Fortune’s always hiding
By Max Dunbar.
Communion Town, Sam Thompson, Fourth Estate 2012
‘If it sounds like writing, rewrite it,’ Elmore Leonard once said, and the author of this novel could have taken his advice. Communion Town is overmannered throughout, filled with contrived imagery, shocking adverbs and dangling pseudo-profundities. The book starts out promising, with the welcome of a second-person narrator to a mythical city. There is lots of great detail on border control, unfamiliar transport and subsidised lodging with ‘several generations of a large family quarrelling on the other side of a wall.’ This city is not real but it mirrors our own.
Yet the tone turns you off, smugly knowing, complacent wisdom, mannerisms covering mannerisms: police officers rendered as ‘two big raw hams in uniforms’; a fight consists of a ‘crisp headbutt and a discharge of abuse’; the narrator says of a homeless man that ‘I would not have been surprised to learn that he had a trust fund to support his loafing, his radical posturing.’ Often, there’s nothing technically wrong with this, it is competent writing – but it shrieks self-regard and drowns out everything else.
The book has multiple narrators, but Thompson’s uniformity of style makes them indistinguishable. The only time Thompson doesn’t write like a UEA teacher’s pet is when he’s doing pastiche. In the story ‘Gallathea’ he does a Chandler pastiche: ‘It was summer: hard summer. The city was chafing in its sweat and had been for weeks now.’ Except this is an ironic Chandler story, which means that it’s not really storytelling; rather the narrative comprises, like so many of Thompson’s stories, a series of random, circling, self-defeating events. The irony of postmodernism is that writing an unironic detective story with a beginning, middle and end involves so much more skill and dexterity. Communion Town is a street hustler’s three card monte.
The highpoint of the book is a story titled ‘The Significant City of Lazarus Glass’. This is another detective pastiche, a Holmes Victoriana one this time. It draws on the classical method of loci or memory palace, where scholars would store information in imaginary buildings. One of Thompson’s scholars recreates a childhood home within her skull, into which she codifies names, books, information: but ‘surprising things could happen in memory houses. To embody ideas in such a fashion was to imbue them with unpredictable life.’ One day the scholar is unnerved to find, in the careful garden of memory, a sudden spreading bindweed of old regrets and vendettas in which she can ‘recognise the forgotten wrongs that some of the older plants represented.’ Worse, the scholar has taught the secret of memoria artificialis to the title’s rebellious student. He grows up into a Moriarty-style villain who has extended his own memory house into a memory city, a womb garden that rivals the real in every detail, so he can no longer tell when one enters into the other. ‘Every action, however tiny, alters the meaning of the whole system,’ raves Lazarus Glass. ‘Why do you suppose the city quivers daily with my crimes?’
This could have been the hub of the book, perhaps was meant to be, but there is no coherence. The city is at one point haunted by a serial killer called ‘the Flâneur (always with the circumflex) which recurs as a statue, and Stephen in the campus story ‘Outside the Days,’ a figure of admiration and envy for the pale neophyte narrator, is a flâneur of a kind. There is a terrorist atrocity of the recent past, that is mentioned in chapter one but never again. Only the landmarks and distincts provide continuity.
Thompson’s strength is in his blend of the surreal with the real. Replacing taxis with rickshaws is a nice touch. In ‘The Song of Serelight Fair’ an aspiring musician, who pays the rent by toting late-night drunks home from bars in the fashionable quarter, is seduced by a wealthy student. She takes him to meet her family in Communion Town’s equivalent of the rural shires. On a tour of the father’s estate, we see the corpses of seasonal labourers, on the back of a truck: ‘Their limbs were cramped and bent, as rigid as wood, and their fingers had twisted into arthritic claws. Two were quite motionless but the third shivered feverishly.’ The foreman explains:
‘Nothing out of the ordinary. They get worse every season. Can’t take care of themselves. They want to lay around in the Liberties half the year, then, come harvest time, ride the bus down and work fourteen straight hours. No surprise some of them fall apart. Don’t have the gumption, and so we end up with this. Eh?’
There are many moments like this, where something real is dropped into an alien landscape, and the very incongruity of it makes us see the known detail in an entirely new way.
Even this evocation doesn’t work all the time. Thompson is hit and miss with his place names, which is like the problem novelists have with character names; some names sound like they live and breathe everything about a person, others sound, well, made up. (For example, ‘Serelight Fair’ captures all the possibilities and summer air of every bohemian quarter whereas ‘Sludd’s Liberty’, the rough part of town, just sounds like Dickens on a deadline and a bad hangover.) No, you expect better from a novel compared to Ghostwritten and Italo Calvino, and longlisted for the Booker.
And yet despite its flaws Communion Town does give us something of the mystery of the city. The narrator of ‘Outside the Days’ reflects that, on graduation, he should have ‘skipped into the next escapade without a backward look, but instead I’ve stayed here at the edge of what I’ve never quite understood but which enthrals me the way it always did.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 13th, 2012.