Nancy Oakes's Reviews > Communion Town

Communion Town by Sam Thompson
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Aug 30, 12

bookshelves: gave-away, uk-fiction
Read from August 23 to 27, 2012

I know I originally posted 4 stars, but this is (imho) a solid 3.5 star book -- not because it's not good, because it is, but because it made for a frustrating reading experience in parts. Read on, see the short version of why I say that, or click through and see the long version.

The subtitle of Communion Town is "A city in ten chapters," although it's really a collection of ten short stories with different characters in each one. Common among them all is the city which "doesn't stop, however appalled;" each "chapter" different because, as the narrator in the first story notes, "each of us conjures up our own city." Another link between them all: a character eventually known as "The Flâneur", who wanders throughout the city, not always named as such but he's always there. There's also no let up of atmosphere here -- even in the light of day things are dark and mysterious -- in fact, the book hones in on the mysteries of the city as experienced by different people who populate its streets and districts. There's also a great deal about the power of the story to change lives. On the other hand, aside from these points, there is a lot of play with but little continuity in terms of writing style -- and I'm taking it on faith that there's some purpose behind this device that is designed to make it a novel rather than just a collection of short stories. There are some parts of this book where the author drew me in with prose that triggered some vivid imagery in my head; in other parts, I got frustrated because I shouldn't have to work this hard to try to understand what I'm reading (why do some writers have to show off so?). Above all, I'm wondering which voice is really Sam Thompson's ... why does he have to be so gimmicky here?

Here's the thing: unless the author is aiming his work at a specific target audience, it seems like he's expecting way too much of his readers. As an example, I had to go look up the term "flâneur," to discover it's a concept from Beaudelaire. Well, what do you know -- I haven't read Beaudelaire. Okay, so I get it after looking it up and that's okay. Then I come to the noir-styled story "Gallathea," and off I go in search of insight on the title. Well, hey, whaddya know, it's an Elizabethan-era drama, currently reproduced on stages but of course, not something I've ever seen or for that matter heard of, but after reading about that, I know a little more about what I've just read. So now I'm thinking that perhaps I should have my iPhone in hand to use as an encyclopedia and look up Moll Cutpurse, a character in "Gallathea," and another light bulb goes off over my head. I do a little more digging and discover that there are characters in this story whose names come from a work by Ben Jonson called "The Alchemist." Bingo. The same thing happens again and again in the other stories and then this morning, after I'd written my initial response to this novel yesterday, I start scouring reviews to see what other people had written and I get to one from Strange Horizons where the author notes about the story "Ways to Leave" that "There's even an image from Tarkovsky's Stalker in there if you look for it!" Wow. Do I feel stupid or what for not having noticed that? That's sarcasm, by the way.

I'm not saying that this is a bad book, because it's not. I love the atmosphere and there are some really good stories -- "The City Room," for example and I've already mentioned "The Significant City of Lazarus Glass." In fact, I liked many of the stories in this book. I could deal with the structural concept, I didn't mind that many stories were left without a resolution or explanation -- these are, after all, stories based on the mysteries of the city -- nor did I really get too hung up on trying to make connections -- they're there. There are also some really super moments of prose where I could actually see what the author's describing. I think the atmosphere and the ability of the prose to bring out such vivid images is really well executed, but sheesh! It's tough from the casual reader perspective to wholeheartedly engage with a book when you're concerned about how much you may be missing. So for me, Communion Town turned out to be a mixed bag, leaning more to the side of frustration. On the other hand, if Mr. Thompson decides to write a novel in the future, I'd definitely be willing to give it a go.
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