The Boston Book Review, June 1999
307 pp. $24
of what Rupert Thomson is able to do as a novelist he was already doing by
the opening chapter of his mysterious first novel, "Dreams of Leaving"
(Atheneum, 1988). We're in New Egypt, an imaginary village somewhere in the
north of England. Two men are whispering at the tail end of a funeral procession,
"their heads tilted sideways and inwards like two halves of a reflection."
Apparently a small child has gone missing. The men want to know, Has he escaped?
Standing nearby is the missing boy's father, George Highness. George feels
only loathing for his village, where everyone is held prisoner by a psychotic
police force. "Hate massed in his fists, drawing the blood out of his
knuckles." Then his glance falls on his wife. They met when George was
eleven, Alice nine. He chased her across fields. "I was alone,"
she says. And alone she remains even after their marriage. Years pass and
the couple give up hope of a child, telling themselves they are relieved not
to bring another prisoner into New Egypt. "When Alice's tests proved
positive," George recalls, "those layers of justification fell away
like scaffolding no longer needed. Their marriage rose into the air, sheets
of glass and gleaming steel, founded in rock, challenging the sky." But
Alice's aloneness deepens into madness and George sees that, if he can't save
his wife, he must save his son. So he fashions a basket of bulrushes and floats
his boy to freedom, hence this funeral for a body that has never been found.
In quick, sure strokes Thomson gives us George and Alice, a subtly sadistic
chief of police named Peach. He effortlessly creates a menacing world. Imagine
Virginia Woolf rising from the dead, scanning the bestseller lists in search
of a host body, and settling on Stephen King. It isn't King's gift for character
or plot that interest her. It's the way he seems to pull horror down out of
the clear blue sky.
Thomson's second novel, "The Five Gates of Hell" (Knopf, 1991),
is another nightmare. While previously he seemed unsure how to develop his
mythic source material, this time Thomson is working from autobiography, which
he develops with extraordinary authority into an epic nightmare. He tells
the story of two boys, Nathan and Jed. We meet eleven-year-old Nathan on the
day his mother has died (Thomson's mother died when he was eight, and he describes
his novels as "meditations on abandonment and loss"). Nathan is
dreaming. "The air turned to sound, there was nothing left to breathe,
and in his ears the stammer of machine guns as the bullets scuffed the dust
around their feet, raised rows of ghostly plants that grew one after another
in the dry ground, hung in the air, then crumbled
" Nathan has gone
to his aunt's, who lives on the ocean, and it is that ocean that solaces him.
He likes the whitened bones he finds on the beach.
Jed is the boy our parents told us not to play with, though never in their
worst fears could they have imagined someone like Jed. Jed's father has vanished,
his mother sleeps with anyone who happens along. Wandering into a junk shop
he discovers a radio. He begins to collect them, and soon has hundreds. In
lieu of cash payment, Jed is sodomized by the local junk dealer. Did you like
that? the junk dealer asks. "Jed felt as if he were spreading outwards,
spreading outwards fast, like ink being absorbed by blotting paper."
Yes, Jed says.
Nathan becomes a lifeguard, Jed joins the local gang, the Womb Boys. Like
a migrant, the narrative settles down briefly, then picks up and wanders some
place new. Nathan is absorbed into a helter-skelter commune, Jed scoops ice
cream and discovers sex, both boys living in the dead middle of nowhere. Gradually
we understand that this imaginary town, Moon Beach, has a secret toodeath,
which is Moon Beach's only business, its constant threat. The losses that
have driven these boys into the worldwe stay with them into their late
twentiesgradually lose their power, their terror. Thomson's narratives
are wounds that heal imperfectly; what we read is the scar tissue forming.
Thomson says his third novel, "Fire and Air" (Knopf, 1994), was
inspired by a drive through Baja, California. "We got to the Gulf coast
and came to Santa Rosalia, where everything was brown and the heat extraordinary.
Standing like a mirage was a metal church designed by Gustav Eiffel. I wondered,
'Why here?' and that was the mystery around which I built the novel."
After the poetic precision of his first two nightmares, this broad-daylight
fable felt a bit forced to me, and after awhile I put it aside.
I was back in business with Thomson's fourth novel, "The Insult"
(Knopf, 1996), which opens perfectly: "You've been shot."
Martin Blom was standing in a parking lot when an unknown assailant shot
him in the head. All he can remember are four tomatoes, "three of them
motionless, one still rolling." The now-blind narrator is sent to a clinic
to learn the strategies of life without sight. What he discovers is that he
can see after all, though only in darkness. Gradually Blom makes his way from
the clinic to his parents' home to a seedy hotel, where the brothel on the
second floor spills out into the corridors, elevators and stairwells. Blom
takes up with a nightclub stripper, Nina, who welcomes sex with a man who
Somehow I was expecting Blom to tap his way into a nocturnal world, that
his secret sight would open up mysteries to him, and he would tumble and tumble
like Alice into a new Wonderland. Instead Thomson seems to have something
mathematical in mind: subtract what Blom says is there from what we know is
there and we'll have
what? I never quite worked it out. Thomson spends
so much energy on each individual tableau that his novel doesn't move, like
equations on a blackboard.
Reviewers frequently say that Thomson writes "beautiful sentences,"
but his prose is unlike any I've ever come across. It breathes somehow, as
if it were reading along with us. The prose is full of surprises ("
I was falling. I saw the bannister rotating past me like a stick flung to
a dog"), but it is the tone, so quick, so smooth, that catches us up.
It's Thomson's otherworldly responsiveness to sounds, smells, above all to
what he sees, that seems to release these wandering, elusive narratives from
But staring so intently, the surroundings blur. He only seems to see the
center, never the edges, so that implications, consequences, even continuity
seem beyond his writer's grasp. The rage and emptiness that fuel his stories
feel right for a childfor Moses, Jed and Nathan. But Martin Blom has
been waiting for that bullet. His schmuckiness, his hurt, his anger seem dormant,
waiting for this release. He visits home and feels nothing, feels sick when
his girlfriend offers help. If books are drugs, then "The Insult"
is ecstasy in a creep's bloodopen-ended, taking us nowhere.
Thomson's latest book, "Soft!," about skullduggery in the corporate
world, is pour coke. It works fast, makes the world glitter briefly. Its three
central characters Barker Dodds, an ex-bouncer who reads medieval history,
Glade Spencer, an art student who urges friends to buy a soft drink she has
never tasted, and Jimmy, a coke-snorting corporate whiz divide up the
narrative, each disappointing us in different ways.
We open with an angry Dodds on his way to London. This comes as an enormous
relief, as Thomson's imaginary lands have worn out their welcome. The dedications
for his previous books have been fascinatingly peripatetic he seems
to have roamed continents to write, and now, like Dodds, has apparently settled
in London. There's no dream to start this novel off. An angry Barker hooks
up with a friend of a friend, who arranges an apartment. Next he lands a job
cutting hair. Things suddenly are looking good. Blood-free. Then his friend
sends a photograph of a young woman, Glade Spencer, whom he has arranged for
Barker to kill.
Enter Glade. An art student who works six shifts a week as a waitress, Glade
has a red-herring boyfriend who flies her every few months to Miami, who stares
at her on each new arrival as if surprised, somehow disappointed. Glade's
mother has just left the family nest for sunnier climes, and the father has
taken to a trailer and English back roads. Glade trundles off to visit the
dad, who has parked in a field somewhere north of London. When the American
boyfriend invites Glade to New Orleans for a wedding, she needs cash for a
dress, so she volunteers for a sleep experiment. After that her brain starts
to fizz, she's drawn to orange things, and with a terrible thud we're dropped
into a world of clues, teasers, and twists that Elmer Fudd would see coming.
All this must be blamed on Jimmy. We meet him next. Jimmy has come up with
a way to launch the American soft drink Soft! into the already saturated British
market: Operation Secretary, which involvesNo!brainwashing.
In interviews Thomson wittily says that he likes the way advertising makes
the city look. Having worked as an advertising copywriter, he presumably knows
something about corporate shenanigans. What we get here is the riveting news
that advertising is insidious, that corporate rung-rats will stop at nothing
to climb higher. For the first time in five novels Thomson gives us straight
plot, and he seems so dispirited by the effort that when he finally gets back
to Glade and Barker, when things might finally pick up, he folds his hand
and brings the novel to a close as quickly as a writer's contract will allow.
Not so fast, though, that we don't notice a few peculiarities regarding sex.
Already fizzing, Glade flies off to the wedding in New Orleans. Things don't
go well, she drinks too much, and suddenly there she is, vomiting by the side
of the road, being sodomized by her American boyfriend. (Anglo-American relations
are the real story here, but a few sly innuendoes are all we get.) It's a
stunning, ugly moment, indignity upon indignity, and, except for one blast
of violence near the end, the only jolt in the book. If abandonment is the
nightmare that Thomson tells us again and again, then sodomy is that nightmare's
constant climax. It isn't just Jed in the back room with the junk dealer.
It's Nathan sleepwalking in a boy's summer camp, waking up in a boy's bed
and being whispered about ever after. The homosexuals in Thomson's fiction
make that masked lunatic in Pulp Fiction, dressed head to toe in black leather,
look like a Saturday morning cartoon. For a writer who shows up for interviews
wearing a velvet coat, who writes violence that would make Sade rub his hands
in glee, this terror before the mysteries of anal sex, this sense that there
is no horror past it, seems a key to what has gone wrong in Thomson's fiction.
His point of view is still a child's. His characters see the world but cannot
see any place for themselves in it, thus narrative after narrative foreshortens
into thin air. Soft! is all prologue, like the childhood this gifted novelist
can't seem to shake.