“It’s Important To Pay Attention to the Details”: Sam Thompson’s “Communion Town”

In the spirit of equal opportunities, and having poked Christopher Priest’s review of Jack Glass last week, I suppose I should start this post by picking a fight with a review by Adam Roberts. It isn’t easy to find fault with his recent blog post about Sam Thompson’s debut, Booker longlisted novel, Communion Town (it is more accurately a sequence of ten linked short stories), and much of what you’ll read here is eminently sensible; but it’s also a shade more positive than I might be about to make my own review. “Will Thompson win the Booker Prize?” Roberts asks. “Maybe, though not with this novel.” The good Professor resolves that Thompson has promise, but that Communion Town is an immature expression of it. I might correct this view immediately by suggesting that Communion Town seems to me to have rather a looser grip on itself (oo-er) that that position might suggest, except for Nina Allan at Strange Horizons:

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.

My own experience of the book was of its essential thinness, however. How to reconcile these two readings? I’m not sure it’s possible, but allow me at least to illustrate the counter-argument. Communion Town is replete with characters, voices and genres – each of the ten stories features a different combination – and yet it feels weirdly static. It is simultaneously chock-full of the variety Allan praises, and entirely without it. In large part, I think, this is a function of the unearned quality which so much of Thompson’s writing seems to own. Sometimes, this is the result of a resort to cheap effect: the second story, a faintly adolescent romance with added (poorly evoked) songwriting, begins: “The first time we met, she was climbing into a rickshaw” [pg. 29]; barely a few lines later, we learn that it is the narrator’s rickshaw into which the woman in question is climbing, the indefinite article employed not in line with an internal logic of narration, but in order to catch us short when our narrator turns out to be a poor person. At other points, it’s a matter of giving into the temptation of over-simplistic pastiche: in ‘The Significant Case of Lazarus Glass’, Thompson has his Holmesian protagonist say, “It is in any case a nice knot, this business with Lazarus, not without certain points of interest.” [pg. 195]   Quoting is not the same as evoking.

There is also an extent to which the, to use Roberts’s nomenclature, Pratchett-Harrison-Gaiman-Miéville line followed by Thompson  is neither as vividly nor as carefully drawn here as it is in the work of his forebears. The city in which the metro station of Communion Town can be found is not just London – it is also Paris and Istanbul, Rio and Atlantis. It is a hodgepodge, an at times wilfully allegorical place: “You might spend a lifetime in the city and never glimpse one, if you’re lucky,” we learn of the monsters that inhabit the city, “but few of us escape the occassional reminder of their presence.” [pg. 8]   I might have had issues with China Miéville’s concretising of this metaphor-for-homelessness in The City & The City, but it at least had the virtue of courage. For all the glimpses we receive of the geography of Thompson’s city – the student quarter here, the playground of the rich and famous there – there remains something of the ingénue about it: teasing, and ultimately rather vapid. Thompson foregrounds this habitual withholding in his story ‘Outside The Days’ (“Something had been waiting for him in the derelict house. He didn’t want to describe it.” [pg. 236]), but, tellingly, that story ultimately comes across as a lyrical description of water-treading.

Barring the clangs of generic bum notes, in fact, Thompson’s prose is his principle ally. In ‘The City Room’, a story featuring a small boy who builds a model of the urban space in his bedroom, he tidily captures the mindset of its protagaonist in a scene set in a toyshop: “He wanted a goody but he did not know which were which: they looked at one and his grandmother said it must be a goody because the baddy would not have such a sad expression on his face. He agreed. One figure was a girl, the only girl allowed in Captain Maximum’s team. He did not look at her in case his grandmother noticed.” [pg. 88]   Or here, closing the elegiac ‘A Way To Leave’: “As the rooms darkened, early evening light came up in the windows and faded from blue to grey, offering a last view of the heath and the rooftops. She took the pocket street atlas from the drawer of the hall table, then changed her mind and put it back. She buttoned her coat, and, after consideration, left a lamp on in the hall.” [pg. 278]

This is elegant, pregnant stuff. But it is also insistent: the goody and baddy palaver, the heavy symbolism of putting a map back in a drawer. In ‘Good Slaughter’, a man who makes his living butchering animals takes up precisely the criminal pastime you might expect. ‘Gallathea’, meanwhile, has what Roberts rightly calls “a slightly clumsily ventriloquized Chandler tone”. It’s all a bit pat, a tiny bit safe. Despite this, few of the stories stand up outside of the supporting novelistic architecture, which is itself rather slim. There is, in other words, a sense of a simultaneous absence and profusion of consideration: on the level of the sentence, too intent on emphasising the purpose, if not the plot, of the story; and on the level of the world, far too little focus on real material weight.

In ‘Three Translations’, a story featuring something like a gap year student which turns out – surprise! – to be about foreignness, the narrator’s visiting friend opines that “she hated this city that made her seem so stupid” [pg. 180]. One wonders if this isn’t what Thompson wants us all to feel, and whether we are meant to conclude that the problem with the visitor is that she finds this experience discomfiting: embrace, we are exhorted, the bewildering unknowability of the city. This isn’t quite what Thompson gives us in practice, however: coyness isn’t the same as mystery. In ‘The Rose Tree’, the narrative revolves around what is imparted when a man on an evening walk meets a strange creature: “It told him a secret. A story about itself, that was what it told him. Later, the details escaped him completely.” [pg. 249]   This is less learning from unknowability, more revelling in it.

Ultimately, the reader experiences Communion Town as a kind of semiotic limbo. Thompson is good at atmosphere, and provoking this feeling may well have been his intent: if so, he is indeed a talented writer as Roberts suggests. But one wonders what kind of a talent this is, and whether Thompson will need (and here perhaps I arrive at last on the same page as Nina Allan) to develop its effect  if he is to make good on its promise.

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