by Rupert Thomson
Bloomsbury, pounds 12.99
Rupert Thomson's brilliant new novel is a powerful corrective to the view that the greatest threat to Western democracy comes from foreign dictators. identifies the far more insidious threat at the heart of our own institutions. Freedom implodes in the boardrooms of international capitalism.
Thomson eschews the exotic locations of his novels Earth and Air and The Five Gates of Hell for a devastatingly understated attack on contemporary corporate ethics. In six self-contained sections, he examines the lives of three people associated with the launch of a new orange-flavoured drink, Kwench! - the exclamation mark is crucial. They are Jimmy Lyle, a high- flying young executive with the American East Coast Soda Corporation which produces the drink; Glade Spencer, an artist-cum-waitress unwittingly involved in its promotion; and Barker Dodds, an ex-bouncer who is hired as a hit-man when the marketing strategy misfires.
Thomson's characters are as deeply implicated in one another's lives as in a novel by Dickens - and, indeed, bound by the same financial nexus. His method is not to manipulate plot but rather to create parallels and correspondences (significantly, a key image is that of synchronised swimmers). He is thus able to share the 19th-century novelist's concern with moral connections while remaining true both to the fragmentation of contemporary society and our sense of being manipulated by forces beyond our control.
Not only do the central characters remain strangers to each other (until the very end), but they fail to have any meaningful relationships elsewhere. Barker travels from Plymouth to London to escape vengeance (ironically, for one crime he did not commit), leaving behind a string of failed relationships; Jimmy is obsessed with his job and has as brutal an attitude to his colleagues as Barker does to his underworld associates; Glade, whose personal life is most fully explored, is having a long-distance relationship with a mysterious American lawyer who rapes her in his car.
Glade suffers an even more intimate violation when she volunteers for a project of "polysomnography", or sleep staging. Far from being the medical research she believes, this is Jimmy's scheme for the ultimate product placement, bypassing billboards and commercials to instil a demand for Kwench! directly in the subjects' brains. As Glade becomes obsessed with all things orange, (dressing in it; painting in it; dyeing her hair), it is not merely the colour which puts the reader in mind of the brainwashing tactics of A Clockwork Orange.
With Glade increasingly disturbed and her old friend Charlie increasingly suspicious, the East Coast Soda Corporation is forced to engage in a damage- limitation exercise. The air of violence which has permeated the novel becomes real as Barker is made the agent for the clean-handed corporate villainy. Thomson's achievement is to have put a thrillingly contemporary twist on the institutionalised-corruption theme of so much popular fiction. His imagery is as up-to-date as his subject: one of Barker's antagonists is described as having a moustache "like the bar code on a pint of milk". may not be the virtuoso pyrotechnical display of The Five Gates of Hell, but it burns with a slow brilliance.