Communion Town by Sam Thompson (2012) 278 p.
I do have such wonderful taste in Booker Prize predictions – I finished this one the day it was dropped from the list.
Communion Town is a “city in ten chapters,” which is a fancy way of saying that it’s a bunch of short stories with a few mild links, all taking place inside the same constantly shifting, everywhere-but-nowhere metropolis. I’m quite partial to stories that explore and celebrate the concept of the city – see Brandon Graham, China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, and, I suppose, Philip Reeve. Communion Town may well be the book that breaks that spell for me. I found myself not only disliking its obsession with the the city, but disliking even the fact that Thompson thought anyone might be interested in it.
The city of Communion Town is unnamed, many of the characters in the stories are unnamed, and even the more interesting parts of the book – the nameless horrors which lurk in the night-time alleyways, desperately accosting people to “tell them a story” – go unnamed and unexplained. Thompson usually deals more in thought and introspection and summary than he does in concrete things like dialogue and scene and, well, plot. The city is meant to be every city, any city, no city – which works less as a celebration of urbanity and more as an irritating conceit which prevents the book from ever achieving any sense of place. Thompson’s preference for generalisations over specifics, for summary over scene, quickly becomes tiresome. Example:
Every pleasure palls. In a short time Stephen had learnt to drink deep of experimental delights that would have frightened most of us if we understood them, but the richer the meal, the sooner the appetite wanes, and the epicurean longs for more exotic flavours. He never saw himself as a sybarite; he thought of his explorations as light-hearted, even a kind of joke. But anyone can drift away from themselves when nothing is forbidden. Before he realised it the mask wouldn’t come off: he was corrupt with luxury, famished with feasting. The society knew how to watch for its moment. His mind and body were precise instruments for their own indulgence, but his imagination was sickly with exhaustion. He had fallen into the lassitude of one who has gone too far in the secret regions of experience, achieved too much in the sphere of private ambitions; now the tawdriness of the world was making him ill. His exquisite appetites troubled him more than ever but there was nothing, it seemed, that could answer anymore to his needs. He was bored.
So was I. How can you expend so many words and yet say so little? The result of passages like this – strung into stories, strung into a “novel” – is that I never connected with a single character, never connected with the city, never really cared about what was going on. It was one of those books I had to force myself to finish.
I saw nothing of the “genre pastiche” that had reviewers comparing this to the far superior David Mitchell. I only noticed two stories rendered in a deliberate genre style, that of Sam Spade and then Sherlock Holmes. Both of these were awkwardly written, with imitation prose interrupted by Thompson’s own flights of philosophical fancy – so that, for example, a gumshoe getting roughed up by thugs in a dirty alleyway pauses to notice a black and gold lizard watching him from a trash can, and reflects that he’d “never seen one like it in the city.” The stories, for the most part, lap over onto each other like waves of tedious melodrama, and I barely noticed when shifting from one to another except to mark my relief that the book was drawing closer to its conclusion.
Last year’s Booker longlist, for all its scandal about “readability,” featured a number of very interesting novels that took the trouble to tell a story. This year’s has shoved the gearstick back up to highbrow, and I’m sure Sam Thompson’s Communion Town isn’t the only nominee that sacrifices function for form; I’ve heard nightmarish things about Will Self’s Umbrella, and an article Ned Beauman wrote about himself in The Awl was marinated in arrogance and put me off ever reading any of his books. The Booker committee is welcome to their summer of difficult, tedious novels that are more pre-occupied with self-absorbed experimentation than they are with telling stories or saying something worthwhile.
I could end the review there, but I feel like I’ve been a bit too vitriolic for a first novel, so I’ll mention a couple of redeeming factors. Thompson is certainly skilled with the written word, and there are sentences or passages of description in Communion Town which paint a vivid picture and genuinely stand out. (He just needs to learn to restrain himself when delving into his characters’ mental geography.) The book is an experiment in what can be accepted as a novel, and originality should always be encouraged. (He just needs to realise that experimentation must be tempered, and that not everyone will be as interested in his conceits as he is.) And, finally, I’m in the minority- most people seem to have liked Communion Town. So there you go, make your own decision.