Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Rupert Thomson

I can't let the opportunity of a wider audience go past without the chance to evangelise about one of my favourite writers. Jeff's already had the full-on proselytisation, so I'm sure he knew this would be coming.

Rupert Thomson has been successful and very well reviewed, without being as successful as he deserves to be. What puzzles me is that he rarely seems to be mentioned in discussions about the literary fantastic, when writers like Jonathan Carroll or Graham Joyce do. And I really don't know why - Thomson's a wonderful writer who creates some of the most beautiful prose that I've read, and his books wander with casual ease from the fantastic to darkness with a touch of Kafka, from the surreal to gothic grotesques that remind me Peake. Yet his writing is always rooted in the everyday, never losing the here and now of emotion and feeling for the sake of glamorous yet hollow at heart literary pyrotechnics.



He's a noir writer, according to some reviewers. No hang on, others think he's a fantasist. A magic realist. A crime writer gone a bit weird. A psychological novelist. A literary writer. I mean, look, this is just from the cover quotes from two of his novels:

...'finest exponent of the psychological thriller...blurred hinterland where fiction meets fantasy...echoing psychological confusion of Kafka's The Trial...David Lynch in print...chapters of great pathos alternated with gothic horrors reminiscent of Mervyn Peake...momentum of a thriller harnessed to the substance of a modern classic...an ingenious, sardonic and seductive roman noir...

All right (Well, maybe not the Lynch one, that's just lazy “all weird stuff looks the same to me” journalism). All wrong.

Thomson's had six novels published to date, and when I was digging about for this article, I was overjoyed to find out that there's a new one due in April. "Divided Kingdom" is apparently going to be a dystopian romance about a future Britain partitioned by temperament, and the life of a boy who is taken from his family to become the subject of a great experiment. That's what the advance publicity says, who knows, maybe it's really a western with robot alien serial killers. Out in April from Bloomsbury (and I think, in the US, Random House).

Dreams of Leaving is Thomson's first novel. New Egypt is a typical post-war English village - except for the fact that no-one is permitted to leave it ever, a rule enforced on pain of death by the local police, led by the brutal Inspector Peach. The police in New Egypt have a museum full of the junk and wreckage of escape attempts, which range from the comically pitiful to the tragic. One family though, find a way to set their child free. Most of the action of the novel takes place much later, in London in the fag-end of the post-punk late seventies, where Moses (now, can you guess how his parents set him free?) is living above a nightclub, doing speed and odd jobs, falling in and out of love, unaware of his real background. Peach, not long off retirement, discovers that decades earlier someone had managed the impossible and escaped from New Egypt. He breaks all the rules himself by leaving the village for London to track down Moses and end the escape bid, one way or another.

The Five Gates of Hell was the first book of Thomson's that I read. It's set in Moon Beach, a not quite American seaside resort (most of Thomson's books are set in not-quite places). Moon Beach is founded on a peculiar economy, the business of burial, a subject which obsesses the inhabitants of the place:

"There were very few land burials in Moon Beach any more. It was considered old-fashioned and unhealthy, it was something that only happened to the poor. Instead, the dead were buried in ocean ceremonies, twelve miles out. A special festival was held every year in their honour. Children loved it. Suddenly there were white chocolate bones everywhere and marzipan skulls and ice-cream coffins on a stick. There were costume parties too. You had to wear something blue because that was the colour people went when they were buried under the sea. You could paint your hands and face if you liked, or even dye your hair. That's what people did in Moon Beach. Turned blue once a year. And then, sooner or later, they turned blue for ever."


The profit to be made from the funeral business drives the story which is about the lives of Jed and Nathan, whose lives meet and diverge and meet again as they grow older. It's a novel of great invention and some beautiful prose.

Air and Fire maybe gives a nod to some of Thomson's influences in its South American setting. A French engineer and disciple of Gustav Eiffel, Theophile Valance, and his wife Suzanne travel to Mexico. Valance has been sent to this remote part of Mexico to oversee the building of a church pre-fabricated from over 2000 iron parts. Although Theophile's struggles with nature, the local bureaucracy, and his Indian workforce move the story on, Suzanne rather than her husband is the central character, and her relationships with Theo, with Captain Montoya, an officer of the Mexican Army, and most importantly with Wilson Pharoah, a down on his luck American prospector who "dreamed that all his veins were filled with gold; he only had to cut his wrists and he would be rich", are the real story, set in a hallucinatorily beautiful, strange and cruel world.

The Insult is my favourite of Thomson's novels. Set in another of Thomson's notquiteanyplace's (this time one with a vaguely Eastern European feel), the novel opens with the protagonist, Martin Blom, getting shot in the head by an apparently motiveless sniper. When Blom comes to, he finds that although he has survived he is blind, and will remain that way for the rest of his life. He convalesces in a clinic where he is coached on how to survive his new life, and on how to survive the depressions that it will bring - and the delusions of sight restored that he may encounter. But then, one night, in the moonlit clinic gardens, Blom discovers that when it is dark, he can see again. Or at least, he thinks he can see – his doctors tell him that that it is all delusion. He leaves the hospital for a life as a citizen of the night-world of the city, along with others who also choose to live in the dark. It's a world of sleazy hotels and strip clubs and a typically Thomson assortment of strange charcters. Blom, who keeps up the pretence that he cannot see, finds a lover, who it turns out maybe only wants him because she thinks he is the only man who cannot see her. When he confesses his secret to her she herself disappears and the police start to suspect that Blom is responsible - and still we do not know whether Blom really can see, or whether he is deluding us as well as himself. The story then spins off somewhere else entirely, into what appears to be a completely different story, before coming back round again. I love it.

Soft is a change of pace again. A new soft drink is being launched on the UK market, and a decision is made to use a powerful - if illegal - subliminal advertising campaign, a decision which doesn't go according to plan. The story comes from the perspective of three central characters whose lives are brought together by this: marketing exec Jimmmy Lyle who is behind the revolutionary new strategy, Glade Spencer, waitress and guinea pig, and Barker Dodds, reluctanct hardman trying to leave his past behind. Soft moves from the surreal to the suspenseful, and is the most pointedly satirical of Thomson's novels.

The Book Of Revelation changes the tone again. It's a much harder, more disturbing book than any of the predecessors.It tells the story of a dancer and choreographer, living in Amsterdam, who is kidnapped from the street one day by a group of anonymous women and subjected to days of torture and humiliation (most of the book is written in first person, but Thomson flips to third for the whole of this period). As unexpectedly as he was snatched, he is set free, but he finds the freedom that he had been wishing for hard to handle. No-one will believe his story, least of all his girlfriend, he finds himself unable to explain or talk about his disappearance and he finds himself reluctant to tell it:

"It was one of the ironies of my new existence that, despite my absolute and unprecedented freedom, I was more self-contained, more sealed off, than I had ever been before. I became a mystery to others".

After a year of travelling he returns to Amsterdam to try and find the women, taking lover after lover to see if he can spot the few physical features he ever saw and in finding them find himself, but his increasingly obsessive quest means that he runs the risk of losing himself altogether, or becoming just as much a user of others as he himself was used. It's a tough book, and not one I could re-read often, but a thoughtful one.

Regardless of any of the individual stories, Thomson's prose is the greatest delight (and source of envy) for me - there's a spare elegance and a bone-dry irony running through it. He's very fond of simile - but rather than the laboured 'hey wow, aren't I clever, nobody's ever compared falling in love to sneezing a breeze block out of your nose before' approach you see so often, Thomson uses it for what it's meant for; he paints familiar things in an entirely new light so that you see them as if you have never seen them before and in doing so you understand them better. I don’t think there is anyone around who does this as well as Thomson.

The covers and endpapers of his novels are littered with glowing praise from reviews, but my favourite is from a review by the New Statesman: "When someone writes as well as Thomson does, it makes you wonder why other people bother."

And indeed, it often does. If I'm in the middle of writing something, I don't read him.

If you haven't read him yet, do yourself a favour and give him a try. Because you know, if you don't, I'm only going to end up knocking on your door at some point when you're really busy with dinner or the family, politely hassling you to accept one of my pamplets or take a copy of my newsletter...

8 Comments:

At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sold! Way to bloat my "to read list." For Cdn. readers Thomson's books are available through Chapters and amazon.ca (which also carries some French translations.)


--
-N

 
At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm very glad to see this post. I pimp Thomson as well and I'm looking forward to Divided Kingdom a lot. I've just tried to blag a copy for review in a genre mag so hopefully that will open him up to some genre readers because as you say he is an underknown literary fantasist.

I would say "not quite Australia" was my reference point for Moon Beach. I also thought The Book Of Revelations had a fairly slow opening, I certainly wouldn't recommend it to someone not familiar with his work.

Martin

 
At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cheers for the links for Canadian readers, Neddal.

Martin - if you do a review of Divided Kingdom, drop me an email so I can get a copy of that mag if possible, and check it out. I think you're right about the Book of Revelations not being the best place to start with Thomson. What do you think would be? I'd go for either The Insult or Five Gates of Hell as the ideal first book of his to read.

Iain

 
At 9:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I started with The Insult so I think that is a fine place to start, as would be Five Gates and Dreams Of Leaving. Soft is very accesible but perhaps his weakest novel and I like Air and Fire a lot (with some reservations about the ending) but I think it might give a misleading impression of his work. Typing this just brings home his wonderful range.

As for the review, if it appeared it would be on The Alien Online so it would be readily available (prehaps mag was overstating the case but the boundary is increasingly blurred.) The question is: how much do Bloomsbury like me? Since they are spending a lot to promote this book I hope the answer is "enough".

Martin

 
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