Books: The puzzling effect of an MTV promo made prose

The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson Bloomsbury pounds 12.99

Images rather than narratives, easy surprises rather than derived consequences, sensations rather than depth. In a largely visual age, the MTV promo is king - that cold collation of fabulous images and pyrotechnic effects, none of which need have any connection, either to each other or to the source material. Every artist envies this freedom to invent at will, but any artist with ambitions knows there must be more.

Thomson's new novel is the promo made prose. His writing bears comparison with the greats, some of the sentences are gems. But what does it all mean? Are these anything more than sparkly images sewn together for the hell of it?

One of the distinguishing features of the short film - whether MTV or advertisement - is beauty. The setting may be grimy, but it will always be thoroughly cleansed grime, creating just the right amount of fashionable griminess. So when Thomson's hero is kidnapped from an Amsterdam alley, there's nothing sordid or scary about it. Instead three women in long black cloaks and hoods (in my mind, I saw that Scottish insurance woman) gather round him, praise him and only then gently stick the needle in.

When he wakes, he can hear "violins. Or cellos. A quartet perhaps." Instead of being terrified out of his wits, he notices "his wrists and ankles held by stainless steel rings. Each ring was attached to its own individual rail by a second smaller ring ... The structure puzzled him." Puzzled? Most of us would be screaming, crying, begging - I don't think we'd have time for mere puzzlement.

You begin to wonder if this will be the soft porn end of the promo market. And you're not disappointed. The first half of the book concerns his time chained to that curiously elegant structure and how the women (ab)use him sexually. So, later the same day, they strip him, fondle him to climax and lick him dry. The next day they strip and order him to masturbate - he meanwhile notices the shape the sunlight makes on the bare boards. The following days, they masturbate in front of him ... you get the picture. Although they never remove their hoods, the women each reveal differing characters: one wants to just spend the night merely hugging him, another sodomises him. All three force a hood on him and then invite their friends round for supper - he serves as a naked table. All these acts are described tastefully, the chapter ending just before things turn too liquid or nasty. Finally they decide to puncture a hole in his foreskin with a screwdriver, insert a ring and chain him to the wall. Instead of then retreating into hysterical paralysis, he is soon working out how to dance Act III of Swan Lake for them, cunningly making a virtue of a chain attached to the end of his schlong. Did I mention he's a professional ballet dancer?

Yes, it's ridiculous. But so well described you find yourself going with the flow, wanting to know more, searching for the promised revelation. When he is summarily dumped beside the road after 18 days, instead of breaking down or even telling his girlfriend the truth, he says nothing. As a result she presumes he disappeared on some sort of affair and their relationship is dead.

Yet still you want to read on, you want to know what effect this interlude will have on him. He tries rural retreat, he tries foreign travel, back in Amsterdam he tries to find the three women. Only able to recognise their naked bodies, he proceeds to sleep with "one hundred and sixty-two women in fourteen months". But it's all in vain.

In the past, Thomson has carved himself a well-deserved niche with stories of dislocated worlds and even more dislocated feelings. His characters are driven by almost expressionistic impulses - they may not exist as people but they do exist as emotions, needs, understandable human confusions. It never seems to matter in The Insult that we do not know who shot and blinded the hero or why. In fact, is he blind or not? And when he ends up in a strange, mittel-European world of Kafkaesque structures and dreamlike possibilities it doesn't matter. At his best, Thomson's characters benefit from this lack of foundation and the result is that you are given the chance to discover new, disjointed worlds through their eyes.

Maybe The Book of Revelation is simply set too close to the real world. His story is just within the realms of possibility, and the cityscapes, vividly described, are always strongly credible. But what actually happens is just too silly and too purposeless to make you care.

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