Saturday, 29 September 2012

Confiscate His Passport

The book begins brilliantly.  And for over a hundred pages it continues on its virtuoso way.  But then the focus switches, and the quality of the writing slows down, it loses its intensity, so that the wonderful images, those oh so vivid metaphors, fall away; while the fresh insights fade until they vanish into nothingness.  We look up, and see we are driving through all too familiar territory: a good but, alas, commonplace novel. 

After a wonderful morning amongst the exotica of Camden Lock a weary afternoon in the upmarket franchises of Brent Cross.

What has happened?   The book, after leaving the confinement of a room and its few characters, with its near microscopic treatment of their relationships, flies away, so that the hero can roam the wide roads and endless boulevards of… the globe – Mexico, Indonesia, Latin America; the list can easily be extended.  His money running out our hero then explores a continent of female bodies.  It is the literary equivalent of globalization, a technique that became prominent in the 1970s, the first decade of cheap air travel, and which has become ubiquitous since.  easyJet and Ryanair disasters for the serious artist, who jumps onto a plane the moment his material becomes intransigent.i  

The book now speeds through its remaining pages.  So many things happen so quickly; the hero sleeping with a hundred and sixty women in fourteen months can remember only one, who asked him if he had syphilis.  A comment, surely, on the places the novel is now passing through.  The book is also more explicit in its analysis.  It wants desperately to tell us what these events mean, like a loquacious tour guide in an art gallery.  But travelling so fast the insights are no longer that interesting, they have lost their obsessive particularity, so that all originality of thought and feeling, recently so prominent and exciting, has gone; and we are left with an enervating feeling of déjà vu (this is recognised by the hero, who after travelling for many months compares himself to those tourists who can recall hardly anything of the countries they have visited).  The novel is winding down, and the final scenes are poor.  The ending is surprisingly tricksy, although this usefully explains the structure of the novel, the alternation between first and third person narration, which seemed inexplicable while I was reading it.  This is certainly clever, but such cleverness suggests a weakness: the latter stages of the book constructed much too consciously, the writer forsaking his original talent by leaving the deeper depths of his mind behind.ii  My guess is that he ran away when the moment came to really work on his material: he found he couldn’t develop the narrative out of such a densely described and tightly packed scenario – the sudden break up of a long term couple who cannot communicate with each other at all (a tough one I agree).  Leaving Amsterdam he thought it would be easier in Mexico.  It was.  A catastrophe.

Psychologically the book’s second half feels right: the mental collapse of a man after being held in sexual slavery, who later becomes addicted to sex; an eccentric kind of crack cocaine.  After being imprisoned and humiliated the structure of his life shatters, and with no subsequent support he falls into clinical depression; which takes him years to recover; even a new love affair can’t quite remove it – the occasion for that last, and I have to say, inauthentic episode with the police.  Odd, given the extraordinary content of the novel’s first fifty pages, that these quite ordinary scenes should feel so off key.  They have not been properly imagined.  The author too influenced by others, I suspect – the wiseacre cops in popular TV shows are obvious candidates.  These final scenes lack originality, and their aesthetic integrity is thus impoverished, his imagination borrowed from those who have less than he (when writing at his best).  The beginning is different.  There he creates his own world and we live inside it, and believe in it absolutely, no matter how fantastic its details. 

The book’s turning point is its last really brilliant insight, which at the time seemed on the verge of taking the story onto a different level; deeper and even more unusual.

‘You left me,’ she said…

‘I didn’t leave you,’ I said.  ‘How could I leave you?’…

‘There was someone else,’ she said, ‘another woman.’

‘No, Brigitte.  There was no one else.’  I hesitated.  ‘Well…’

‘There.  You see?’  A kind of triumph rose on her face, a triumph that was wounded and perverse.

She had wrongfooted me the moment I walked into the apartment.  She had her own theory about where I had been for the past eighteen days.  I had been unfaithful to her, she said.  I embarrassed her.  Betrayed her.  The conclusion she had jumped to in my absence had become the truth.

Although surprising, this seems psychologically correct, given Brigitte’s character and the nature of their relationship.  The narrator unable to adequately respond because of the unexpected denial of an experience in which he is still immersed: he would be wrongfooted by his lover’s confident assertion of her belief in his actions; for who wouldn’t be nonplussed by such an obvious rejection of reality, particularly one we have experienced so strongly, and which has produced such complex emotions that are not easy to articulate. 

The failure to properly follow this scene up is the novel’s tragedy. 

The narrator and his lover are dancers in the same company.  They live and work together, and in seven years they have hardly been out of each other’s presence.  They are in love but the relationship between them is unequal: Brigitte is a self-contained artist unaware of the emotions of others.  People exist only to enable her to create her own aesthetic world; her boyfriend a perfect instrument for this function.  Eighteen days of absence would ruin such a relationship, which is both extremely solid and very fragile.  It is solid because their lives are fused together; fragile because Brigitte is emotionally distant; her love too entwined around her own ego to also encompass her partner, so that her connection to him is weak, and thus easily broken.  He exists simply to serve her. This is the nature of their relationship and the source of her love: he is not much more than an extension of herself, a large and attractive section in her narcissistic mosaic.  She doesn’t see him as a separate person, and if he acts in ways she doesn’t like she will neither understand nor forgive him.   

And thus we arrive at the aforementioned brilliant scene.

When the novel starts he is so happy!  And yet…  Imagine what it must be like living inside such an unequal relationship, where one partner is idolised by the other, who simply expects it, offering little in return.  He is hardly more than a servant, although a contented one.  He loves his work, and yet he has no free time, vocations tend to be all consuming, and this too binds him to Brigitte: they share the same purpose, and are consumed by it – there is no quiet moments for self-reflection and doubts.  So happy!   And yet… he cannot rely on her.  What if something were to go wrong?  He is getting old, his injuries signs that his dancing career will soon be over…  What must it be like to live with a person unable to see this; who cannot understand what is happening and empathise with the insecurities this will cause?  What must it be like to live alone inside a relationship that has lasted for years?  Your personality denied on a daily basis. 

The narrator is enjoying himself in a gilded cage located inside a lavishly decorated living room, vaguely aware that the locks are beginning to rust...

A few streets into the novel three women capture the narrator, and then use him as a sex slave.  There are times when his imprisonment reads like a commentary on his own relationship; a caricature of his idolisation of Brigitte’s body, which he has always served relentlessly: all his choreography is dedicated to her art.  I think of this analogy and wild thoughts emerge: have the two lovers swapped places?  Is the narrator, now trapped by three adoring serfs, being forced to see the world through his partner’s perspective?  Is this the reason for their actions?  That he must act out a mentality that is unable to penetrate someone else’s psyche, Brigitte’s understanding only skin deep.  Her life, we now realise, a kind of prison sentence.

It is hard to conceive of the nature of Brigitte’s inner life; so lacking in feeling and cognitive plasticity that she can reject her lover’s disappearance immediately and with so little thought; convincing herself it is a betrayal, believing it a source of personal ridicule and embarrassment – for her.  All about me!  What must it be like to live forever alone on your own island?  Not even Robison Crusoe went so far…  For most people their only concern would be the disappeared partner, and they would have experienced a prolonged period of unease and uncertainty over an event that was both strange and out of character.  Most of their thoughts would be about the missing lover.  This is not possible for Brigitte, who cannot deal with such insecurity; creating a plausible fiction to give her a new certainty, which now becomes her faith – he left me for another woman.   She is safe once again inside her own mind, and that is enough for her.  Me!  Me is all that matters, even if it results in her own victimhood, believing she is the dupe of her partner’s lust.  Even better! one could argue, for it confirms her distance from the rest of humanity, and removes her own doubts and her mental and emotional confusion with the anger of her aggressive response.  She knows he is to blame.  How secure she must feel as she stands on her own self-righteous foundations.  Although we imagine this is a lonely and unsettling place to reside; other people too far away to be seen clearly if at all.   And when the unavoidable happens and she sees them close up we guess she thinks them rather odd and utterly opaque – they are always a mystery; always a threat.  It’s like living in a town where everyone wears sunglasses, and hides themselves behind fancy dress.  Everything is a vast conspiracy, unless there are servants and disciples to serve and worship you.  Reflecting your own personality they provide those rare moments of power and wealth, the illusion you are master of the universe.  You.  You are the only person that counts.  The only person you can understand, though not that well: Brigitte is neither self-critical nor self aware, for all her attention is focused onto her art.  Her partner disappears, and she cannot deal with it.  She is not prepared to try to understand what has happened, with all the confusion and uncertainties this can cause; all those emotions she will not be able to control.  This is too difficult, too uncomfortable for such a selfish nature, which doesn’t want others to intrude into its being.  Always must she remain inviolate.  So she writes off her lover’s disappearance by giving it a meaning it doesn’t have; a fantasy to put her mind at ease; so she can forget once more about the crowded city outside her own mind.  He left me for another woman.  It makes her feel good.  It is the only thing her ego needs.  Leave me be!

The novel begins with an epigraph from Stefan Hertmans:

Will there ever be anything other than the exterior and speculation in store for us?  The skin, the surface – it is man’s deepest secret.

This is precisely what the first part of the novel enacts, and brilliantly.  It is almost a study in behaviourism – all the hero’s experience is understood through a limited range of actions, which are mostly stimulus and response.  There are no faces to see, and only a few words to open tunnels into a person’s psyche…  Such an intensely focussed gaze creates some great images; and satisfies this writer’s exuberant imagination; for by creating a situation where anything is possible the exotic resources of fantasy can be realistically employed.iii  It also allows for new insights, as the perspectives are shunted into new positions, and feelings of powerlessness create psychological extremes; especially well caught when the narrator goes hysterical in the garden: fresh air suddenly as potent as alcohol.  The complexities of social interaction can also be explored as strange new relationships develop.  The narrator increasingly dependent upon the guards who enslave him, and the sexual mistresses finding their own actions compromised as they interact with their prisoner – feelings of love, hate and adoration, together with reflexive sexual behaviour, grow and maturate in this eccentric prison cell.  Emotions entrap us.iv  And we come to need even the people we do not like, or who treat us badly.  Habit and routine can reinforce these feelings, by giving them a structure that we cannot live without.  It is why a prison can become a home; and why the narrator can be sodomised and still ejaculate.  Punishment a sign of domestic care. 

Brigitte is outside our world, and she is indifferent to it.  What must it be like living with such a person?  At a profound level there is no communicative understanding at all between the two partners.  Her loneliness creates his own.  There are times during his imprisonment we think the narrator is groping at this idea.  We believe this will be the meaning of the novel, discovered when he recognises Brigitte in himself; a moment of revelation and a devastating insight.  We expect, then we hope, until…

We are to be disappointed by the banality of ordinary psychology.  Let out of his sex jail, and without the understanding of his partner, while embarrassed by what has happened to him, his life collapses, and he becomes little more than a bum.  Depression, by de-structuring a life, and opening the sluice gates to the emotions, which swirl around like water at the bottom of a weir, tends to lessen a person’s engagement with the world by reducing their mental capacity and thus their ability to cope with the demands of daily living, from which arises a tendency to aimlessly float on these disturbed waters.  This is the plot for the rest of the novel.  In the narrator’s case it means running away from life – to make it into a permanent holiday.  All this seems so very true, and even here, because Thomson is an excellent writer, there are moments of wonderful prose: depressed people are not without sparks of light.  However, after the brilliance of the first half these sections feel weak and underwritten.  The book needed to be more contained; it had to continue concentrating on the small details, out of which the subterranean seams of his relationship could be successfully mined.  Hard on the hero, I know, but he is only a fictional character, let us not forget.  He had to stay in that room, until at least the last page, even if his mind wandered freely over their years together.  He didn’t, and we are disappointed.  That exchange with Brigitte, which I have quoted above, should have been the book’s last paragraph.  What a masterpiece it could have been…

Instead the narrative turns into a sort of detective novel, where the narrator tries to find the three kidnappers by sleeping with as many women as he can - he hopes to recognise their bodies during sexual congress.  The plot has become a metaphor for relationship breakdown – our life collapses, and we look for the key to our emotional apocalypse.   This is psychologically right, but aesthetically wrong, and so the book becomes a failure.  Thomson should have stayed with the art.  He should have kept his hero in that room; to let us watch, and guess, and speculate… He should allowed us to think about the nature of the prison that he and Brigitte had created, in a beautiful apartment in a lovely house, by a canal in the centre of Amsterdam.

(Review of The Book of Revelation, by Rupert Thomson)

[i] For the cheaper, mass market, brand see my Faster! Faster! Faster!
[ii] For an extended discussion of the role of the unconscious in writing see my Silent and Invisible (Growing All the Time).
[iii] We see this in his excellent The Insult.  While his masterpiece, Dreams of Leaving, is divided into two halves – realistic and imaginary.
[iv] Is that why they let him go free?  Are they fearful of being trapped inside their sexual sadism?  Their prisoner slowly becoming their jailor…

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