The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
(Vintage, $12.00, 260 pages, paperback; originally published 1999; this edition January 2001.)
A white dancer-choreographer, at work in Amsterdam, is accosted by three hooded women whom he assumes are fans; the first he realizes otherwise is when he notices they have slipped a hypodermic into the back of his hand. When he wakes he finds himself in a room that is featureless save for the starkest accoutrements of bondage around the walls. For what he later discovers is a period of eighteen days he is subjected by the three masked women to escalating levels of inventive sexual and sadistic humiliation and torment: one day his naked, blindfolded body is used as the table/tableau for an invited banquet of unseen guests; another, his foreskin is crudely pierced with a screwdriver so that he may be chained by it to the wall. He attempts to personalize his captors, despite their anti-personalizing hoods, which they never shed; he believes that he succeeds in this, though perhaps all he observes are incomplete jigsaws whose not quite interlocking pieces comprise tones of voice, glimpsed birthmarks and vaginas, body languages and body morphologies.
Released abruptly back into the land of the living he realizes that he cannot explain himself and his absence. The dancer with whom he's lived assumes he has been indulging in a wild fling; his description of the truth is met with blank incredulity, and so he opts for a more plausible lie that is similarly disbelieved. Unceremoniously dumped, he embarks on a years-long campaign of seduction among the women of Amsterdam whose purpose is not consummation but identification: only when women are naked might he have a chance of recognizing them. After hundreds of conquests, however, he realizes that the viewed female bodies whose characteristics were once so firmly imprinted upon his mind have now become, perhaps, overlayered by all the others he has scrutinized.
After a long period of dislocation during which he is unable to establish any relationship with a woman beyond adding her body to the extending (but dismissed) identity parade in his mind, he discovers new love with a black woman, Juliette (Thomson deliberately keeps most of the characters in this novel as ciphers, but Juliette leaps joyously from the page); she is certainly innocent because none of his captors was black.
Finally, meeting a woman in a bar, he is convinced that he has discovered one of the three rapists. Following her to the lavatory, he rips the clothes from her and tries unsuccessfully and finally apologetically to find the identificatory marks; he ends up in jail, where still he cannot bring himself to confess to his new (and analogous) captors what happened to him. Only in the last couple of pages can he bring himself to start making the revelation that is the book you, the reader, hold in your hands.
Rationalized fantasy, to use a technical term, is not often a fertile field. For every time that an author has knowingly created a work of major impact to fantasy that consciously omits the elements commonly regarded as essential to fantasy, there are a thousand extremely tedious failures. The task for the writer is an extremely complex and convoluted one: (a) to understand the heart, the core, and the entire sensibility of fantasy; (b) to deconstruct all of this, so that one is left with a barebones; (c) to erect upon that barebones a structure that bears all the appurtenances of fantasy yet is not in itself a tale that must necessarily belong to the fantasticated -- one knows that it could have happened, yet at the same time one knows that it never did, that this is a fictional/fantasticated construct.
It's a neat trick that very few have been able to pull off. John Fowles did it with The Magus (1965) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), in both of which reality eternally shifts. Theodore Roszak did it with Flicker (1991). Valerie Martin did it with Mary Reilly (1990). Donna Tarrt did it with The Secret History (1992). There are other examples -- while reading this novel I found myself constantly thinking of Kafka -- but essentially we're talking about a select crew. In the case of The Book of Revelation we discover ourselves in the presence of someone who has been captivated into the land of Faerie -- he is away for a longer or shorter time (and who can decide?) than has elapsed during his absence. At the same moment he is desperately telling himself that the thing he has gone through is reducible to the mundane -- as if men are constantly being seized by predatory and preternatural women. He is entering a conspiracy to eliminate the possibility of the fantastic, even though he himself is the one who has endured the fantastic -- the Tom or Tam who has survived Faerie and its cruelties.
This is a novel which can be taken in terms of its surface as a psychological thriller of sorts, but it's very much more than that. It both subverts and substantiates what fantasy is all about. It survives in the mind long after the reading is done.
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© John Grant 7 April 2001