Books: King of the two-word sentence

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SOFT by Rupert Thomson, Bloomsbury pounds 12.99

RUPERT THOMSON'S last novel The Insult was set both in its protagonist's head and in an unnamed, neon-lit otherworld, vaguely Eastern European in style and tone. I was stopped in my tracks by this book, spooked by its coherent but unfathomable strangeness, seduced by its linguistic elasticity and verve. But most of all, I wondered about the setting. From where had Thomson plucked a place that felt both solid and fleeting, unlikely but familiar? Still haunted by it - and with expectations running dangerously high - I began his latest.

Soft is set mostly in London but (unsurprisingly) it's a faraway, freakish London - recognisable, but disorientatingly askew. The ordinary landmarks - Marshall Street swimming baths, a Lebanese restaurant on the Edgeware Road, the Circle Line - are real, but almost aggressively so. This is the capital through an uneasy, distorted lens, more David Lynch than Mike Leigh.

Barker is a rough bloke from a Plymouth estate, suspected but innocent of a rival family member's murder. In and out of trouble all his life, he runs to London to escape the victim's family and his own reputation. A friend puts him up and he talks his way into a barber's shop job. Then his brother calls to ask if he wants to earn "six grand". Wary, but tempted, Barker is handed an envelope containing instructions. Out falls the photo of a pretty, lost-looking blonde whom he's been hired to kill.

We cut to Glade, a 23-year-old, blonde waitress: passive, sensitive, suggestible. She's conducting a highly unsatisfactory transatlantic relationship with a rich and high-powered American boyfriend, who flies her out whenever he craves a bit of her London street-cred and sweet spontaneity. When he invites her to a New Orleans wedding, she realises she has nothing to wear. An advertisement in the paper offers pounds 100 for spending two days in a sleep clinic. Glade sleeps, buys her dress, goes to New Orleans. There, something strange happens. She can't stop thinking of the colour orange and craving a soft drink called Kwench! which, to her knowledge, she's never heard of.

After 100 pages we move on to Jimmy, Senior Brand Manager for the East Coast Soda Corporation. ECSC are launching a new "healthy" soft drink in the UK and one day Jimmy has a brilliant idea - not quite legal, not quite moral - for its marketing. Aware of the queasy implications, he nevertheless runs it past his boss.

Tough, funny and scary though it is, it's true that the novel is making a not-that-original point about advertising. Don't be fooled. It's not what Thomson does, but the way he does it: how he runs these three distinct and different strands together - spinning his story from back to front, letting you guess everything except how it will turn out - that makes the book hypnotic and charming.

In other hands, Soft might read like one of those cockily masculine thrillers, but Thomson's writing has a sly, sexy and at times almost girlish heart. He builds his characters through unexpected anecdote, quirkily frozen moments. He not only tells us exactly what they're thinking, but how it feels for them to think it.

I'm sure it's this concentration on the precise flavour of thought that makes his people so instantly solid, so real. How else would he get away with (a writer's no-no) dropping a character for so long, only to take them up again hundreds of pages later without losing our interest or our allegiance? Barker, Glade and Jimmy have proper, fleshed-out inner lives. After a mere page or so you care so much that you ignore the loss of the previous protagonist.

And language is all. There's a lightness about Thomson's prose, an impatience (he's undisputed king of the two-word sentence) but it's tempered by a stillness. Painterly, he sets words against one another so their meanings seem to pool and bleed, making something new. In all the novels, you sense the words - their actual shape and sound as well as their implications - giving birth to the story. Here, his chapter headings - "Tact", "Synchro", "Supersaver", "Cheops" - are as much about their linguistic bite as their content. In New Orleans, Glade sees a sign in a shop window - "Hot Wings Are Back" - and is stunned, haunted by it until it becomes a slogan for her general helplessness. And slogans - condensed nuggets of nothingness - are a good vehicle for Thomson.

Soft is about suggestion and manipulation, but it's also about language and, inescapably, about love and the longing for it. If I've made the strangeness, the mind games, the otherworldliness, sound dry or unemotional, I don't mean to. For in writing about otherness, Thomson describes - better than almost anyone I've read - the common experience. You know what he means.

His novels are widely read and lavishly praised by people who feel every bit as passionate about them as I, yet every literary prize - or even shortlist - has so far eluded him. I wish I knew why.