s quest to standardize thought and, in so doing, to purge language of ambiguity. In the town, his policing of speech becomes a kind of enforced loneliness. His wrestling of language into a code defined in part by its universality—mathematics—obliterates communication. That irony, of course, is utterly lost on him. His most irreparable violence to the townspeople is not so much literal murder—of artists, among others who violate his various injunctions—as his assault on their collective understanding.
If ToS can be said to make any sort of claim, then, it would be that the diversity of human thought—the persistent ambiguities and misunderstandings that refute, again and again, its reducibility to one axiom—is not a threat to the common world, but its necessary condition. The heterogeneity that seems to threaten “objective” reality is, in the town, the very situation on which “objective” reality depends, without which it would fly apart, or collapse into one disambiguated, glass world of perfect clarity and perfect horror.
FP: Throughout the book, there seems to be a clash between the modern and the archaic. Was this intentional? If so, why?
LS: It wasn’t, but in light of what I’m working on currently, that contrast was probably germinating unconsciously. Nostalgia is a major theme of the book I’m finishing now, as is its inverse—the idea of mourning what you haven’t yet lost. The main characters explore what that might mean, that anticipatory nostalgia, how it might operate as one definition of love.
FP: Appreciation for objects of the past is another recurring theme. There are brooches, grandfather clocks, etc. Antiques are given a certain power over the present. Is this saying something about the fleeting nature of the present?
LS: One question driving the book is whether it’s possible to find a sense of meaning in impermanence rather than permanence. The characters find themselves in a world that is, on the face of it, radically different from ours, but that shares one of our predicaments, which is the problem of how to live with the knowledge that nothing and no one you love will last. One approach to the problem is to document as much as possible, lest some event or remark pass unrecorded; another is to try to use language to harness the world, to circumscribe it with systems and rules. Pierre, the protagonist, attempts both—writing, as I mentioned before, an autobiography, a lexicon, a creation myth, and a book of experiments. As ToS progresses, though, his writings taper out, become more laconic. This new ambivalence toward writing as a means of combating transience culminates in his speech in a late chapter called “The Photographer”—where he addresses a child obsessed with preserving her world in photographs—and in the final chapter, his revised autobiography, where the boundary between his own voice and the voice of the narrator dissolves.
FP: ToS also contains an appreciation for minuteness and breaking things down into increments, pieces. At the same time, there’s a fear of reduction, in the way the town leaders/bureaucrats seek to turn everyone to ones and zeros. Can you explain how these two things work together in the book?
LS: The act of circumscribing, of naming and classifying and dissecting, is in this town both a weapon and a salve. There’s certainly a violence to those activities, to which the mayor testifies. But they also become for the townspeople—especially for the taxonomist, the horologist, the logician, and Pierre—a means of reclaiming autonomy. With respect to the former, I wanted to play out some presuppositions of the fad of viewing the human mind as a cybernetic system (crudely, a complex feedback loop of inputs and outputs). The mayor defines infants as “new machines,” and as you mention, characterizes the population as an expression of binary code—“a town of ones and zeros.” Here I guess I was symmetrically inverting the contemporary quest to make computers human, a quest that presupposes of course that human beings are complicated machines.
FP: You include mathematics and recipes in the book, though reimagined into abstract explanations of things such as memory, forgiveness, how to read or age. What made you include such things?
LS: I wanted to explore two faculties of reductive thought—to liberate and to oppress. And in the case of Pierre’s experiments, which appropriate the format of scientific procedure to imaginative ends, I was interested in how rigor and imagination intersect, how they might be complementary rather than mutually hostile. On the one hand, the mayor capitalizes on the ruthless clarity of reductive systems, converting them from tools into laws. But for Pierre and the townspeople, those systems remain—as tools—liberating avenues of thought.
FP: My favorite prose writers exhibit a poetic attention to every sentence, every bit of the whole. ToS falls into this category with ease. You mentioned you dabble in both poetry as well as prose, correct? Any influences in this regard?
LS: Several of the chapters—particularly Pierre’s experiments—were adapted from poems I’d written previously, and I owe much of the thinking behind them to the work of Anne Carson, Herta Müller, Norman Lock, Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino and Hannah Arendt, a genius whom I’ve only just begun to read more closely.
FP: Can you talk about what you have in the works right now?
LS: I’m wrapping up a novel called Luz about a fictional city whose astronomer discovers that the night sky is speaking in Braille. I’ll be graduating from college this May, and the book will be my thesis in English. So this time I have a deadline on my shoulders!