Communion Town by Sam Thompson
Reviewed by Nina Allan
27 July 2012
From Andrei Bely's hallucinatory Petersburg through Mikhail Bulgakov's demon-infested Moscow in The Master and Margarita, portrayals of alternative Pragues and Venices in Michal Ajvaz's The Other City and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, right up to China Mieville's London-in-New-Crobuzon and Ekaterina Sedia's Secret History of Moscow, there's ample evidence to suggest that the animal-vegetable-mineral hybrid that is the modern metropolis has provided writers of speculative fiction with some of their most potent and enduring inspiration. A lot of writers like living in cities because cities don't bug you and pry into your business the way villages or provincial towns do. You can be reclusive without seeming weird. You can stay hidden without having to hide. It's more than that, though. Writers love cities because they contain within them enough material—historical, cultural, psychogeographical—to provide fuel for a lifetime of writing. You never come to the end of a great city, and because the world’s cities often have more in common with each other than they do with smaller conurbations within their own immediate geographic, there exists a kind of camaraderie of the city dweller that reaches readily across national boundaries. Cities have an aesthetic that rises above the bland heritage-style beauty of the tourist advertisement. Cities invariably add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Such is the premise of Communion Town, the debut novel of Oxford-based author Sam Thompson. It's an unusual creation, something of a shapeshifter. It's being marketed by Fourth Estate very much as mainstream literary fiction, but for me this book is a star exemplar of the kind of speculative fiction I most like to read, the kind of effortlessly graceful, acutely imagined fantasy that exists on the borderlands of reality and where half the magic at least is provided by the writer’s skill with language.
Described on the jacket blurb as "a city in ten chapters," Communion Town is presented to us as a sequence of self-contained episodes, or stories, each with a different narrator or point of view, each revealing—rather in the manner of a series of gorgeously illuminated tracts—an alternate or adjoining aspect of the whole. As we travel through the book—for Communion Town does indeed present an exhilarating literary counterfeit of a physical journey—we learn more about the city, both culturally and geographically. We learn that the students and immigrants mostly lodge in shabby Serelight, that Glory Part is the meatpacking district and the haunt of dangerous criminals, that Belltown is the university quarter, that the tree lined avenues of Lizavet and Rosamunda are lined with the gracious mansions of the moneyed classes. There are echoes of London, echoes of Marseille and Tangier. Ultimately though, Communion Town is unique, like all other cities, in being only like itself:
Each morning I walked home ahead of first light. I left the meatpacking district by the back streets, passing the canal, the dockland warehouses and the garment factories, then cutting down the length of the Strangers' Market. I liked that time of the day, the maritime atmosphere that filled the district for an hour, and the sense of depletion before sleep. The air opened, the dew fell, and the decaying industrial hindquarter of the city showed another side: you saw that, beneath the wear and the work, it was pretty. The silhouettes of the chimneys and the derricks were one shade darker than the sky. (p. 145)
There's something unsettling about Thompson's imaginary city. On the surface, life there seems agreeable and freewheeling, but there is a feeling of threat behind the scenes, a sense that so long as you stick to the major tourist sites you’ll be okay, but wander away from the track and you might disappear forever. The opening chapter tells the story of two asylum seekers. They're trying to get the necessary permissions to remain in Communion Town, but what happens to them in the subway might suggest they were unwise in their choice of sanctuary. In subsequent chapters we’re shown some very dodgy working practices inside an abattoir, a repressive feudal system that still prevails in outlying areas, stark and thorny divides between rich and poor. Elements of the fantastic blend effortlessly with the mundane, portraying not so much an unreality as a hyper-reality, a reality in which the strangest happenings are presented as normal. The cumulative effect is lusciously hypnotic.
The narrative of Communion Town initially poses as travelogue but quickly reveals itself as something more interesting. Each of the novel's ten chapters is a story in its own right, but more than that, each of the stories is a closely worked exercise in writing around the confines of a specific genre. Thus "Gallathea" is a hardboiled noir, "Good Slaughter" is a serial killer thriller, "The Significant City of Lazarus Glass" is a classic whodunit. But these finely wrought stylistic essays are much more than literary jokes. Far from having a laugh at genre's expense, the stories in Communion Town are more like love letters, declarations of allegiance in which Thompson demonstrates that he is a writer of genuine quality. He brings situations and characters to life with wit and panache, yet the underlying melancholy and uncertainty in these tales mean that they are also replete with a genuine emotion. Thompson's "ear" for nuance and style is, quite frankly, extraordinary. His considerable linguistic dexterity allows him to pay homage to the styles of past masters even as he critiques them.
All night I had worked alone amid columns of case notes, kept company by the raindrops that flung themselves at the windows, but now I heard hurried footsteps in the street below. Moments later I was joined by Inspector Nimrod of the City Watch.
The inspector's greeting was gruff as usual, but he was evidently in a state of some agitation, short of breath and sweating in spite of the cold. Beads of moisture clung to his leather car-jacket. He looked around the clutter of the office.
"Dr Fetch not here? You don't know his whereabouts?"
He swallowed, the point of his throat leaping.
"Then I fear the worst." (p. 190)
From these lines, taken from the opening of Chapter Seven, "The Significant City of Lazarus Glass," an utterly compelling story is extrapolated. Both tone and stylistic mannerism cannot fail to evoke the shade of Conan Doyle, yet Thompson's writing digs so much deeper than pastiche, this is knowing and erudite gamesmanship of the highest order. It's the same in "Gallathea," which shamelessly parodies Raymond Chandler whilst at the same time demonstrating enough of its own pace and intrigue to keep us fascinated by the story even as we acknowledge the nods and winks as to its origins. Donna Tartt meets M. R. James in "Outside the Days," a pleasingly sinister story with a denouement that made me laugh out loud, and in "Three Translations" we experience the discomfiting effect of seeing Lovecraftian cosmic horror being forced into collusion with a contemporary coming of age tale. I loved especially "A Way to Leave," in which Thompson demonstrates that he is as familiar with the gravelly mood music that characterises the urban slipstream of, say, M. John Harrison as he is with the baroque splendours of his literary forefathers:
He could no longer see the house, having stared so long that it was only a group of dim flat shapes which hovered featureless behind the streetlamps. He had nowhere to go and night had fallen, but he climbed the steps, picked up his rucksack and, to justify himself the more completely, dropped his keys through the letterbox, becoming aware as he did so of the city's empty spaces lying open around him in every direction. From somewhere came the echo of an uneven footstep and for an instant he glimpsed water flowing across yellow-white tiles, but the street was deserted. The lamps tilted slow pinwheels of light. He paused and looked back before he turned the corner, but no one prevented him from leaving. (p. 272)
There's even an image from Tarkovsky's Stalker in there if you look for it!
From the first page till the last Communion Town is devastatingly readable. Each chapter presents a mystery to be solved, not just in the matter of its style but in the tensely wrought actions and emotional lives of its characters. There are some truly beautiful speculative concepts to be unearthed here: a city within a city as elusive as any so far dreamed up by China Miéville, a story that communicates madness, a ritual so unnerving it breeds blank forgetfulness. There are monsters of men, men that may be monsters. There's murder and impossible love.
Above all there is the beauty of the English language. A book like this, where sheer technical ability so perfectly matches the literary ambition that inspired the work in the first place, is rare and should be treasured. That such attributes should coincide in a debut novel is a cause for substantial jealousy.
Whether Communion Town is in fact a novel is a question each reader should be encouraged to answer for themselves, but I personally would say that it is not. Christopher Priest's most recent novel The Islanders, for example, employs a multi-stranded technique that revels in its non-linearity, but it quickly becomes clear to any reader that, far from presenting a random assortment of facts, documents and story fragments, the disjointed narratives of The Islanders do actually add up to something, and that in the final analysis the book is very much a unitary novel. Similarly with David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, another famous example of the multi-narrative. The book's six sections, which open outwards around a post-apocalyptic centre, use similar techniques of stylistic variation and interrupted narrative, but although each chapter is densely evocative in its own right, any successful reading of the novel depends on its nested sections being read in their entirety and strictly in order. Omit one, and the edifice falls. This is not true of Communion Town—the ten chapters are capable of existing in isolation from each other and indeed any one of them could have been published successfully as a standalone story. The chapters gain from being read consecutively and some characters do recur but the individual episodes do not need each other in order to make sense. I would argue that this does not matter in the least, that a collection of linked stories has as much literary value as a novel and indeed the format is a favourite among many readers. It's simply that to call Communion Town a novel is a misnomer, and I can only conclude that it has been branded as such for marketing purposes.
If I were forced to state one reservation about this marvellous book it would lie in the very matter of its virtuosity. Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, with its sometimes uncanny acuity of voice, has frequently been accused of literary ventriloquism, its detractors arguing that Mitchell has so many voices that in fact he doesn't have one at all. While I remain very much a Mitchell fan, as my journey through Sam Thompson's debut came to its close it occurred to me that perhaps something of the same could be said of Communion Town, which with its show-stopping impersonations and super-pastiches does rather, once the dust has settled, leave you wondering what Thompson's own writerly accent might be like. Indeed it has to be said that Thompson the writer remains stubbornly hidden throughout the performance, a puppet master behind the scenes. While I would recommend the show he puts on unreservedly, to anyone, my admiration for his skill does not stop me feeling curious about what the puppeteer does on his evening off. What language does he in fact speak, what clothes does he wear?
I am bound to conclude that Communion Town does not provide a proper answer to these questions. But Sam Thompson is such a persuasive and involving writer that I'm more than prepared to wait around and find out.