Ten stories, one promising debut
Sam Thompson’s Communion Town provides a poetic examination, from multiple points of view, of an ever-changing city and its inhabitants.
Communion Town, Sam Thompson’s Booker long-listed debut, is a deceptive novel. It’s subtitle, ‘A City In Ten Chapters’, seems to promise something concrete and definitive, but at its heart is swarming diffusion, the essence of the titular metropolis mutating as the stories of it’s citizens unfurl.
The ten intersecting stories that comprise the work are told from distinctly different first-person perspectives. Yet each narrator’s tale is constantly under threat of being breached by that of another, carving out their own narrative as they wander the city’s streets.
The urban space has often been used as the setting for a postmodern battle between the forces of solidity and diffuseness. At once the tenements, skyscrapers and canals of Communion Town are immovable and definite, but they are also continually re-imagined and given new, discursive meaning by the myriad of consciousnesses experiencing them.
‘City Room’ tells of a lonely young orphan who constructs a model city in the spare room of his grandmother’s house. More than a mere hobby, it is a secret, fetishistic endeavour – an attempt by a troubled boy to find peace and solidity in a world of his own creation. One day, he places a small paper figure in his miniature metropolis and finds that it has irrevocably corrupted it, this new presence having ‘changed the whole meaning of the city’. Other characters, architects of their own individual version of Communion Town, are similarly undone by the arrival of an unwelcome interloper.
The monkish night-worker of ‘Good Slaughter’ revels in his twilit walks home after each shift, where the ‘city showed another side…beneath the wear and work’, yet soon he finds this purity disturbed by the arrival of the ‘Flaneur’, a serial killer who strikes each morning just before first light. Eying a photo in the newspaper of the latest victim – in happier, sunlit times – our narrator remarks that ‘she thought she was in one kind of story before he proved she was in another’. Soon a similar fate befalls him, as his obsession with the Flaneur leads him to a drastic act that will change his own story forever.
A more terrifying agent of chaos, however, is a ghostly raconteur who stalks many of Thompson’s characters, pleading with them to listen to his own story. Once told, it leaves them unhinged and altered, the words eating away at their very sense of self: ‘The tale it had half-told him had pared him to the quick so that if he let it say another word there would be nothing left of him at all.’
As his characters realise the malleability of their own perceptions, Thompson skirts around some heady existential concepts. However, they remain very much in the peripheries. This is a sound move for Thompson. Not only could confronting such heavy issues head-on prove a tad over-ambitious for an author on his first rodeo, but also because when this kind of postmodern relativism is let loose in fiction it more often than not produces indulgent and unreadable blather; any humanising thread is lost to to puffed up, pop-philosophical flashiness.
Thompson’s prose, however, is precise and lyrical, peppered with some exquisite turns of phrase. Even a description of a grungy, bar mirror sings: ‘The glass is dulled over with the black rust, and no reflections are visible: just a shadowy depth loitering.’ Yet he is not so in love with his own voice as to let it drown out those of his characters. Each chapter moulds itself to the character, illuminating some really finely drawn stories in which the edifices of the city never look the same way twice.
Unfortunately, in his efforts to mix things up, Thompson has a tendency to lapse into mere pastiche. This gives rise to a story like ‘The Significant City of Lazarus Glass’, centred on a Holmesian detective called Peregrine Fetch who solves murderous mysteries ‘armed with reason alone’. Lines such as these feel like they should be accompanied by a bellowing electric organ, for they spring straight from a kind of hammy radio-play oeuvre which is painfully at odds with the book’s delicately struck balance between the familiar and the uncanny.
But by the end of the novel’s frayed and affecting closing chapter, equilibrium is restored; these generic excursions becoming a minor blight on an otherwise rich and ambitious literary debut.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.