Pictures at an Exhibition opens in a warm, comfortable house. A sycophantic young doctor is attempting to psychoanalyse his boss, who is suffering from nightmares and terrible headaches. There is no obvious cause: 'He felt no stress, apart from his illness. He enjoyed his work; he was competent - more than competent, many would say - at his job; and he had the satisfaction of a duty well performed. . .' Thomas is deliberately unforthcoming about what is going on, but aspects of the scene echo oddly. Why is the young doctor so obsessed with the cake he is brought as refreshment? Why does he go back to sleep in narrow bunks in a crowded dormitory? Why are his other colleagues so hostile towards his new work?
This sense of skewed normality, but normality none the less, makes full realisation - via the noise of the trains, the skeletal frame of the young doctor and, finally, the fear he instils in his superior's daughter because of his shaven head - all the more disturbing when it finally arrives. Eventually we understand that we are in Auschwitz, and that the young doctor is a Jewish prisoner who is collaborating with his captors. He seems to agree that the life they lead is not an overt reason for stress, although he has pulled his own wife's body out of the gas chambers and helps to conduct bizarre experiments on his own people every day.
At this point, only 30 or so pages into the novel, and already dragged by our desire for the full story into identifying with this narrator, we must ask ourselves about the ethics of these games. There is a problem with making imaginative leaps over the charnel-houses of Europe. Some may argue that one needs to bring all the forces of the human imagination to bear on the Holocaust, to make it real again. But it is also, as Julie Burchill put it about Martin Amis, a party-trick with skulls.
This growing feeling of distaste turns to disgust only a few pages later, when Thomas lets his imagination run amok with the pornography of suffering. We are introduced to Irma Grese: 'Brandishing her whip, blonde, plump, ravishingly beautiful, wearing a cream-coloured suit and slingback shoes'. She is meting out punishment to a German family and a Jewish family whom they took into hiding. In a psychological torture scene, the young Jewish girl claims that she is not Jewish, and to prove it is required to have sex with the man who claims to be her father, and then to send all of them to their deaths. Thomas spares us nothing. The details rise up off the page, horrible in their precise luminosity: 'The man couldn't get an erection. I crouched and whispered, 'Take his penis in your mouth, do whatever you have to. . . It was perfectly obvious to everyone that this was father and daughter, and that the girl had been a virgin. . . Irma gave the girl, as she got dressed, a bar of chocolate.'
The pure unlikeliness of such scenarios is plain; the fact that Thomas includes them because they excite him is also plain. And this is by no means the grossest of his attempts to turn the landscape of death into a backdrop for titillation. Readers who plough through the whole of this section will receive the impression that Auschwitz was an orgy, only occasionally interrupted by the transports and the genocide.
Perhaps Thomas feels that the actual deaths - by gassing and shooting and starvation - no longer have the power to move us if they are not so spiced. Tellingly, when the narrator of this section remembers his arrival in Auschwitz, he says: 'On the way there was the usual overcrowding and starvation,'(my italics) and, at other points, 'The Dantesque scene has been described many times, and there is no point adding to that list. . . some eight hundred Polish Jews were choking on gas, but that was normal. . .' This barely hidden contempt for well-known scenes of tragedy lies at the root of the book's decadence.
Eventually Thomas leaves Auschwitz and moves to the present day, where the commandant whom we met being analysed (or perhaps, in a particularly depressing ambiguity, this is his double, the Jewish doctor) is living in London as a respected psychoanalyst, having completely hidden his past. The narration is preposterously confusing from now on: the psychoanalyst; two patients he is analysing; a feminist who enters analysis, in her turn, with one of the patients; her husband, who is having an affair with the wife of one of the patients; that particular woman, who is also having an affair with her lover's father; and other similarly interconnected characters take over the narrative turn by turn with letters, monologues from the analyst's couch and streams of consciousness.
Almost everyone seems hazily linked to the events of the Auschwitz section, although Thomas will only present us with dribs and drabs of possible connections - repeated gestures, re-appeared artefacts, endless rumours of changed names, swapped allegiances and hidden parentage.
There is nothing to rejoice over stylistically in this tangled web, nothing to make us believe that the mess is deliberate and the result of a grandly ironic masterplan. Rather, the characterisations and motivations are sketchy, with cliches and stereotypes verging on the ludicrous. The socialist-feminist casually observes after a train journey: 'The tube was packed . . . and some man groped me. It was crazy, the way people were struggling to get on and off, showing no concern for others. Naked Thatcherism]' Occasional glimpses of subplots reveal a dismal world of sexual perversion and directionless betrayals, capped by a grotesquely unconvincing denouement of byzantine cruelty.
The key to all this enervating byplay that takes up the rest of the novel is found in a couple of places: 'You said life wasn't really here, and only survivors like Myra. . . knew where it really was'; 'She tells me there was more sense of spirituality at Auschwitz than there is in modern London. I can believe it.' It is an oddly inhuman mind that could write a book to flesh out such an idea.
While The White Hotel worked hard to remind us that behind every anonymous corpse lay a fully-lived, incomprehensibly rich life. Pictures at an Exhibition flattens and empties out its characters, attempting to convince us that every potentially vibrant individual is really just a face in the crowd of dehumanised corpses and jailers.