Sam Thompson’s debut novel, “Communion Town,” earned a spot on the long list of candidates for last year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. Though it didn’t make the final cut, its inclusion anointed Thompson as a rising star.
Perhaps what led the judges to drop “Communion Town” from contention is that its status as a novel is tenuous, at best. Set in an imaginary city, the book consists of 10 short chapters in a mix of literary styles, each focused on a different character, with only the thinnest of threads connecting them.
He introduces us to menacing interrogators and artful butchers, lovelorn songwriters and meandering tourists, pretentious detectives and gritty gumshoes. Each offers a distinct take on the city they share.
“Have you noticed how each of us conjures up our own city?” asks the interrogator. “[E]ach of us walks through a world of our own invention. And by following you into your personal city, I can learn a great deal of what I need to know.” The characters populate claustrophobic neighborhoods with names like Sludd’s Liberty, Lizavet, and Cento Hill.
There’s the slightest hint of a dystopian regime, and of a revolutionary faction at work in the tunnels beneath the city; but these elements are merely background accents for Thompson’s intimate stories.
In “The Song of Serelight Fair,” Thompson expertly captures the breathless cadence of youthful passion. “Strength ran into my limbs, my body was glad, my mind cleared, wide awake, and the taste of salts on my tongue opened into hot, liquid softness that plunged into me and drew me into itself,” says the songwriter. “[A]nd at that very moment, the first phrase of a new song dropped into my head.” The turbulent relationship between the songwriter and his mercurial girlfriend provides the book’s best illustration of the rhythms of the city.
In “Good Slaughter” a butcher begins to suspect that his supervisor is the infamous Flâneur of Glory Part, a ghostly serial killer who wields a straight blade and bears a “risible air of Victoriana.” It’s a taut thriller, and the Flâneur’s nightly strolls serve as the sole link between many of the stories.
Thompson’s prose is writerly, often distractingly so. “[T]he richer the meal,” he writes in “Outside the Days,” “the sooner the appetite wanes, and the epicurean longs for ever more esoteric flavors. He never saw himself as a sybarite.”
But this literary bent also serves him well in places. “The Significant City of Lazarus Glass” is an entertaining and densely layered pastiche of whodunits, the product of a mind steeped in the manner and method of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Thompson’s ersatz Sherlock Holmes, Peregrine Fetch, makes repeated references to his past successes, each adorned with an amusingly enticing title, such as “The Affair of the Chanting Leopard” and “The Case of the Demolitionist’s Song.” Through deductive reasoning, Fetch throws the very reality of the city into doubt, striking a metafictional tone. “[F]or where does the detective live,” he asks, “if not in a memory city, a city that is less a physical place than a world of codes and symbols?”
Thompson’s city too often feels like merely a collection of codes and symbols, with a smattering of high-minded allusions — to Calvino, Baudelaire, and John Lyly — used as scaffolding. But “Communion Town” gives readers every reason to believe that Thompson isn’t far off from building something of his own.