Saturday, 21 September 2002

Anthony McCarten: Spinners (1998)

Edition: Picador, 1999
Review number: 1118

Small towns have provided a fair number of novels with their backgrounds, particularly humorous novels (from Cranford onwards). This is because these places often combine backwardness with an inflated view of their importance and sophistication, and so are easy targets for satire. These novels are usually described as "dissecting" or "laying bare" the absurdities of small town life - unless they are "affectionate".

Spinners, McCarten's debut novel, falls squarely into the "dissecting" category. Set in Opunake, a New Zealand town centred around a frozen meat packing factory, it is about how the town is shaken up when a teenage girl claims to have been abducted by aliens. The problem is, it has all been done before and Opanuke isn't made either real enough or exaggerated enough to become truly comic. Spinners is not so much a dissection of small town life as it is a raking through the stereotypes of small town comic fiction. On the positive side, it does convey the way that small mindedness can constrict people living in a close knit community, but it doesn't really do this in a comic way. McCarten seems undecided whether to be humorous or vicious, and ends up not being either. It is possible to be both (see Main Street, for example, or Lake Wobegon Days), or for an excellent affectionate portrait of a small town try George Sumner Albee's wonderful By the Sea, By the Sea. Even the alien plot is better handled elsewhere; the TV series Roswell High showed the ways that people might react more convincingly.

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