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It was, he concedes, a particularly difficult book to write, not just because of the near-pornographic nature of the material (”It‘s one of those books which, as you’re embarking on it, you already know that if you get it wrong, it‘s going to be very badly wrong, it’s going to be laughable“), but also because he needed to locate 100 pages of fiction in a bare white room in which there was almost nothing to describe. ”I had to force myself to see that room in every detail, and I had to go over it and over it and over it in order to do that. Until I could see the dust on the floor and the cracks in the wall. That was very difficult. But I‘ve now realized that when I’m in possession of an idea that confronts me with those kinds of difficulties, I‘m happy.“
Although written in an uncharacteristically plain style, Revelation is typical of Thomson’s work in two ways: It‘s about a victim, and it’s about people who almost, but don‘t quite, connect. In Soft! (1998), a thriller constructed around the grimly amusing premise that ”There is nothing soft about the soft-drinks industry,“ a hapless young woman becomes the victim of a sinister experiment in subliminal advertising. Told through the eyes of three characters, the story is about people who destroy each other’s lives while barely knowing each other. In The Insult (1996), the hero is rendered blind by a stray bullet that passes through his occipital cortex when he is crossing a supermarket parking lot. Later, he becomes convinced that he can see and spends most of the novel hallucinating reality. The book‘s opening is characteristically spellbinding:
”You’ve been shot.“
I heard someone say it. I wouldn‘t have known otherwise; I wouldn’t have realized. All I could remember was four tomatoes -- three of them motionless, one still rolling. And a black shape, too. A shape that had a curve to it.
I‘ve been shot.
Sirens circled me like ghosts.
Clues to Thomson’s literary preoccupations are easily found in his own biography: When he was 8, his mother died of a coronary thrombosis while playing tennis, and he has no recollection of his life before then. Though he rejects psychoanalytical explanations for his work, he agrees that his life can be viewed entirely through the filter of that trauma. ”I think of The Insult and The Book of Revelation as being quite related,“ he told me. ”There are some obvious parallels. The beginning of trauma, and the idea that both books are prefaces to recovery in some sense. Both books are examining this curious gap between experiencing something traumatic and then being able to carry on. There‘s that kind of strange period -- it’s not convalescence, but both are set in that space.“
I asked Thomson if he had ever had any difficulty in judging the extent of a character‘s trauma, particularly in the case of Revelation. No one’s going to argue about the effect of being randomly shot in the head and instantly blinded, but the extent to which a man would be traumatized after being kept as a sexual plaything by three women is a bit murkier.
”It‘s a really hard question to answer,“ he replied. ”Both with this book and The Insult I had some kind of intuitive faith in what I was doing. Recently, I came across something Flannery O’Connor said. They were asking her, ‘Do you write from what you know, or do you use your imagination?’ And she said, ‘Imagination is a form of knowledge.’ And I thought, ‘How cool is that?’ But that‘s what it felt like for both those two books. I didn’t necessarily understand why I understood what both those men would be going through, but I had absolute faith that I could do it.“