Communion Town by Sam Thompson
I really wanted to like Communion Town, the collection of linked stories by Sam Thompson. For one, I’m a fan of “city stories,” such as Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities or the cities of China Miéville and the like. I’m also generally a big fan of the structure — a series of stories linked by theme or setting or some other threading material. And while there was a good amount to like in the collection, in the end it fell down a bit too much for me as a piece, though I’d recommend several of the stories.
The book is subtitled “A City in Ten Chapters” and that’s pretty much what one gets: a series of stories set in the same city, though the stories present us different points of view, and here was one of my issues with Communion Town. I think Thompson intentionally wants these different characters to present us a different city, but from my point of view it was a little too different. I wanted the city to be just a little more consistent, so that I had a sense that I was being shown different faces of the same place, different faces of the same crystal perhaps. But instead, the city didn’t hold together as a singular entity — it felt too often like cities rather than a city.
Along the same lines, I wished both for more and less connective tissue between the stories. A few times we see a character or an event from another story appear in the background or fly by like one of those “did I just see that — let’s replay that on the DVR” on The Simpsons. These kinds of connections didn’t come frequently enough nor were they substantive enough for me. On the other hand, the thematic connection — a focus on storytelling — was a bit too on the nose for me. And here I’m willing to allow that some might say I’m putting Thompson in a no-win situation here, so I’ll just note what I wanted was a balance I didn’t quite get and leave it to others as to whether I’m an impossibly picky judge.
I think partly because of the above, Communion Town felt only slightly more novelistic than an anthology of stories and thus, like many collections of short stories, it turned out to be a mixed bag — with some excellent stories, some good ones, some middling ones, and some weak ones. The balance tipped toward the positive for sure, but not quite as much as I had hoped.
The eponymous opener is one of the stronger ones, a creepily “concerned” interrogation of a recent immigrant to this “rubblescape” city dealing with “terrorists” and “monsters.” The questioner seems almost supernatural in his/her ability to spy on the city’s inhabitants:
You mustn’t be surprised if I seem to know a good deal about your life over the past three months: maybe more than you know yourself. The fact is I’ve been here all along. You won’t have seen me, but I’ve kept a discreet eye on your progress… I was there with you — at least in the sense that matters most. I’m good at not being seen, and in my job locked doors aren’t a problem.
The reveal may not carry the weight intended, but it’s an intriguing entry into this world and the last paragraph brings us nicely forward. The second story, “The Song of Serelight Fair,” had a lot of potential, especially with the glimpses we see of the true strange, but petered out, going on too long for my liking and beginning to feel in some ways like an piece in a college creative writing class, though far better written.
The next three rise to a higher level — “The City Room,” about a young boy who is reconstructing the city on a smaller scale in his home; “Gallathea,” a Raymond Chandler pastiche; and “Good Slaughter,” told from the point of view of a slaughterhouse worker who worries his boss might be the Flaneur, each inhabit their singular point of views fully, showing off Thompson’s voice skills (though “Gallathea,” like the second story and several others, ends up overstaying its welcome). Here, for instance, is a bit of narrator tough-guy speak:
I gave Don my coolest eyeball.
‘You’re wasting your time, boys.’
‘Awful sorry to hear that, Hal.’ Don’s eyebrows were kissing caterpillars. ‘I always thought you was a sensible man.’
I shrugged as well as I could . . . Next thing I was on my out of the joint, the fist of a Cherub brother clamped on each shoulder like it meant to separate ball from socket. On the upside, the journey cost me nothing in shoe leather.
And then our slaughterhouse worker:
The good slaughterer belongs only to the killing floor. At dawn, when he crosses the threshold of the abattoir, he must disappear. He must forget the version of himself which knows how simply it is to end the lives of warm-blooded animals, because that is not the person we want walking around the city… The good slaughterer can’t live in two places. He has to choose between the city and the abattoir. He has no story of his own; that’s something he has to do without, because he has no place in the world outside.
Thompson plays the pastiche game again with “The Significant City of Lazarus Glass,” whodunit in the vein of Sherlock Holmes. Again, I really enjoyed the voice here, but also, again, the reveal doesn’t I think quite have the impact Thompson is going for; one can see it from a mile away (especially if one has seen Unbreakable). Unfortunately, two or three of the last five are some of the weaker ones and surprisingly similar in their Saki-like tone and structure.
While the stories vary in their quality, it’s mostly due to the narrative elements. Stylistically, Thompson is consistently strong, not only displaying an impressive control of voice as mentioned above, but also showing a regular ability to come up with a precise detail, some vivid imagery, or a well-turned phrase. Communion Town didn’t quite have the consistency I was hoping for, but the excellent nature of several of its stories and Thompson’s consistent stylistic panache will have me more than interested in picking up his next work. As for this one, while I wouldn’t recommend it as a purchase, I would recommend it as a library pick-up for its several quite strong stories.
You did a great job of making me want to read it, while calibrating my expectations! Nice review.
I do tend to think of a city as a collection of neighborhoods, a conglomeration rather than a single thing, so I might like this better than you.
I’ll be curious what you think if you do. As noted, I think there are several quite good stories in there, so it is worth checking out
I read this a couple of years back and I think the review is spot on. I felt the early glimmers and explorations of weirdness set up an expectation that was never fully resolved for me by the later tales, which were a little more heavy-handed and direct in their treatment of these elements.