The dancer protagonist of Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation starts out for cigarettes on a sunny April day and winds up shackled to the floor of a cavernous white room. There three hooded women make him their sex slave, subjecting him to various ministrations and indignities before driving a screwdriver through his foreskin, looping a chain through the wound, tethering him to a wall, and forcing him to dance, naked, before a masked audience. At the end of part one, they abandon him to the rest of his life.
This opening section is a gripping portrait of sexual coercion and its immediate psychological impact. It was also my introduction to Thomson. When I reached the end of the first hundred pages — when the women dropped our unnamed protagonist off somewhere in suburban Amsterdam, with a hood over his head, and told him to count to a hundred — I was stricken and amazed, and wholly engrossed in his plight. But I didn’t have high hopes for the remaining 150 pages. I’ve overloaded on transgressive fiction, so much of which gets by solely on the shock value of brutal or improbable fucking. And I didn’t expect Thomson to pull back from the graphic sex and reveal something altogether more true and disturbing: the way trauma can transform a victim into a monster.
Thomson’s fiction excavates the fears and longings that churn in the deepest subconscious. In The Insult, a man is shot in the head and told he’s lost his eyesight. While recovering in an institution, he finds he can still see, but only at night. Alone with his secret — he gains release from the hospital only by pretending to accept his blindness — he holes up in a squalid hotel where he can sleep all day and embark on a new life under cover of darkness.
Divided Kingdom, Thomson’s latest book, opens as a young boy is taken from his home in the middle of the night pursuant to a scheme to reorganize Britain in accordance with the four personality types, or humors, identified long ago by Aristotle. He’s assigned to a new, sanguine family and expected to be content there. (Longtime readers may remember how pissed off I was when I left my copy on a plane after reading up to the family reassignment.)
“If you’re already a fan of Rupert Thomson’s novels,” Andrew O’Hehir observed last year, “all I have to tell you is that he has a new one. You’ll understand already that it won’t fall readily into any known literary genre, but that it’ll crackle along like a thriller … driven by sharp and luminous writing. You’ll also know that in the end there’ll be something mysterious about it, as if its exciting events and characters are just a sort of smokescreen for something deeper and scarier still.”
I’m the kind of Thomson fan O’Hehir describes. Then there are people like the friend of mine who read The Insult on my recommendation, and was underwhelmed and annoyed by the structure. He picked up Divided Kingdom, which he loved, only because he didn’t realize it was written by the same person.
Even Thomson’s most devout fans are more willing to enter some of his nightmare worlds than others. Take James Hynes, a recent convert who happens to be one of my favorite contemporary American authors. In “The Dreamlife of Rupert Thomson,” he writes beautifully about the allure of Thomson’s fiction. Once he sets in on the relative merits of the individual novels, though, I’m all, “I’d love to debate that assessment over a couple pints of beer sometime.”
Thomson and I started a relaxed and very slow email interview last fall. I didn’t manage to ask even half the questions I’d hoped to, but once he got to talking about his new (already completed) novel, I knew it was time to finish this thing up and post it.
In 2001, you told an interviewer that when you start a new book:
I have nightmares. Night after night. For a long time I didn’t understand why. Recently I came up with a theory. To write fiction of any power and authenticity you have to draw on the deepest, most secret parts of yourself. That’s where fiction comes from, but it’s also where dreams are made. Small wonder, then, if there’s a certain amount of cross-fertilisation between the two. I often think of Louise Bourgeois in this context. She once said, “I trust my unconscious. The unconscious is my friend. . . .” You might say that I want my fiction to have that relationship to reality. I want to be able to look at reality from a standpoint that feels unpredictable, surreal, and yet, at the same time, entirely cogent. I seem to be attracted to ideas that allow me to do this.
How does this immersion — I’ve read that you work “in five-month stints of seven-day weeks” — in the darkest reaches of the unconscious affect the rest of your life? Do the nightmare worlds of your books bleed into everything else, so that you’re spending much of your life in a distressed, hyper-aware state? Or can you shake yourself out of that world without much trauma?
As a writer you have to immerse yourself completely or you won’t produce anything that works, let alone anything that is powerful and alive. There are no half measures. Rainer Maria Rilke put it beautifully in a book called Letters on Cezanne: “It seems to me that the ‘ultimate intuitions and insights’ will only approach one who lives in his work and remains there, and whoever considers them from afar gains no power over them.” I think that says it all, especially the part about remaining there.
If you live in your work, though, it’s often at the expense of your life — temporarily, at least. There just isn’t too much energy left at the end of the day. People who know you well can sense the change in you, the not-quite-there-ness; they can feel it, as you can feel the cold draught from a half-open door. There are dreams too — or nightmares — but that’s because the pathways to the sub-conscious are open. The people you’re writing about feel real, and real people feel ever so slightly ghostly. All I ever want to do when I’m in the middle of a draft is to go to sleep, wake up again, and carry on writing. It doesn’t make you a very easy person to live with. But in spite of all the difficulties, I feel happy — and, though it sounds odd, useful — because I’m doing what I most love doing.
I don’t really get over-stressed unless I’m not working. I lose all sense of what I’m here for. I seem to have no purpose.
The only time I get distressed — though panic-stricken would be a better way of putting it — is in the middle of a book. All of a sudden, I feel that I’ve taken on too much, that what I’m attempting is either over-ambitious or ludicrous. This phase usually lasts for three or four days. It used to worry me, but now I’ve come to recognise it as a crucial phase, or even as a sign. These days I would worry if didn’t feel it. It would mean I’d undertaken something that was too obvious or too easy. I suppose I want every book to be a challenge. To take me somewhere I’ve never been.