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Wednesday 14 May 2003

In Springdale Town

  • In Springdale Town, by Robert Freeman Wexler
    (PS Publishing, March 2003)

  • Reviewed by Jeff VanderMeer

Some writers wear their musculature on the outside: like huge, battle-scarred rhinoceros beetles they lumber forward, their exoskeletons impervious to harm. Other writers, wiry and wry, as lithe as dragonflies, may seem more vulnerable, but their grace, their maneuverability, becomes its own kind of tensile strength. They can travel farther, faster, and in disguise. Robert Freeman Wexler demonstrates this second kind of musculature in In Springdale Town, his first book. It is the kind of book that hints at things hidden, secreted away, beneath. It evokes the physical paranoia about the surfaces of places and people popularized by David Lynch. The book also evokes the surreal punch-drunk madness of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Most of all, however, it places the fantastic in the foreground of our own motel-mall milieu.

Wexler alternates between third-person sections from television actor Richard Shelling’s viewpoint and first-person sections from lawyer Patrick Travis’ viewpoint. As the novella begins, both have arrived in Springdale — Shelling to escape his fast-paced Hollywood life, Travis to visit for a friend’s wedding. Shelling is refreshed by Springdale, while Travis depressed by it; he had lived there with his wife before their divorce. Springdale itself is Every Small Town, U.S.A., with its Savings & Loan, its library, and small churches. Shelling finds it charming. Travis sees what he has always seen: “Springdale looked the same. These places always do. Was in the town charter or something: we will never change. Minor things, like a new café on Main Street, different name on the bank.” And yet, it turns out Travis knows as little about Springdale as Shelling.

What doesn’t he know? Perhaps it’s the same thing Shelling doesn’t know. Perhaps it’s expressed in the fade-in, fade-out speech of the townsfolk.

The two women continued their conversation as though Shelling didn’t exist.

“There’s an archival method. Albania or someplace,” one of them said. “They use numbered index cards to keep track of the tides.”

“Are they suspended by fishing line, like in Greece?”
There’s a kind of strangled hilarity in these bits and pieces of conversation Shelling hears. On the one hand, they’re funny. On the other, because of Shelling’s disassociation from their context — the way they isolate him from the speakers — they’re menacing and create an atmosphere of unease.

Travis receives signs of a different sort, like a fountain that overflows in a shopping mall:

Down there to my right, water flowed from a fountain in the shape of that famous cartoon penguin. Benches ringed the fountain — I had sat on one last night after dinner. The water sparkled as if dyed with light. As I watched, waves began lapping over the sides of the fountain’s basin. I figured something must have clogged the drain, though it should be a closed system — water in the basin pumping back up to exit from the penguin’s mouth. So with a clogged drain, there should be no water spewing.
As Travis watches the water spewing, he sees it as a product liability issue. He misses the strangeness of the scene, the sense of weirdness Wexler’s artistry brings to the scene. Is something bubbling up in Springdale?

Shelling receives further signs when the town is suddenly bereft of visitors:

This emptiness, it haunted him: empty cafes, empty theaters, stores. No cars passed through. Shelling drove around town, searching, up Main Street and into the neighborhood, but saw no one other than the waiters, waitresses, ticket sellers, fishmongers, and shopkeepers at their respective stations.


The air “began to thicken, first around his toes, and, rising, assuming the consistency of a thin oatmeal porridge,” “a blackness that shaped the world into figures, into objects of startling unfamiliarity, and in them he found comfort.”

It’s at this point that the reader begins to pay more attention to the story’s similes and metaphors. Suddenly, they seem less metaphorical and more...physical. Does Wexler really mean that the air becomes as thick as porridge? The question begins to nag at the reader in the same way as the fountain that won’t stop overflowing.

The innovative use of footnotes also begins to make the reader wonder; they seem like perfectly subsidiary bites of information, fenced off from the main narrative, providing entertainment value. However, the farther into Springdale the reader ventures, the more they seem like anchors to the real world. The more they seem to be a way of reassuring us that small American towns aren’t facades for something deeper, more insidious...even if we don’t always like the true explanation:

What we regard as the real world is determined by the information our brain is able to process. If we depart our “real” world, our brain, depending on the attributes of this “unreal” world we enter, sees only those elements which correspond to our “real” world. (M. Laureanno, Understanding Dimensions)
By this definition, Shelling and Travis already experience differing versions of “reality” before they experience the ever-stranger permutations of Springdale itself.

Travis appears to right himself, even as Shelling keeps falling into strangeness, when he meets “Sammy,” a woman he’d previously met at a party. But Sammy, normal as she seems, becomes just one more conduit into the true strangeness at the core of Springdale:

It seemed like we had been going for some time. The walls on either side remained a uniform red brick, but the surface beneath our feet had changed from pavement to hard-packed earth. The alley darkened, and I shivered, though the air didn’t feel any cooler. I looked up. Despite the gloom down here, blue sky filled the space between the buildings, and sunlight reflected off a low cloud, but the light couldn’t seem to reach us. It reminded me of that Magritte painting, the one where the street is dark, even though a daytime sky hovers over it.

Maybe twenty yards on, the light increased, but when I looked up again, the sky had vanished, replaced by a domed ceiling painted in abstract shapes of color, shades of red and orange, with black streaks. Somehow we had entered a vast, circular space, illuminated by recessed lighting... I stopped. “Hey,” I asked. Sammy turned to face me. “Where the fuck are we?”
Where are we? We’re in Springdale. The same Springdale of the anonymous mall and the broken fountain, in which people have become like ghosts for Shelling. In which Shelling has become a ghost. The same Springdale that suddenly becomes the focal point for a profoundly unsettling experience shared by Shelling and Travis, the flip sides of a coin.1

Wexler’s control of his prose, the careful delineation between characters, the ease with dialogue, the purposeful pacing (deliberate but not slow), the precise description of the setting, are all in the service of a sudden, sharp shock, a bizarre interface within the real world. Don’t call it North American Magic Realism — call it North American Surrealism. The reader might have been unconcerned when entering this sharp maze of a book, but not by the time he or she leaves it. There’s no quiet acceptance of the fantastical here. By the time the story ends, as Lucius Shepard writes in his introduction, the narrative “smashes down” on the reader like a “spring-loaded hammer.”

Just as Paul Di Filippo’s A Year in the Linear City created a new blueprint for writing imaginary city stories flensed of a built-in baroque sensibility, so too Wexler’s In Springdale Town creates a blueprint for writing small town fantasy that doesn’t rely on the Something Wicked This Way Comes brand of magic realist Americana. The comparison with Di Filippo’s book is apt because both writers have found a new place by combining a mainstream approach to characterization with Surrealism.

Wexler has published a dozen or so stories in such high-end small press magazines as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and The Third Alternative. His stories share a genuinely strange sensibility. None of them are easily definable. Few of them end up where the reader expected they would, and yet Wexler doesn’t employ plot twists per se. In In Springdale Town this effect is accentuated and deepened to excellent effect. After the hyperbolic, often rabid prose, of many recent books I’ve read, Wexler’s perfect clarity comes as a relief — and a release.

1. Even the careless reader may have noticed a hole in the plot summary of In Springdale Town. Once the book has reached its readership, reviewers may wish to dissect its bizarre heart. To do so now would be premature because it would ruin the reader’s pleasure.

Jeff VanderMeer's recent books include Veniss Underground, published in April 2003, and upcoming is the co-edited The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (October 2003).

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