Books

Published on July 5th, 2006 | by Hans Fruck

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This Is Not a Book Review

A few weeks back I posted something about the novel I was reading: The Book of Revelation. In the interim I’ve been snowed under with work and, let me be honest, a shitload of internet surfing and other assorted fritterings of my life force. During this time – let’s call it the ‘World Cup hiatus’ – The Book of Revelation has sat at my bedside unregarded.

As chance would have it, on Friday I received an invite via Beat to a media screening of, you guessed it, The Book of Revelation. I hadn’t even realised that it was being made into a film. Anyway, at the negligible cost of a 300-word film review, I’m going to watch it on Friday morning – provided, that is, I can brave the solariumed Chapel St hordes en route to the Como.

So with my latest indenturement (contract) at the salt mines (place of employment) completed, and the film of the book I haven’t been reading beckoning, I sat my arse down in my beanbag and finished the fucker.

I’m glad I did.

But before I get to The Book of Revelation, let me backtrack a little… This is the second Rupert Thomson novel I’ve read. The first novel I read was The Insult, a book that sat on my bookshelf for years until one day, on a whim, I decided to read it.

It’s a bizarre novel, The Insult, set in an unidentified city in an unidentified country. A man is crossing a supermarket carpark one day when he’s shot in the head. The motive and identity of the assailant are never established. In fact, Thomson’s not the slightest bit interested in doing so. It’s not that type of book.

What interests Thomson is plunging his protagonist into a world that is both familiar and utterly, utterly alien at the same time. You see, the shooting has left the victim, our protagonist, blind. As if that’s not bad enough, his doctor warns him that he may experience some form of phantom vision. It may seem, the doctor says, as if he’s regained his sight, when in fact he hasn’t.

And, of course, even with this half-arsed synopsis, you’ve all guessed where this is heading… Yes indeedy, one day when the protagonist is in the hospital grounds practicing with his white cane, his vision returns. Or does it? And that, my friends, is one of several million-dollar questions.

This book is a lesson in sustained ambiguity. Thomson conscientiously supplies the reader with two possible interpretations of everything the protagonist relates to us. For a good portion of the book, the scales sit in equilibrium, not weighted one way or the other. Has the protagonist’s vision really returned, or is he living in some bizarre phantom world that’s part unbidden visions, part wishful thinking?

And then. And then the book takes a wholly unanticipated left turn, pins its ears back, and heads for the fucking horizon. It’s as if Thomson spot-welds another (completely unrelated) novel onto the story of the blind man. You sit there. You scratch yourself. You wait for the stories to converge. And for the longest time, they don’t.

Even when the two stories do eventually knit together, the book retains a disjointed feel. And I’m still not sure it works. Perhaps it’s an impulse I have towards tidiness, or symmetry, but even when the curtain has lifted on the elaborate story that Thomson has woven together, I felt that it was all a little unsatisfactory, that there was nothing organic in the way the two parts came together.*

But in a paradoxical way this is also the story’s strength.

I realise that makes no sense. But imagine – just for a second – a sweet-and-sour dish at your local Chinese restaurant. Sweet and sour are at opposite ends of the flavour spectrum, but when combined they form something deliciously delicious. Or imagine, if you prefer, the Portishead song, Elysium. It starts off with this dissonant, eye-scrunching preamble before kicking into a syrupy beat. It’s a fusion of opposites, and that’s why it works.

Now imagine you have sweet and sour three times every week. (I’ve chosen my metaphor, and yes, now I’m gonna flog it to death.) If you’re always scoffing it down, the fusion of opposite flavours comes to seem a bit, well, ho-hum. That’s when some culinary cocklord/genius comes up with chocolate-covered bacon. And all the gourmands are like, “Good Heavens, these two flavours are complete opposites. They don’t go together at all. HOW REFRESHING! Pierre, hand me my notebook – Epicure just has to hear about this!”

And that’s kinda what Thomson does. He’s the literary cocklord/genius who takes two opposites and lets them roam free in all their oppositely grandeur, contrary to the expectations of readers who’ve been schooled to expect some kind of synthesis.

Anyway, I’m digressing. (That’s what watching too much soccer – sorry, ‘futbol’ – does to you. Before you know it, you’re like Italy: so enamoured with the way you’re knocking the ball back and forth in pretty patterns that you’ve forgotten that point is to put the thing in the back of the fucking net.)

So, without further ado, lemme get back to The Book of Revelation. A man – a famous ballet dancer, in fact – goes down to a shop in Amsterdam one day to buy his girlfriend a pack of cigarettes. On the way, he encounters three female fans. They’re strangely dressed and behaved, but seem harmless enough. Bu-bow! They drug him. He wakes up naked and manacled to a bed in a featureless white room.

The women, who disguise themselves with masks, abuse him, sexually and psychologically, for eighteen days before freeing him. I know, I know, the typical male reaction – I had it myself – is to snigger and say ‘half his luck’. But Thomson is just getting started. He’s more concerned with the aftermath than with the crime itself, more concerned with psychology than with detection.

To be honest, the abduction scenes were the least convincing part of the book. They seemed like a too-transparent attempt to take a scenario made familiar by tabloid reporting and midday movies, but to jostle our expectations sideways by switching the genders of the abducters and the abductee. If these scenes had been done with more conviction, they would have been visceral and disturbing. Instead they seemed merely smart and cerebral. It all smacked of genre-bending for its own sake.

But this book is a grower. Once the set-up is out of the way, Thomson sinks his hooks into you. The protagonist is deeply damaged by the experience. At first you don’t realise how much, and neither does he. Degree by degree, his former life falls apart.

It’s difficult to talk any more about this book without spoiling it for those who might want to read it… What I can say is that the tension in the story is most excruciating when the protagonist’s life finally starts to right itself. By this point, you’re so deeply invested in the poor bastard’s fate that you want to jealously guard the happiness he’s finally secured. But Rupert Thomson, you figure, has other ideas. That’s why the greater the character’s happiness, the greater the reader’s foreboding.

Because you know – just fucking know – that it isn’t gonna have a happy ending. Is it?

*Yes, I’ve mixed about fifteen different metaphors in this par. No, I don’t fricking care.


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