The Boston Globe, April 30, 2000
Looking for revelation in all the wrong places
The Book of Revelation
260 pp. $23
story Rupert Thomson tells in his sixth novel, "The Book of
Revelation," concerns a young choreographer who goes out one
afternoon to buy cigarettes for his girlfriend. Along the way he
meets three women wearing hooded cloaks. He assumes they're fans,
as they excitedly tell him how they love to watch him perform. Only
distantly does he notice as a hypodermic needle is being withdrawn
from his right hand, its silver tip flashing in the light.
A few hours later he wakes in a bare room, chained to the floor.
"You're ours now," says one of the women. Over the next
eighteen days he discovers exactly what this possession involves.
He's made to masturbate so they can watch the changing expressions
on his face. He's sodomized in retaliation for an impatient remark.
His nude body is even made to serve as a smorgasbord for an informal
dinner with friends. Eventually the unnamed narrator uses his imagination
to gain what freedom he can. He begins by working out the personalities
of his captors, providing each with an invented name. Astrid, Gertrude,
Maude. "Astrid suited her. It was beautiful, as she was, but
it also cast a cold, astringent shadow. . . . A name like Gertrude
had connotations of strength and leadership. . . . At best, there
was something cosy and dependable about the name [Maude]. At worst
it was heavy, lumpen, just plain slow."
In time the women allow him just enough freedom of movement to
dance. They want a performance. At first the prisoner refuses, but
his need to move, to express what he has suffered, overwhelms him,
and he dances the last act of "Swan Lake," nude and chained.
Soon afterward he is freed. His life comes apart simply but persuasively.
His unbelieving girlfriend leaves him, and after a summer spent
at a friend's empty home, he travels the world, only to return to
Amsterdam and the denouement that his eighteen days' imprisonment
has forced on him.
In interviews Thomson describes his novels as "meditations
on abandonment and loss," and this has held true from his first
novel onward. A young boy loses his mother to cancer, another boy
is sodomized. An ordinary man is blinded by a stray bullet. A choreographer
at the peak of his creativity is chained to a bare floor and dies
as an artist. The narratives have no shape, yet they're riveting.
They seem like wounds that heal imperfectly. What we read is the
scar tissue forming.
Part of this power comes from Thomson's sense of restraint. Even
when offering something so clever as a dancer nailed to a floor,
Thomson never allows himself a grin, Nor does he write the obligatory
essay on rape and gender, despite the trouble he takes to put a
man in a position usually reserved to women. Facts for Thomson are
what his senses tell him. An almost supernatural sensitivity defines
his characters. It's how they salvage themselves, find their way
back to an uncertain reality. Only what they can touch and smell,
above all what they can see, do they trust. "All around me
I could hear the feathery sound of people sleeping." When the
prisoner is allowed outside, Thomson writes, "He had forgotten
air could be so intricate. He could smell the wind and rain in it,
and earth, dark earth, and the bitter milk that leaked from the
stems of plants in the distance, at the very limit of his sense
of smell, the pungent salty spray that lifted off the North Sea
as it hurled itself repeatedly against the land."
Thomson's novels frequently borrow from religious sources. His
first, "Dreams of Leaving" (1988), transposed the story
of Moses to modern London. His second, "The Five Gates of Hell,"
gave us the "Inferno" by way of Dickens. We get the old
structures without the resonance, like churches turned into condominiums.
Thomson doesn't spell out the revelation here, just as he doesn't
offer a name for his narrator. I found that "Rupert Thomson"
worked quite well. Thomson's six novels form a coherent whole, almost
a diary of a single person, beginning in his young adulthood, doubling
back to puberty, then proceeding through a troubled early adulthood.
I was happy to read in the new book that the narrator has started
to make some friends.
One of these friends comments on his tendency to understatement,
"the way you [bury] one story inside the other. The story you
tell and the story you don't tell."
It is this buried story that emerges slowly. Certainly some readers
will believe that rape and the threat of death sufficiently account
for the victim's trauma. I confess to needing a more explicit understanding
of what the narrator is struggling against.
"I forget who it was," the narrator says at one point,
"who wrote about the importance of doing nothing, how the art
of doing nothing is one that most people seem to have forgotten."
Well, it was Oscar Wilde, in perhaps his most famous essay, "The
Critic as Artist, with some remarks upon the importance of doing
nothing." The remark is so characteristic that I can't magine
who Thomson might propose in Wilde's place. A similar reticence
informs Thomson's depiction of the ballet world. If there's any
revelation here, it's that the milieu of ballet is more heterosexual
than even the Playboy mansion ever hoped to be.
The narrator becomes friends with a retired diamond merchant, a
man who, despite velvet couches and photographs of boys in loincloths,
seems to be the kind of closeted homosexual that we've long since
left behind. Meanwhile, as in most of Thomson's other books, sodomy
remains the horror of all horrors, as surreal and unspeakable as
that leather-clad lunatic in "Pulp Fiction" climbing out
of the basement. Perhaps homosexuality isn't the trauma that Thomson's
characters are contending with, but certainly fear of it rings more
than a few of their bells.
Toward the end of his travels the narrator experiences an epiphany.
He is somewhere in Southeast Asia. "Somewhere a cock crowed,
raucous and insistent. Though I must have heard the sound in England
first, or on holiday in France, perhaps, when I was young, it always
reminds me of South-East Asia now, that hoarse cry somehow at odds
with the dreamy sluggishness of dawn. . . . And then the smell,
a kind of sweetness in the air, but thick too, cloying, like the
scent of certain lilies. There's nothing fresh, even at five in
the morning, only the sense of something being brought back to life.
It was always the same day, you felt - the same day endlessly reheated."
As he stares at the water the narrator feels his flesh dissolve,
the edges of his being blur into the scene around him. This is what
the rape and imprisonment have done to him. It has taken away his
sense of self. "I was the same as the wood the boats were made
of, the same as the water of the river. One flowed straight into
the other, with no frontiers, no distinctions." Part Dracula,
part Zen. This is the essence of Thomson's gift. No grin, no lecture,
simply more of that rightness that makes a work of art.