Visions with the lights off

Christopher Hawtree reads a tale of cranial phantasmagorics by a writer with a fan club
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The Independent Culture
The Insult by Rupert Thomsom Bloomsbury, pounds 10.99

Is there life beyond the books pages? The question is prompted by a note on the back flap of Rupert Thomson's fourth novel. Readers can send off to a box-number in Earl's Court and join his fan club. Doubtless they will receive details of glossy posters, calendars and a special Christmas record along with the list of their hero's favourite food and type of motor-car. One can hardly imagine such an enterprise being sanctioned by, say, Julian Barnes or William Boyd, despite their greater customer base.

Of course, the whole thing might be a ruse got up to attract attention, a chance for reviewers to deploy an eye-catching first paragraph. One's hunch, though, is that the itinerant Thomson is a writer with a cult. This is something distinct from a small audience, numerically similar though these may be. It is perhaps a question of fervour, of attitude. (Jeanette Winterson is surely the Tolkien of her generation, read by those that don't read.) Way back in 1987 on the publication of Thomson's first novel, Dreams of Leaving, one reviewer indeed predicted "a cult success in paperback", trying to wish well a book in which he found: "all the sprawling chaos of the urban debauchery which it chronicles. Refined into neat paragraphs and pruned of its unconsequential talk, it would hardly work."

As far as one can now remember it, that hefty volume told of an abandoned child, Moses Highness, and his later pursuit by an Inspector Peach. Now, in The Insult, comes another strange chase or two. This is told in the first person by - mostly - Martin Blom, inhabitant of some unspecified central European city with a hint of America about it and even a dash of Brighton. Blom has been shot in the head and lost his sight, something which the surgeon, Bruno Visser, does not shirk from telling him as soon as possible. "We were, to some as yet unknown extent, dependent on each other."

The police are also on to the case. Meanwhile, with a plate of precision- engineered titanium fixed into his damaged skull, Blom discovers that he can see again - but only in the dark. This is an excellent notion, providing a surreal quality of a piece with the evocation of a night town which might, at moments, have strayed from the troubled mind of Cornell Woolrich (another cult.)

Blom tells nobody of this discovery and, becoming as sinister as the medical staff, he leaves the hospital to resume life in flop-and-slop hotels. Before long, he takes up with a waitress, Nina. Lights off: "I could even see the tiny golden hairs glinting on her thighs as she eased her jeans down to her ankles." And so on, until Nina vanishes. Fear of arrest precipitates Blom's own flight, which leads him to her grandmother and the tale of all the terrible events which had gone before this.

All of which - along with Blom's certainty that the titanium plate can receive television - makes The Insult sound rather more gripping than it is. Pitched somewhere between dream and reality, it rambles on for over 400 pages, its local detail small compensation for its chronic insubstantiality. The Insult never achieves the necessary phantasmagoria; readers might justly call themselves the Unconsoled. Nevertheless (and keenly priced as this version is), it might yet have a cult success in paperback among those with a penchant for Iain M. Banks. Others of us must hope that Thomson, who can certainly wield a pen, will develop that line in languorously fervid passion which took his last novel Air and Fire beyond pastiche to conjure a memorable portrayal of 19th-century Mexico.