Thomson, Rupert 1955–
Thomson, Rupert 1955–
PERSONAL: Born in 1955, in England. Education: Attended Cambridge University.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Peter Straus Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as a copywriter in London, England, c. 1978–82.
Dreams of Leaving, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1987, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1988.
Air and Fire, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1993, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
The Insult, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Soft!, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
The Book of Revelation, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Divided Kingdom, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: English author Rupert Thomson's first novel, Dreams of Leaving, was published in 1987 in Great Britain and the following year in the United States. It concerns a small village in England called New Egypt, whose tyrannical police constable will not allow residents to leave. Villagers who try to escape New Egypt and fail are displayed in a museum. However, one man decides that his child, at least, should have the opportunity to live elsewhere; he puts the baby, appropriately named Moses, into a basket and lets him float down the river, telling the constable he has drowned. Moses grows up adopted in London, and lives as a young adult in that city's club scene while the constable harbors continuing doubts that the boy drowned.
Douglas Sun, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, expressed mixed feelings about Thomson's book; one of his biggest objections was the author's "failure to pick up on the tantalizing thematic possibilities that he dangles" through the parallel with Moses in the Old Testament of the Bible. On the other hand, conceded Sun, "Thomson does show some skill as a stylist; his figurations are almost always imaginative, and he modulates deftly between languorousness in his rustic scenes and a tighter, more ironic style in his London scenes." Linda Barrett Osborne, writing in the New York Times Book Review, praised the novel: "Thomson's writing is inventive and lyrical, studded with sensuous metaphors."
Thomson's second novel, The Five Gates of Hell, was published in 1991. This tale concerns two young men, Nathan Christie and Jed Morgan, who grow up in a darkly futuristic land that bears a resemblance to both the United States and Mexico. Specifically, their place of origin is called Moon Beach—an area run by a rich funeral director and featuring what Tim Gooderham in the Times Literary Supplement described as "high-rise graveyards and graveyards at sea." Gooderham went on to note that "this book, with its quirky characters and supernatural undercurrents, could keep thesis writers busy for years" and that The Five Gates of Hell is "exceptionally well-written." Gooderham added that the novel is "written with such control that even the happy-ending-of-sorts seems not merely forced but perfectly logical." Bruce Allen in the New York Times Book Review lauded the novel as well, calling it "an ingenious, sardonic and seductive roman noir."
Thomson's third effort, Air and Fire, was published in 1994. The novel, set in a dry, bleak town in Mexico, concerns an architect constructing a prefabricated cathedral designed by Gustave Eiffel. With her husband completely absorbed in a task intended to add a European flavor to their town, the architect's beautiful wife, Suzanne, is an object of attraction for several men, including American drifter Wilson Pharoh. David Murray, in a review for the New York Times Book Review, commented that the plot of the novel is secondary to "the haunting atmosphere that Mr. Thomson skillfully describes." Murray added: "This often surreal, evanescent story takes careful reading, but the effort is worth it." A Publishers Weekly contributor found much to praise, remarking that Thomson's "writing is at once spare and rich, evoking a dazzlingly strange world with humor and terror; and the dying fall of the ending is poignantly exquisite."
Thomson's fourth novel, The Insult, appeared in 1996. This novel's protagonist, Martin, finds his life turned upside down when he is shot in a random act of violence and loses his sight. While his doctor attempts to prepare Martin emotionally for the loss he faces, Martin finds that he is regaining his vision and can see at night, despite a severed optic nerve. At the insistence of his doctor, Martin is sent to live with his parents as he learns to cope as a blind man. Martin, however, with his night vision, flees for the comforts of a shabby hotel in the city. As Martin creates a new life that is entirely nocturnal, he becomes involved with Nina, a waitress attracted to his supposed blindness. When he reveals his abilities to Nina, she flees and Martin, beginning to feel that his restored vision is part of some sinister plot, travels to her family home in the mountains and is given an account of the family history by her grandmother.
Although several reviewers commented that the account of Nina's family history in The Insult interrupts the momentum of the novel, a Publishers Weekly contributor remarked favorably on Thomson's "tinglingly fresh eye and ear for the most fleeting of sights and sounds and a dashing way with metaphor and imagery." "Rupert Thomson has a pitiless humour about human confusion; his prose maintains a high tension between fragile polished ironies and Brando-esque spunkiness," commented Richard Davenport-Hines in the Times Literary Supplement. He added: "The Insult is the most irresistible of his books; its resolution comes in a series of brutal and bleak surprises which will leave readers feeling incriminated by their own stupidity and weak need of comfortable solutions."
Soft!, Thomson's fifth novel, appeared in 1998. In this book Thomson tells the story of a soft-drink company trying to find success with a new beverage. Because the soft-drink market is already flooded with numerous competing drinks, executives at the company decide they must take radical action in marketing their product. Waitress Glade Spencer becomes a pawn in their marketing scheme when she decides to attend a sleep clinic to cure her of insomnia. Under the clinic's care, Glade is subjected to subliminal messages aimed to turn her and others at the clinic into sales people of the drink with evangelical intensity. However, when Glade begins acting strangely and the company faces the threat of public exposure, they hire Barker Dodds, a small-time criminal, to get rid of Glade. Calling Thomson "a hugely talented but hard-to-classify British writer whose books … have had little in common beyond their soaring imagination and startling vividness of style," a Publishers Weekly critic declared: "It is rare to find a book of such headlong readability that is also studded with memorable images of people and places." Booklistcontributor Frank Caso noted the novel's "magnificent touches of pathos and surrealism, which sets it apart and above others of this kind."
In his next novel, The Book of Revelation, Thomson tells the story of a young English dancer working in Amsterdam. One day, his girlfriend, a ballerina named Brigitte, asks him to go out and buy cigarettes for her. In the process of performing the errand, he is stabbed with a hypodermic needle by three strangers in dark cloaks and hoods. He passes out and when he awakes, he finds that he has been kidnapped by three women, who have him chained to railings bolted into the floor of an empty room. As the story unfolds over the next eighteen days, the dancer is sexually abused and psychologically tormented until he is finally forced to perform a dance in front of a group of masked people while chained via his foreskin to the wall. When he is finally released, the dancer finds that no one believes him, including his girlfriend, who sees his scars and bondage marks as supporting her suspicion that he ran off with someone else for a fling.
Noting that the novel sounds "lurid," James Hynes, writing in the Boston Review, continued that Thomson "makes … artistic decisions that push the novel far beyond the merely sensational and heighten its unsettling effect." Hynes went on to write: "It's another virtuoso evocation of a dream, in this case an erotic nightmare from which the reader can't tear his eyes away, though he is terrified of what he might see next." In his review in Time, Paul Gray noted the author's "spellbinding narrative," adding: "To share his protagonist's search for the meaning of his captivity is to embark on a chillingly haunted quest." Richard Bernstein, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that Thomson's "novel may produce a powerful disquiet in you. It may keep you up. It may give you nightmares. In a quiet, straightforward, unspectacular way, Mr. Thomson stirs emotions we usually try to keep at bay." Bernstein went on to write that the author "has produced an erotic horror story, but there is nothing banal or sensationalist about it. The Book of Revelation (whose mock-biblical title is itself a satirical master stroke) delves uncompromisingly and with lucidity into the mysteries of power and sexuality."
Thomson presents a dystopian novel with Divided Kingdom, which tells of a United Kingdom whose population is divided into four color-coded sectors based on their various populations' humors: the phlegmatic, the melancholic, the choleric, and the sanguine. Furthermore, society's disintegration is blamed largely on the family unit. The novel's protagonist, Thomas Parry, lives in the Red Quarter for those who are sanguine. Parry has no memory of his past before age eight, when he was taken from his real parents and made to live with his new father and sister, Victor and Marie Parry. Parry is essentially happy in living in the Red Quarter, which appears to be a much better place than the Yellow or Green quarters, where violence and despair reign, respectively. However, when Thomas goes to a strange nightclub one night at the invitation of a new acquaintance, he is taken to a series of doors and asked to choose which one to enter. His choice leads him to a brief encounter with his past life, an experience that sets him off on a quest to determine his previous identity.
Commenting on Divided Kingdom in the Boston Review, James Hynes wrote: "As a display of novelistic technique, the book is Thomson's riskiest act yet, as he treads the balance again between the surreal and the cogent. It is largely successful, too, once the reader, like Parry choosing a door in the Bathysphere Club, gives himself over to the sheer, vivid strangeness of the situation." In a review in the Library Journal, Misha Stone wrote: "His cautionary vision of the horrible controlling power of politics is an immensely riveting." Hugo Barnacle, writing in the New Statesman, noted Thomson's "subtle control of tone, which makes satire and adventure, comedy and grief seem all of a piece."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August, 1998, Frank Caso, review of Soft!, p. 1970.
Boston Review, January/February, 2006, James Hynes, "The Dreamlife of Rupert Thomson."
Independent (London, England), April 1, 2005, Boyd Tonkin, interview with author.
Library Journal, June 15, 2005, Misha Stone, review of Divided Kingdom, p. 62.
Literary Review, summer, 2000, Burton Raffel, "Novelists to Watch: Thomson, Timm, and Forbes," p. 585.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 1, 1988, Douglas Sun, review of Dreams of Leaving, p. 13.
New Statesman, May 2, 2005, Hugo Barnacle, review of Divided Kingdom, p. 54.
New York Times, March 8, 2000, Richard Bernstein, review of The Book of Revelation, p. B8.
New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, Linda Barrett Osborne, review of Dreams of Leaving, p. 20; October 6, 1991, Bruce Allen, review of The Five Gates of Hell, p. 20; March 13, 1994, David Murray, review of Air and Fire, p. 18; July 30, 1995, p. 293.
Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of Dreams of Leaving, p. 178; June 28, 1991, review of The Five Gates of Hell, p. 88; August 3, 1992, review of The Five Gates of Hell, p. 68; November 29, 1993, review of Air and Fire, p. 54; May 8, 1995, review of Air and Fire, p. 293; June 3, 1996, review of The Insult, p. 59; July 6, 1998, review of Soft!, p. 47.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), March 10, 2005, Mick Brown, interview with author.
Time, February 14, 2000, Paul Gray, review of The Book of Revelation, p. 80.
Times Literary Supplement, July 17, 1987, Andrew His-lop, review of Dreams of Leaving, p. 766; March 15, 1991, Tim Gooderham, review of The Five Gates of Hell, p. 11; April 9, 1993, Michael Kerrigan, review of Air and Fire, p. 21; March 8, 1996, Richard Davenport-Hines, review of The Insult, p. 24.
Bloomsbury Web site, http://www.bloomsbury.com/ (May 31, 2006), bio of author.
Divided Kingdom Web site, http://www.dividedkingdom.co.uk/default.asp/ (May 31, 2006).