A Novel by Sam Thompson
2012 / 288 Pages
The Setup: ‘Have you noticed how each of us conjures up our own city?’
Every city is made of stories: stories that meet and diverge, stories of the commonplace and the strange, of love and crime, of ghosts and monsters.
Reminiscent of David Mitchell’s GHOSTWRITTEN and Italo Calvino’s INVISIBLE CITIES, this is the story of a place that never looks the same way twice: a place imagined anew by each citizen who walks through the changing streets among voices half-heard, signs half-glimpsed and desires half-acknowledged.
This is the story of a city. (From the hardcover edition)
This review was simultaneously published on Opinionless on 08/19/2012
With the exception of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which is a fairly straightforward by the numbers ordeal, all of entries that make up this year’s Man Booker longlist seem to share at least one commonality. In their own way each title attempts to challenge the reader’s idea of what they believe a novel should be. As its subtitle succinctly points out, Communion Town does so by playing with the boundaries imposed by standardized structure. Is this truly “A City in Ten Chapters” or is it a series of short stories cleverly disguised as a novel, much like that other undeserving mess of a “collection” that won the Pulitzer Prize two years ago because writing in PowerPoint is oh-so-clever? The answer is that it’s clearly both, but in the case of this one, that’s a very good thing.
One of my fellow BookerMarkers was irate at Will Self and abandoned his longlisted title Umbrella before finishing it, throwing up her hands in frustration and lamenting the lack of editing, paragraphs, chapters, formatting etc. Self challenged her idea of what a novel should be and she resisted embracing his alterative view in favor of what she’s more comfortable with, traditional structure. To a much lesser degree Thompson plays the same game within the pages of his novel. Don’t worry, there’s formatting galore, that’s not the issue. Figuring out how everything fits together, or doesn’t, that’s where the challenge comes in.
Communion Town’s ten stories are each amazing in their own right, and there isn’t a single dud to be found among them. Telling short stories is major gamble for any writer not only because when they’re poorly written they stick out like a sore thumb, but also because we tend to look down on them as somehow being less important than full-length novels. Here however Thompson is at home with the format, creating tales that rival the best of old Twilight Zone episodes meeting old Tales from the Crypt episodes and making sweet love with them until something new is spawned as a result. They aren’t quite that quaint old black and white sci-fi masterpiece we all know and love, but neither are they that horrific color program narrated by that creepy skeleton either. Each of the tales has real heart and pulsing life of it’s own and each, in its own unique way deals directly with two different, but very universal human traits.
First is the idea that we are all in some way or another craving absolution for something, be it big or small, that we’ve done wrong. We all want to be forgiven. We all need to be forgiven. We all desire to share our experiences with others so that they don’t fall into the same traps, yet we accept that our efforts are in vain because each individual must learn on their own by trying and failing. There aren’t a lot of happy, uplifting moments to be found within Communion Town because this is primarily a novel about struggle, but at the same time I wonder how anyone could properly define “happiness” and who actually achieves it in anything greater than small, random doses. It seems like the closer we get to the things we want out of life, the more we find other things to pursue that we believe will make us even happier. Being content. That’s a nice idea in theory, but I’m not sure how many of us actually live that dream and can say we’re happy with it. We’re always craving something better and we always seem to be apologizing for something or other. What better place to go for absolution then a city called Communion Town?
Second is the idea that we’re each our own individual city made up of a population of one, shaped by the complex thoughts, emotions, and experiences we’ve either been forced to endure and/or that we thoroughly enjoyed. No person is simply one thing; in fact we can each be one of many different personalities depending on who were currently interacting with and what we’ve learned from our past dealings. In order to live and survive we each commute through our inner cities, taking what we believe are the correct routes, and when necessary detours, to ensure that our lives run smoothly and stay on track. Our decision-making isn’t always sound, but our personal history most certainly serves as a road map that helps us navigate the streets of the outer city where we have no choice but to interact with others.
Much like Ned Beauman’s longlisted novel The Teleportaton Accident, Thompson plays with the concept of time (a wholly human idea) in interesting and unexpected ways as he glides between stories set in different eras and different locations of his fictional city. He succeeds at sucking the reader into each tale, giving them just enough of what they need, and then most importantly cutting them off at just the right point and moving on.
Without a doubt many of the novels on this year’s Man Booker longlist beg to read multiple times in order to unlock the meaning behind their ultimate mystery, but none as much as Communion Town. Thompson has created a place I’d love to visit again given the time, and maybe, just maybe, I’d even take up permanent residence if given the opportunity.
This one is short list material. Count on it.