PD Smith

Cynics and Monsters

Times Literary Supplement, 3 August 2012, p 21

Communion Town: A City in Ten Chapters, by Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate), 280 pp, £14.99. ISBN: 978-0-00-745476-1

By P. D. Smith

Arrival frames many of our experiences of the city: the routine arrival of the commuter each day, the excitement of the tourist at that first glimpse of the metropolis, the anxiety of the migrant – a stranger in a strange city. Sam Thompson’s Communion Town begins with an appeal to a migrant, Ulya, from a faceless official who has been secretly observing her and her husband, ever since they arrived in the city. He tells Ulya that he just wants her to open up, to confess her true feelings. Think of it as your “true arrival in the city,” he says. But the words of this sinister, Kafkaesque narrator ring false. It smells like a trap.

Thompson’s city is unnamed. Communion Town is the “jostling heart of the Old Quarter” as well as the city’s transport hub, its metro station, which is “a city in miniature”. Communion Town is also, says the official in the first chapter, a name “loaded with horror”. For it was the scene of an unrecedented act of subversion perpetrated by the Cynics, one which appalled the city and gave everyone a renewed sense of “the fragility of everything we were about”. Like all cities, this one has an underclass: “some people call them ingrates or the abject, the pharmakoi or the homines sacri. But you might as well call a monster a monster.” They are reviled and brutalised, but the Cynics engineered a plan to bring together the “monsters” and ordinary citizens. They trapped twenty-seven people in the tunnels of Communion Town station. On CCTV, the city watched as the “monsters” emerged from the darkness bearing canisters of water and “packets of all-but-fresh food pilfered from the refuse bins of supermarkets” to give the trapped people. Thirst and hunger drives them to eat and drink the monsters' offerings. But for the callous official this is a betrayal: “soon there were no humans left in the tunnels for them to save”.

According to the official, “each of us conjures up our own city”, and indeed each chapter-cum-story in Thompson’s novel has its own unique voice. It is the richly imagined geography of the fictional city that binds the text. In “The Song of Serelight Fair”, a rickshaw puller has an affair with a student from an affluent out-of-town family. She buys him a guitar and he finds he has a gift for songwriting: “The city had music wherever I went.” And in that music he finds the troubled soul of the city. But his world is turned upside down when he discovers that he is part of a Frankensteinian experiment, “some questionable, arcane project”, conducted by the girl and her friend. Here as elsewhere in Communion Town, reality is never quite what it seems. Scratch the surface of this city and monstrous truths emerge from beneath the grime.

In the strangely haunting but not entirely convincing chapter called “Gallathea”, a Chandleresque gumshoe called Hal Moody stumbles through the violent underworld of the city. A mysterious woman turns up at his office and hires him to find a missing person: herself. In his quest to find her again, the city is transformed into a suffocating labyrinth, “the maze of one of your fingerprints”. He follows a lead to the home of one Doctor S. Dogg, a practitioner in the “Mysteries of Science”, who, together with his smooth-talking colleague, the Captain, and a woman, Dolly, have stepped straight out of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. But once again appearances are deceptive. They are not gulling Hal but offering him the chance to take part in the ultimate alchemical transformation: rebirth.

Communion Town is dense with playful allusions to literary characters and texts. The abattoir setting of “Good Slaughter” is strongly reminiscent of Alfred Döblin’s great modernist urban novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and “The Significant City of Lazarus Glass” is a delightful pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes story. Dr Peregrine Fetch is the great detective while Cassandra Byrd is his Watson. But the wonderfully convoluted and metaphysical plot of this chapter is more Borges than Conan Doyle. The diabolical plan of Dr Fetch’s Moriarty-like nemesis, Lazarus Glass, involves reconstructing a “memory city” in his head that matches the real city in every detail: “my mind is the city.”

As in the classic Novellen of the German Romantics, the supernatural and the uncanny are never more than a heartbeat away in these mysterious urban tales. Monstrous, “unnatural” figures stalk the streets at night, and their secret words, once uttered, transform minds and ruin lives. Wonderfully atmospheric and full of a subtle Gothic horror that eats away like dry rot at the timbers of this city, Thompson’s accomplished debut weaves many voices into a beguiling urban chorus.

[N.B. This version may differ slightly from the review printed in the TLS.]