Communion Town, by Sam Thompson

Purchased from the Book Depository

Fair warning: The positive review that you are about to read of Communion Town is very much at odds with most reader response. Sam Thompson’s Booker-longlisted “novel” has been rated by eight readers at Trevor’s Man Booker discussion site: seven of the eight rank it last (a couple have even abandoned it) and the other has it ninth out of 12 — these are committed Booker readers so that is about as complete a rejection as you can get. Given that, my fourth place ranking (I liked the book, but didn’t love it) looks like a ringing endorsement.

Communion Town carries a subtitle (A City in Ten Chapters) and that points to part of the problem. “City” novels are a frequent theme — John Lanchester’s London in Capital, Teju Cole’s New York in Open City and Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Toronto in Ghosted would be just three recent examples reviewed here.

Unlike those three, however, Thompson’s city bears no resemblance at all to one that the reader might know and love. Sometimes it seems to be a version of London or Los Angeles. It has a port and fishing markets, bringing to mind Marseille or Naples. In yet other chapters, it seems Asian, even African. In short, this “city” is a composite, not a representation, so even lovers of “city” novels are going to experience frustration.

And then there are the 10 chapters. One reader observed on Trevor’s site that they read more like badly conceived essays on the urban phenomenon than short fiction, let alone a novel. While there is a certain consistency to geographic and civil society references, there are no common characters — we not only can’t identify the city, we have no notion of who lives there beyond the laundry list that is presented in 10 chapters.

My first step in departing from those negative critical assessments and putting some structure to the book is to cite the history of “the Flâneur”, a forebidding character referenced in a number of the stories but one who never appears directly in any chapter.

According to Wikipedia, Charles Baudelaire is credited with defining the flâneur:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world — impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.

Walter Benjamin described the flâneur “as the essential figure of the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city. More than this, his flâneur was a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism.”

It took a few stories but it was clear to me that there was a good reason why the Flâneur never appears in the collection: each of the 10 narrators is himself or herself a flâneur, “a modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city.”

Consider the narrator of “Gallathea”, at 44 pages one of the longest of the 10 chapters. In some of them (perhaps more than I recognized) Thompson offers (not very good) parodies/homages to well known authors — a distraction that I suspect many may find annoying. In this one, the narrator is a version of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and the city seems a lot like mid-twentieth century Los Angeles.

The narrator, an investigator, is having a drink at Meaney’s when the Cherub boys, Don and Dave, call him over and mention the name of a girl:

‘I’m talking about the girl,’ said Don, slowly, watching me. ‘You telling me you don’t know her?’

‘Like I said. Can’t help you.’

Dave licked his plate, his eyes above the white disc rolling from me to his brother and back again. Don sizzled his cigarette down to the filter in one draught. My ribs felt him inhale but were in no position to raise objections.

‘Don’t signify,’ he said. ‘Fing is, we know this certain brass is looking for you. Got a job she wants done. We come here to tell you you ain’t to do it.’

The Cherubs drag the narrator out of Meaney’s and beat him up to underline their point. He meets the “brass” eventually and accepts the job. He gets beat up some more. Like Spade or Marlowe, the “contract” takes him into a complex environment (as a flâneur) that he can’t really come to understand, despite his best efforts.

Most of the stories are like that — characterized by absence, ambiguity and random violence more than anything else. A number feature the reacquaintance of individuals who know each other from some distant past, fell out for whatever reason and have met again by chance, or perhaps not. Whatever — even in those stories, neither character quite understands what is going around them. The prospect of “resolution” in any of these cloudy circumstances was summed up for me in a paragraph in “Good Slaughter”:

As I stood there, I felt future time crowding into the present moment. A kind of serenity came over me as I saw that by doing nothing I was agreeing to a burden of guilt that would not lessen for as long as I lived. It was all quite clear: how in this instant my sole chance to intervene was passing, and how bitterly, later, I would wish to turn time back and do it differently. One more breath and the city would sweep the waiting future away from me. I was making a choice. Stale in the back of my throat, I could taste the self-condemnations to come over years and decades: why did you stand there? Why did you not do something good when you had the chance? I saw what a tiresome riddle it would become, why I had bowed my head in apology, turned and continued to my lodgings.

POTENTIAL SPOILER AHEAD but it explains how the novel came together for me.

Communion Town was an interesting, if frustrating, collection of incomplete flâneur stories until chapter seven arrived: “The Significant City of Lazarus Glass”. Thompson plays with Sherlock Holmes in this one with the narrator, Cassandra Byrd, filling the role of Watson. Peregrine Fetch is the Holmes figure, the city’s most outstanding detective. The case at hand involves the murder on the previous evening of the city’s three other prominent detectives; they, plus Peregrine, have been jointly chasing the demon Lazarus Glass, someone they had all trained with before Glass opted for the other side.

One of those three, Electra Cavendish-Peake, had at one point in the past become entranced with researching a classical notion, the Art of Memory, and she had introduced the idea to both Fetch and Glass:

To convey to him what she had in mind, she read aloud the passage from the Confessions in which Augustine speaks of the ‘spacious palaces of memory where countless images are hoarded, brought in from all the diverse objects perceived by the senses’, and adds: ‘There too are hidden the altered images we create in our minds by enlarging or diminishing or otherwise transforming the things we perceive.’

That was the crux of it, Electra said: altered images. It was true that, with long and gruelling study, a practitioner of the Art could learn to retrieve all the lost junk and treasure hidden away in the attics of the mind, and to arrange everything in order: each image in its place, tidy and accessible. But it was also true that surprising things could happen in memory houses. To embody such ideas in such a fashion was to imbue them with unpredictable life. They might move around when you were not there; they might change and grow in ways you had not expected.

Electra abandoned the idea but Lazarus did not. Not only did he build a memory house, he built a memory city — this one. And in the process discovered that it not only reflected the past, it offered a map to the future.

The city of Communion Town is just such a “memory city”. Each narrator is a “modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city”. Like all remembered incidents, each story is ambiguous and incomplete but as they begin to accumulate, they start to build a semi-coherent picture.

I’ll need to read the novel again, but on the re-read I intend to position each of the narrators as an individual (and perhaps there is only one) embarked on the same pursuit — despite the varied genders and experience, each is involved in building a “memory city” that not only captures the past in all its forms but attempts to build a structure that will foretell the future. What does the crowd look like, how has it behaved and where might it be headed? That’s what makes Communion Town a novel, rather than a collection of ten stories or essays about some confused place — by definition, flâneurs are wandering through confusion, their role is to try to build some notion of sense. The parts need to be compiled into a whole.

Those who know the work of John Berger will find some familiar conundrums here — sorry, my reading of Berger pre-dated my blogging but you can find a number of excellent reviews of his work from Max at Pechorin’s Journal. Berger tends towards much simpler circumstances than an entire city but the idea of capturing the frustration of ambiguity and uncertainty (“impartial natures which the tongue can but clumisly define” to quote Baudelaire again) is a constant presence in his work.

I’d love to say that Thompson did this perfectly but my fourth place ranking in the Booker longlist (even if it is many ranks higher than others who have read the book) is indication enough that he did not totally succeed — perhaps a second reading will move the novel up in my estimation. Communion Town is definitely not a book for everybody, but for readers who are willing to join an author in an ambitious search, flawed as the results might be, it is a valiant and worthwhile effort, one that I was glad to have undertaken. I will let it steep for a while but look forward to a second reading — and a place on the Booker shortlist (juries often are out of step with readers) would provide the perfect excuse.

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12 Responses to “Communion Town, by Sam Thompson”

  1. Lee Monks Says:

    A fine review and a fair riposte to the general antipathy. Communion Town seems in no way the weakest of the longlist, if some way from being worthy of serious consideration. Not long to wait to see if the judges at least do the honourable thing and ditch the real weaklings. And the imminent Giller longlist should be interesting.

    • MHG Says:

      Hi Lee. I am sure the Prize jury as a whole doesn’t think it has picked weaklings and my reading so far – 10.5/12 – is making me think that this is a particularly strong longlist. I notice on the Booker forum that you have only ranked Umbrella and The Yips and said forget the rest. Have you actually read the rest or is this just based on others’ comments? And if you have read the rest, which entries do you see as the real weaklings?

      • Lee Monks Says:

        MHG: I have read (or partly read) all. I can respect an element of craft in all of them but, seeing as you ask, I found the Mists one insufferable, the Beauman one annoying and unremarkable and the Andre Brink one decent but whelming and we’re meant to be talking about the Booker Prize. Too much filler/two-for-three type stuff.

        Kevin: you’re right, better than last year. And I agree entirely with you and Max on ambition.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I have an affinity for authors who take chances and Thompson certainly does that. I am probably guilty of weighting my opinion more favorably because of that — I can understand why others would get frustrated with various aspects of this book.

    I do think this year’s Booker longlist is a better one than last year’s. That one had a lot of good ideas, badly executed. I have only read five this year, but all of them had some level of ambition and were are least decently done — even if some were not totally successful.

    And yes I am looking forward to tomorrow’s Giller longlist with much anticipation. I’m guessing that I will have read three or four, have a couple more on hand (a number of the most likely contenders have not been released but I have review copies or ones on the way) and fully expect to be ordering six books tomorrow. Check in tomorrow and we’ll see how that prediction turns out.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Fascinating review. I must admit at one point I was rather thinking “not very good pastiche, I think not” but the Berger reference is interesting and the concept of the flaneur is one that has long intrigued me.

    At the same time, even with that your praise is not unstinting. If you do reread it I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

    John Self as I recall abandoned it part way. I wonder if he reached chapter seven, where it turned around for you.

    On a final note, like you I have a soft spot for ambition. Better a writer doesn’t quite pull something off, than that they don’t try.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I was thinking about you and our joint enthusiasm for Berger as I was reading this. I can’t say at this point how much that reflected curiosity influenced my impression of the novel — I suspect a fair bit. You’ve caught my reservations appropriately — as much as I liked parts of it and the idea overall, Thompson does have some problems along the way. I think if you approached it in the right frame of mind with some limitations on expectations you might find it quite worthwhile.

    One of my concerns was not the “pastiche” incidentally. As I said, if you aren’t liking the book I am sure the different voices could be annoying — I thought they were more there to provide a flavor to those particular chapters. The different styles and voices landed with me more as different tones of memory — something that I think as a fair reflection of reality.

    John Self has abandoned a lot of books that I thoroughly enjoyed this year so I’m afraid that is no longer a very valuable criterion for me — he has a lot of work and family pressures competing for his time, so he understandably tends to only be finishing books that land in his wheelhouse in the first few chapters (this one is awkward enough that I could see why it didn’t — I probably would never have tried it if it hadn’t made the list).

  5. leroyhunter Says:

    While reading the review the comparison that came to mind was Paul Auster, Kevin, especially with mentions of conceits like “memory cities”. I don’t much care for Auster so that didn’t help me much. Am I wide of the mark? The flaneur – you mention Walter Benjamin, my reference would be Robert Walser – is a lovely and often very effective notion for a writer to build around.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Leroy: You are quite right to introduce Auster as a comparison. There are elements of the New York trilogy in this novel — except that Thompson is writing about a composite city, not Auster’s New York. And if Auster frustrates you, Thompson will frustrate you even more.

      I give Thompson nine out of 10 for attempting the flaneur model. He slips to about 6 when it comes to successful execution. I won’t warn you off the novel, just say that if you do pick it up do so with some reservation.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    John has excellent reasons not to press on when a book looks unpromising, my thought was more that there are some books which require a certain investment before they pay out. Most books if they haven’t got going by the time you’re a few chapters in never will get going. Some however are exceptions, and that extra investment does repay.

    The trouble is it’s impossible as a rule to tell whether a given book transforms itself once you get past a certain point, or just continues to be mediocre. Given that it’s generally a good idea to cut your losses, time’s winged chariot hurrying near and all. One just has to accept that some books that didn’t deserve it will likely get cut too.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: As to your final point, I can’t remember the last time that a book turned itself around to the positive after the halfway point. At that stage I was mainly reading Communion Town because it wasn’t as “bad” as the commentors on Trevor’s site made it out to be (so…sheer obstinance on my part). And then the “memory city” idea supplied a context that put the previous pages into some notion of sense — I can’t remember the last time that happened. And certainly can’t fault those who had abandoned this book long before they got to that point.

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have one that did it Kevin, an Aldous Huxley (Antic Hay I think, though I may be getting my titles muddled up). I hated the book in question until the last chapter, which recast what had gone before sufficiently that I reappraised the entire novel.

    As a rule though if a book looks like it won’t repay my interest I abandon it. One counterexample from the days when I felt obliged to finish books isn’t sufficient cause to disregard the general principle that if a book is bad at page 204 it won’t turn into Tolstoy on page 205.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Interesting that you should raise Huxley. It has been decades since I read him (and I don’t feel much compulsion to revisit him) but I do remember that he was an author who you had to keep on reading to find an entry into the book. I quite liked him then but obviously my admiration hasn’t continued into my old age.

      And I would agree that a book that turns good after the halfway point is the exception that proves the rule. If it is bad by page 100, that’s enough for me. Perhaps that means that I have missed a few gems in my time, but I am pretty sure that positive reactions from others would have led me to go back to them anyway. (And in no way does that mean that I am going to embark on a reading of Bolano — I know I don’t like him, even if others rave.)

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