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.“
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.“