Saturday, March 12, 2016

Bad to Worse

 
Both Thomas Ligotti’s The Town Manager* (2006) and H.P. Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep (1920) depict the end of the world, or at least the part of it that is urban and collective.  Neither author is known for being much enthused about “community” or civic virtues.  The first story involves a slow, compulsive march to ever increasing decrepitude and disintegration.  The second is an apocalyptic vision of cosmic calamity brought about by one of Lovecraft’s most intriguing creations, the one nick-named “the crawling chaos”.  (See also With Theobald, At the Apocalypse.)  The two stories share similarities in tone and subject matter—read them side by side and see what you think.  Both open ominously:

One gray morning not long before the onset of winter, some troubling news swiftly travelled among us…[The Town Manager]

I do not recall distinctly when it began, but it was months ago.  The general tension was horrible.  To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension…[Nyarlathotep]
 
Each of the stories is essentially a prose poem.  They differ greatly in style:  Ligotti’s prose is spare, sedated, and detail oriented, while Lovecraft’s writing is florid, dense with adjectives and adverbs, and filled with hallucinogenic imagery.  Readers can easily imagine that The Town Manager and Nyarlathotep originated in nightmares.  Both works share a bleak cosmicist world view.  Humans are perceived as inconsequential and powerless against strange forces beyond understanding.

In Ligotti’s story, these forces are political and economic in nature, though by the end of the story readers may wonder if the “town manager” may also be a stand-in for God—often criticized for working in mysterious ways.  The narrator lives and works in an unnamed town that has just lost its governing official.  Just what the town manager does all day is unknown.  He seems to spend much of his time asleep at his desk.  Yet his disappearance causes great anxiety among the narrator’s fellow citizens, and a thorough search of the town and the nearby countryside begins, but without success.  A new town manager arrives to replace him.

Readers are soon informed that this is a process that occurs repeatedly and ritualistically.  It has been a problem to keep a town manager in office.  Each one disappears before the completion of his term and is replaced after a fruitless search for his whereabouts—the ex-town managers are never seen again.  They seem to vanish immediately after their efforts to make city improvements become ineffective or fail. 

Every new town manager is anonymous; he comes from the outside, as do most of the workers who arrive periodically to make changes to the landscape of the city.  How is the town manager replaced? The process is hidden and undemocratic; the choice does not involve the townspeople.  

The ritual of looking for the “disappeared” town managers, and then accepting their replacements, has gone on for decades.Ye  t the overall drift after numerous reiterations of this process is towards further hopelessness, decay and diminishment.  Even the replacement town managers are less and less concerned with tradition, less interested in determining the whereabouts of their predecessors.  Important landmarks and neighborhoods have burned down or collapsed, and the town’s miserable little trolley is disassembled at one point.  The “Hill District”, once a zone of desirable real estate where many aspired to live is now disintegrated, a desolate scene of half-remembered grandeur.  Everyone remembers that things were better in the past.  The situation in town goes from bad to worse.   

Fellow Michiganders will certainly wonder whether the community depicted in The Town Manager is a version of Detroit or one of its beleaguered suburbs.  Ligotti was born in Detroit and grew up in the nearby town of Grosse Pointe Woods.  In the decade preceding the publication of The Town Manager, Detroit lost a quarter of its population, due in large part to the downsizing and restructuring of automobile manufacturing.  

Readers may recall that Detroit was assigned an “emergency manager” by the governor in 2013 to oversee the city’s bankruptcy proceedings.  The emergency manager was given an extraordinary and controversial degree of control over the city’s finances—and that control was taken from the city’s elected government.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it seems an example of life imitating art, or perhaps life imitating horror.

In The Town Manager the work of this appointed official seems pointless and inconsequential.  He and his predecessors are typically seen napping at their desks.  Why should his disappearance cause much alarm?  What does the town manager actually do?  What does it mean for the town to lose its town manager, or be given a new one?  And yet the town manager appears to have nearly god-like power.  He is able to command the construction of civic improvements, and later on in the story, one of them reassigns citizens to entirely new occupations.

The second-to-the-last town manager brings many changes.  He departs from tradition and sets up office far away from the downtown, in an old shed next to a farmhouse in the country.  The office move suggests that political and economic power have become even more distant and invisible to the citizenry. “Change was the very essence of our lives,” the narrator intones, in words that exude cynicism and tired irony.

The new town manager communicates his directives in degraded written missives that are barely literate.  They are blown helter-skelter into the center of town on slips of old paper and consist of misspelled words carved with charred wood.  Not only is the political structure of the town incomprehensible and out of reach, so is its means of communication, and government itself seems to be devolving along with the dying community.  Yet the directives are obeyed without question.

One of the narrator’s associates dares to ask the big questions: “I for one think that it’s time to find out just who we’re dealing with.”  That individual later suffers a grotesque humiliation as the new town manager changes everyone’s job, everyone’s purpose in life.  This unelected official has the power to make the lives of the townspeople even more absurd—literally into carnival freak shows.  All of the characters seem like props, their city a hastily constructed stage, an amusement park midway.  Dream-like alley ways open onto expansions of the town that make it resemble a much larger city—is this Detroit coming into view? 

The narrator, once in business for himself, now operates a “bouillon concession”, the gustatory equivalent of a prop.  His fellow citizens are also props, or perhaps puppets, an image of powerlessness and external control, a frequent theme of Ligotti’s works.  “Funny Town”—the city as carnival attraction—is the latest but not the last civic improvement.  The project helps the town begin to make money again, but only temporarily, and the crowds eventually dwindle.  The town manager disappears, like all the others before him.

In Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep, the end of the world begins with the individual narrator’s report of events.  “I remember when Nyarlathotep came to my city…” he reminisces.   The story then rapidly expands outward into a phantasmagoric vision of a drastically altered universe.  Ligotti seems to move in the opposite direction, from the general and collective “we” to the specific and personal.  The climactic scene occurs in a restaurant, when the narrator is offered an opportunity he may or may not want to accept.

The Town Manager achieves some of its weird, nightmarish feel from what is not depicted:  save for a brief reference to an old woman, there are no female characters, no children, pets, traffic, or noise.  The narrator works and lives a very quiet city.  There is a sense that all of the characters, including the narrator, are props being manipulated from somewhere off stage.  The setting is relentlessly bleak and empty.  The unfolding horror is a subtle but pervasive one: the suspicion that no one is in control of their own destiny or purpose, much less their collective fate.  This is an urban or perhaps suburban fear, amplified whenever we live among our own kind in large numbers.

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*Thomas Ligotti’s The Town Manager can be found in the excellent collection Teatro Grottesco.

2 comments:

  1. Great article, Sean- an illuminating take of a story I read many years ago. thanks for posting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you! Ligotti is a fascinating author, one I would like to take a closer look at over the coming year.

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