Being different and an outsider is always difficult. Have you ever been the new kid in a school, the one who starts in the middle of a year after everybody knows each other already and have established their relationships? You end up spending a lot of time observing the other kids, trying to figure out how and where you can fit in. Sometimes you try too hard and end up looking even more outlandish, and fitting in even less than before you started trying to be "one of the gang", and as a result you become even more ostracized.
Of course if there's anything the least bit odd about you, or your brothers and sisters, that makes it even twice as hard. Even if it's only something as seemingly trivial as wearing your hair the wrong way, having the wrong clothes, or eating the wrong food for lunch you're labelled as the dreaded different. Imagine how bad it would be if you had some real difference, like a foreign accent or different skin colour. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, no matter that you think you might be succeeding, you'll just never blend, never be able to fit in with anybody who you try to hang out with.
In Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, (available for free download, like all of his books, by following the link,) when we meet Alan he seems to be just like any upwardly mobile young man. He's just bought an old house and spent a lot of time and energy on renovating it to just the way he likes it. While he may seem a tad obsessive about how he goes about sanding the floors, or taking inordinate amount of pride in the fact that he's given the contractor's discount at the building supply place, I've known plenty of people who have similar quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Even the fact that he's opened and sold off three businesses isn't too odd. Lots of people are entrepreneurs like that, finding their pleasure in developing an idea and once its a successful going concern feel the need to move onto a new project. However, the borders of the picture you've begun to visualize as Alan become a little blurred when he starts to make references to his parents. At first you figure he could be talking metaphorically – the son of a mountain could just mean his father was huge, a mountain of a man. Even when he says his mother was a washing machine you can still bring your mind to bear on that by telling yourself it's a reference to her cleanliness and her nurturing abilities.
It's when you realize that Alan is talking literally, that his father is an actual mountain and his mother is really a washing machine that you begin to understand how different he really is. He's not just some strange backward guy from Northern Ontario, he's strange even for that part of the world. Of course compared to the rest of his family Alan is pretty normal looking and can usually pass for one of us. After all he's not an island like his one brother, three interconnecting parts like one of those Russian dolls which fit one inside the other like his three youngest brothers, clairvoyant like his brother Billy, or, worst of all, a psychopathic corpse like his brother Dave.
As the eldest child Alan had always been the one to do everything first, and was the one who tried to integrate the rest of the children, when physically possible, into society. He was the one who took them to school and made sure they were fed, he was the one who tried to make the abnormal normal. He even had some success with Bill and the trio of Fredrick, George, and Nathan, but he couldn't do anything about Dave – even before he was dead. He would torture animals as a toddler, and when Alan tried him in kindergarten he started to do the same with children. He was a monster.
Yet Alan is the son of the same mountain and the same washing machine that gave birth to Dave, and the other strange progeny. He's only taught himself to be like those he lives around by observing their behaviour and approximating it as best as he can. Yet he's still different, and no matter how hard he tries to pass there is something about the way he does things, his means of interacting with others, that no matter what company he keeps he stands out. His new house is in one of the oldest immigrant neighbourhoods in Toronto, Ontario, Kensington Market, which has become a mixture of immigrants, punks, and other folk in need of cheap housing.
Even here among the street kids, punks, and immigrants — those who have either chosen to be different or are different because of circumstances — Alan stands out. Only with Kurt, a thirty-something punk who dumpster dives for old computer parts in order to fulfill his dream of making all of Toronto a free wireless Internet network, is he able to build something akin to a friendship. The one other person who he begins to become close to, after a while, is Mimi who lives next door – but then again Mimi has wings growing out of her back so knows what it's like to be different. Every so often — so she can blend in — she gets her boyfriend to saw them off with a hunting knife before they get too big.
In the midst of Alan helping Kurt establish his dream of a wireless Toronto, and feeling like he is doing something normal and even beneficial for his fellow man, his family shows up on his doorstep to bring his world crashing down upon him. Dave has come back from the dead and is killing off his brothers one by one. First Fredrick, George, and Nathan, and then he starts coming for Alan. Confronted by the obvious differences between himself and even those most of society considers different, Alan wonders who and what he is. Hoping for answers, he and Mimi flee Toronto and head up north to visit his father but finds that he has cut himself off from being able to communicate with the mountain anymore.
In Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town Cory Doctorow has written a story about learning to accept yourself for who you are inside a strange hybrid of a story. At one moment you feel like you're in a gothic fantasy/horror novel with a depraved child killing innocence. Yet other times it feels like the world of the mountain can't possibly exist, especially with Alan and Kurt talking about the intricacies of establishing their free, wireless network. Yet Alan's reality is that he was sired by a mountain and a washing machine gave birth to him, and until he learns to accept that he won't be happy.
Doctorow is very clever in the way he delivers the fairly rudimentary message that is contained in the story of being true to one's own nature, and how detrimental trying to blend in can be. Alan and Mimi are different and have been told either directly, or through observation of others, that they are abnormal. It's not good to be different, and they both go to great lengths to disguise who they are from others in a bid for acceptance. Yet all that happens is that they both end up hurting themselves, and in Mimi's case putting herself at the mercy of another who uses his knowledge of what she is and his power to make her normal, to control her.
What is especially good about this story is how Doctorow manages to make everything so believable. His descriptions of Alan's home life are so matter of fact, and sound so normal and mundane, that neither the fact that his mother is a washing machine or his brother's oddities seem like a big deal. Like the children before Alan takes them to school for the first time and tries to teach them to be normal – we don't know any different, and as far as we know this might just be normal for here. Throughout the whole novel, no matter which reality he is writing about, Doctorow maintains the same tone to his style. We are the ones who pass judgements and make assumptions about the characters and their various degrees of normalcy.
We are what we make of ourselves and what we are born with, and Doctorow has written a moving, sometimes funny, and sometimes frightening story, that brings that point home nicely. We may not be all as lucky as Alan in having a place where we know we fit, but like Alan we can all learn to accept ourselves for who we are and find some peace in that.