By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
British novelist Rupert Thomson was in L.A. the other week, staying (courtesy of his publisher) at the swank Regent Beverly-Wilshire Hotel. I met him poolside in the middle of the afternoon. Tall and very thin, with spiky gray hair and ascetic features, the 45-year-old author of Air & Fire, The Insult and Soft! was in town to promote his latest novel, The Book of Revelation, which has just come out in paperback. Now he was enjoying the luxurious surroundings and the waning hours of a three-day winter heat wave. It was a big change from his normal routine. Lately, he‘s been living in a cottage outside Liverpool and using a caravan, or trailer, as an office.
”I walk across this old pear orchard, and the caravan’s in the corner of the pear orchard, and I turn on the radiator and start work,“ he told me, speaking softly but rapidly in a London accent. ”It‘s actually one of the best offices I’ve ever had, because you get the rain falling on the roof and the wind pushing against the wall. It‘s a really shitty caravan. It’s 27 years old, and it‘s got dents all over it.“
Obviously, given the state of that caravan, Thomson hasn’t quite hit the literary big time. But he‘s getting awfully close. Less well known than such English contemporaries as Will Self and Geoff Dyer (both of whom are friends), Thomson has a cult reputation that keeps threatening to spill over into something major. If it does, it will be solely on the strength of his fiction. Unlike most of his peers, Thomson turns down all offers to do journalism and has only reviewed one book in his life. Tired himself of being compared to other people (in a review of Soft!, Michiko Kakutani mentioned Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Martin Amis and Quentin Tarantino in the space of two sentences), he was careful to review the book as an independent work of art.
Thomson’s own work is hard to classify, though it‘s marked by striking language, a lush visual imagination, and an obsession with hideous and unexplained twists of fate. (Not surprisingly, he’s an admirer of Paul Bowles.) The names cited by Kakutani made sense in a review of a thriller like Soft!, but they would have made no sense had she been discussing The Book of Revelation or Thomson‘s earlier Air & Fire, a gorgeously written tale of colonialism, nobility and thwarted passion set in Baja California at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps the only thing that’s certain about Thomson‘s work is that he knows how to keep readers feverishly turning the pages. ”I’ve got the opposite problem that a lot of writers have,“ he told me, straight-faced. ”Most writers have to figure out ways of keeping people reading their books. I‘ve got to find a way of slowing people down.“
Not that Thomson shows any sign of doing so himself. At age 17, he won a scholarship to study medieval history at Cambridge. After graduating at 20, he moved to Greece to write a novel, failed, went back to London and worked in advertising for four years, quit, then lived in Italy, Berlin, New York and Tokyo while trying once more to write a novel, this time succeeding. (Aptly, it was called Dreams of Leaving.) He has written five more novels since, some of them during extended stays in Sydney, Los Angeles, Zanzibar, Amsterdam and Rome. All of which suggests there’s more than a little symbolism to that caravan -- even if it‘s not roadworthy.
The narrator of Revelation is similarly peripatetic, although he spends the first half of the novel in captivity. An English dancer living in Amsterdam, he slips out of a rehearsal to buy his ballerina girlfriend a packet of cigarettes. On the way to the store he is kidnapped by three hooded women. The women hold him for 18 days, confined to a room without windows where he is chained to the floor and used as a sex slave by the women, who remain masked (but often naked) throughout. Then, just as suddenly, he is released. Afterward, he travels aimlessly around the world while slowly recovering from his ordeal. Eventually he returns to Amsterdam, where he sleeps with hundreds of women in a vain attempt to discover the identity of his kidnappers, while enacting an increasingly nasty subconscious sexual revenge.
Though he didn’t intend it that way, Thomson now thinks of Revelation as a ”Zeitgeist“ book. ”I kept noticing, after I‘d finished it, other books where the writers were trying to establish where men are at the moment,“ he told me, ”this whole Susan Faludi idea of men having become ornamental, men having lost their relevance, and all these structures that used to support men having been eroded. And I thought, ’That‘s really odd, because my book’s doing exactly that. I‘m writing a book about a man who’s become an object. He‘s used in a way that women have often been used in the past.’ That obvious reversal was really intriguing to me and does turn out to be almost topical.“
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