Monday, 7 May 2012

Communion Town by Sam Thompson

Communion TownCommunion Town is the story of one city, told by ten people. Ten points of view, ten different experiences.

Its a cool premise, the idea that every person who inhabits a place experiences it differently and has a different story to tell. Common sense, really, but rarely explored. From the foreigner passing through on her travels, to the immigrant seeking refuge, the Sherlockian private detective, the university graduate; each chapter gives the reader a different glimpse at life in this nameless, timeless place. Do they run parallel to one another or do the stories stretch over the years? How do they interconnect - or do they connect at all?

Comparisons are being made to David Mitchell, and understandably so: each storyteller has a different voice, a different style, almost a different genre. But Thompson isn't quite as adept at this as Mitchell - the differences are not as distinct or crisp. Perhaps, though, this was a deliberate choice: the book by no means suffers for it - if anything, it makes it easier to digest.

The best parts of Communion Town, though, are the hints of a macabre edge. In some chapters these hints are more subtle than in others, yet the idea of this oddness, this surreality remain almost unspoken, just out of reach. Some chapters reference a specific creature, The Flaneur, but he/it remains illusory. Who is The Flaneur? Is it the same person appearing every time, but viewed differently? Or is The Flaneur a myth that develops and changes over time? This would perhaps explain why he is represented slightly differently in each chapter. And - even where the name itself isn’t mentioned - each chapter contains a description somewhere of a shady character with a limp that corresponds with the physical descriptions each time The Flaneur is named. Is he the tramp with the carnation in his buttonhole? The strange, jumbled man the boy meets on the riverbank? The invisible entity haunting Stephen? A nameless monster who stalks the city at night, or merely a man bent on murder?

Wanting to know more, I looked up the word ‘flaneur’. Basically, it means ‘stroller’, ‘lounger’, ‘saunterer’. This makes sense: the flaneurs encountered in Communion Town all walk - or stalk - the streets of the city. But Charles Baudelaire developed the term further, extending it to encompass the idea that a flaneur is ‘a person who walks the city to experience it.’ This, then, enables Thompson to include most of his ten storytellers themselves as flaneurs - they all walk and experience the streets of the city, and regale the reader with their various experiences. And, furthermore, a flaneur can even incorporate a ‘complete philosophical way of living and thinking’, which reminds me of chapter seven, the story of Lazarus Glass, a city crime lord who has created a whole version of the city in his own mind - he lives and thinks the city, and cannot be separated from it; he is the city, or so he believes.

So, the whole idea of The Flaneur is itself embedded within the city and the book, far more deeply than is at first obvious. Very clever, and a sign - to me, at least - of careful thought and careful writing. This said, I did find some chapters more interesting than others. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘monsters’ mentioned in chapter one, but sadly they, or nothing similar to them, were ever mentioned again. Perhaps each person sees their own kind of monster.

Each storyteller ends their tale on a slight cliff-hanger, the hint of more story, which takes the risk of making them - and the book as a whole - feel incomplete. Yet it does feel complete - perhaps because we understand that the city continues outside the book and its story can never be fully told or finished.

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