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.