Archive for November 21st, 2012

November 21, 2012

Sam Thompson, Communion Town

A longer version of last weekend’s column. I liked Communion Town rather a lot, though not in ways that made me particularly indignant that it didn’t make the jump from Booker longlist to shortlist.

 

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“Have you noticed how each of us conjures up our own city? You have your secret haunts and private landmarks and favourite short cuts and I have mine, so as we navigate the streets each of us walks through a world of our own invention”.

There’s a sense in which any novel about a city is doomed to failure. Cities contain such vast numbers of people (stating the obvious here); strangers from different classes and backgrounds and cultures all living together within a comparatively small space. A writer writing the city is provided with an almost infinite number of stories to tell. But then there can never be one representative story of the city.  Whose experience is this, and whose does it exclude? Perhaps the only way to write a city is to tell all of its stories; or at least a representative sample that gestures towards the stories not told.

Sam Thompson’s Communion Town calls itself “A City in Ten Chapters”. It does not refer to itself as a novel, and this is perhaps justified. The ten stories that make up Communion Town are interlinked, in that they take place in the same city, occasionally echo the same phrases and share some of the same concerns. But they do not usually share characters, and they do not add up to one story.

These stories deliberately span a range of genres, from horror to crime to Chandleresque noir. It doesn’t always work – the noir is particularly weak – but where it does it is a loving tribute. “The Significant City of Lazarus Glass” is particularly good, a detective story whose somewhat predictable ending is nonetheless likeable for its skilled pastiche.

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo admits to the emperor that all his fictional cities are aspects of his own city; that to talk of them he “must speak of a first city that remains implicit”. For him that is Venice, for a fairly large chunk of the Western canon it is London. It seems obvious at first that Communion Town is in many ways “about” London. And yet when Thompson speaks of a terrorist attack on an underground train station I am not thinking of the 2005 London bombings (or even the 2004 ones that targeted Madrid), but of 2008 and particularly the bomb that went off inside Palika Bazaar. When his narrators warn newcomers to the city not to acknowledge certain sorts of people, I can only think of countless pieces of advice from well-meaning city-dwellers about how to “deal” with beggars. I think Delhi may be my implicit city, though I’m not sure if this universal applicability is among Communion Town’s strengths. Surely this would be a braver work if it was more specific?

The cover of Communion Town carries an approving blurb from the British writer China Miéville. Miéville a few years ago wrote The City and The City, a novel about the acts of unseeing that we perform in normal urban life. There’s a nameless horror that stalks the streets of Communion Town, appearing in many of these stories and demanding that it be acknowledged. In the first, title story, we learn that the town contains creatures known as “ingrates or the abject, the pharmakoi or the homines sacri”; scapegoats whom one does not acknowledge directly, but whom one knows to be “intrinsically wrong” and who are in some way connected with the “Cynics” who perpetuate a terrorist attack upon a major train station. In “The Rose Tree” we learn that the people of the town dare not go out at night for fear of the creature that will tell you its story, an act that will have awful consequences. “Outside the Days” has a young man who rashly seeks it out but cannot bear to hear its truth – the half-told tale haunts him ever after. One of the protagonists of “Ways to Leave” has turned his search for the creature into a pilgrimage, but he repeatedly thwarts his own goal. He does not want to find it just yet. By this last story the thing that stalks the town begging to tell its story has become an urban legend, and a figure of pity. But it has also become conflated with The Flâneur, a who features in an earlier story as a much less pitiable killer- and in yet another as the subject of a statue in a public place. Are they the same? Are all of Thompson’s narrators aspects of the flâneur? Do they all fall into that weird gap between unsee-r and unseen, pitiless killer and pitiable victim? What is it like to live in the city?

Miéville is not the only possible literary ancestor to this aspect of Thompson’s book. A 1973 short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, tells of a city that is perfect in almost every respect, but in order to keep it that way, one child must be kept captive in perpetual torment. All citizens learn this truth when they reach a certain age; some cannot reconcile themselves to continuing to live in the city. They are the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Thompson seems concerned with the ones who do not walk away from Omelas. What does it mean to live in the city while constantly aware of its victims? How does one do this? “We’re talking about your conscience,” says a character in “Good Slaughter”. “Find whatever proof you need, search your memory, watch for clues. But you have to tell yourself a story you can believe”.

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