Books discussed in this essay
Dreams of Leaving, Bloomsbury, 1987
The Five Gates of Hell, Vintage, 1991
Air and Fire, Vintage, 1993
The Insult, Vintage, 1996
Soft!, Knopf, 1998
The Book of Revelation, Vintage, 1999
Divided Kingdom, Knopf, 2005
The American novelist John Gardner famously defined the crafting of fiction as the creation of a vivid and continuous dream—first in the mind of the writer and then, if the novelist does his or her job properly, in the mind of the reader. I don’t know if the British novelist Rupert Thomson has ever read John Gardner, but in an interview about his novel The Insult (1996), Thomson talks about the roots of his inspiration in a similar way: Whenever I start a new book I have nightmares. Night after night. For a long time I didn’t understand why. Recently I came up with a theory. To write fiction of any power and authenticity you have to draw on the deepest, most secret parts of yourself. That’s where fiction comes from, but it’s also where dreams are made. Small wonder, then, if there’s a certain amount of cross-fertilisation between the two. I often think of Louise Bourgeois in this context. She once said, I trust my unconscious. The unconscious is my friend. . . . You might say that I want my fiction to have that relationship to reality. I want to be able to look at reality from a standpoint that feels unpredictable, surreal, and yet, at the same time, entirely cogent. I seem to be attracted to ideas that allow me to do this.
Thomson seems to be pushing beyond Gardner’s metaphor of fiction-as-dream toward something like dream-as-fiction—but what Thomson’s work shares with Gardner’s definition is the ideal of cogency, the idea that the vivid dream should remain continuous, uninterrupted, and convincing. The paradox at the heart of Thomson’s best work is that, even more than most fiction, it remains as strange and seamless as a dream even though it is composed of different styles and influences and intentions. In all of his books, there are, in various combinations and with variations in emphasis, elements of noir and gothic; the allegorical and the satirical; the grittily realistic and the surreal. In the same book Thomson can come across like Kafka one moment, like the British fantasist Mervyn Peake the next, and then turn as hard-boiled as Raymond Chandler. He combines a Nabokovian joy in the precise description of quotidian detail with a Dickensian skill at characterization that borders on, and sometimes crosses right over into, the grotesque. In another interview he cites Flannery O’Connor as one of his favorite authors, but imagine a Flannery O’Connor without the doomy Catholicism—a club-hopping Flannery O’Connor, if you like, who knows as much about sex, drugs, and drinking as she does about violent sociopaths and religious obsessives.
Indeed, the gleeful idiosyncrasy that makes Thomson’s books so intriguing, and so fun to read, is the same quality that makes them hard to explain. In spite of all his effortless syncretism, Thomson is not a postmodernist, anxious to show off. He is certainly clever, but at no point in any of his seven densely imagined novels does he ask the reader to step outside the story and consider its textuality. These novels are not pastiches, or if they are, they are pastiches in the way a dream is, seamlessly and mysteriously stitched together in the lizard brain. You might even say that Thomson is an old-fashioned writer in the way that Mervyn Peake was: no matter how weird the set-up—an imaginary country sort of like America but sort of not in The Five Gates of Hell; the subliminal ad campaign to end all subliminal ad campaigns in Soft!; Britain disunited in the latest novel, Divided Kingdom—Thomson works hard, and usually successfully, to help the reader imagine himself deeply into the story. There is no irony or distancing; we are meant to experience each work as a dark, vivid, and all-encompassing dream. And the reader finishes Thomson’s best work as if coming out of a troubled sleep: both thrilled and disturbed, mostly disappointed that it‚ÄV 99s over but a little relieved, too, and wondering, as often as not, “Where the hell did that come from?”
* * *
Several of these disparate elements—the dark, dreamlike quality, the juxtaposition of the surreal and the ordinary—are already on display in the first chapter of Thomson’s first novel, Dreams of Leaving (1987). The opening scene, a funeral in an obscure and isolated English village called New Egypt in 1956, with a tiny, empty coffin for an infant whose body was never found, is funny, creepy, and portentous. Indeed, the very first line of the book—“It was a hot day to be wearing black”—is the chapter in a nutshell, gothic and oppressive all at once. It turns out that New Egypt is the sort of village-with-a-secret you often find in British science fiction and horror novels of the ’50s and ’60s, a pocket dystopia that is part Twilight Zone and part allegory for the everyday deprivations of postwar England. The village’s secret, which Thomson characteristically never explains, is that its inhabitants are forbidden to leave, a rule that is enforced by a thuggish constabulary headed by the sinister Chief Inspector Peach. The creepiness of the situation derives mainly from the stifling dullness of English middle-class life, which crushes any thought of escape out of almost all the villagers. Almost, that is, except for George Highness, who manages to place his infant son Moses in a basket and successfully float him down the river to freedom, making Moses the only person ever to escape the village—an escape that George guarantees by persuading the skeptical Inspector Peach that the boy is dead.
This opening is a gripping bit of English suburban gothic (with biblical undertones), but in the next chapter the story shifts to Moses, now a young man, and the bulk of the novel is a rambling and realistic account of Moses’s coming of age in the hard-partying London of the 1980s, accompanied by a large cast of colorful, disreputable, and slightly interchangeable friends. All of which is fun, but once the novel leaves New Egypt, it becomes episodic and loses much of its tension, and it isn’t until fairly late in the book, when Moses enters into a passionate friendship with an older, married woman that inevitably becomes an affair, that the reader (or this reader, anyway) stops missing the wily and highly entertaining Inspector Peach. Eventually Thomson grafts the two stories together, but you can still see the stitches, and you can’t help wishing that Thomson had either told one story or the other, but not both, at least not in the same book.
Still, Dreams of Leaving remains interesting as a first attempt to marry gritty, London noir with Hammer-film gothic. In his next novel, The Five Gates of Hell (1991), Thomson expands his creepy English village into an entire creepy city, Moon Beach, an American-style metropolis on the eastern coast of a large, unnamed country, whose chief industry is funerals. Moon Beach sometimes feels like Miami, sometimes like Los Angeles or New Orleans, sometimes like Mexico City (complete with an annual Day of the Dead), but it is always mysterious, less a portrait of a real American city than a vivid hallucination of one. At any rate, it’s a large enough setting to encompass the twin, interlinked comings of age of the shabby-genteel Nathan Christie and the petty criminal Jed Morgan; and the complicated plot, as the lives of Nathan and Jed cross and recross, is mainly an excuse to explore this landscape. While the city feels American, many of the characters still feel British, and these disparate elements—noir and gothic, American and British—come together in the character of Neville Creed, who is part funeral magnate and part Cockney crime boss, sort of a cross between Vincent Price and Bob Hoskins. He is also a sexual predator operating under the name of Reid; as Creed he employs and then betrays Jed, and as Reid he drugs and rapes the hapless Nathan while wearing a suit made out of human bones. The novel often reads like a collaboration between Raymond Chandler— The strong man lit a cigarette. It looked too frail for his hand. They looked like King Kong and Fay Wray, that hand, that cigarette. There was a movie going on right under his nose and he didn’t even know. The guy had about one brain cell and he was doing time in it.
and a modern gothicist like Clive Barker or Neil Gaiman— It was still dark in the garden, but dawn had spilled across the sky like acid. It dripped down into the trees, eating night from between the branches. The hedge was no longer the silhouette it had been an hour before; hundreds of individual leaves stood out. When you had been up all night, dawn was like a magic trick: even though you knew what was coming, it still managed to surprise you. It was sinister too: you realised just how slowly the world turned, how slowly and relentlessly; you realised there was no escaping it.
This last paragraph, moving from a gothic metaphor to a cynical Chandleresque second person, is a reminder that noir and gothic are near cousins and share some essential elements: a palpable sense of impending doom, the constant threat of violence and death, and a seething, often perverse sexuality. All of which Thomson improbably wears as comfortably and stylishly as a trench coat and fedora—or a suit of human bones.
* * *
Thomson’s third novel, Air and Fire (1993), is set in a specific time and place—Baja California in the 1890s—and has no overtly surreal or fantastic elements, but even so, it still feels more like a dream than like a realistic historical novel. A French engineer, Théophile Valence, and his younger wife, Suzanne, arrive in a remote Mexican mining port called Santa Sofia, where Valence has come to construct a church designed, in cast iron, by his mentor Gustave Eiffel and shipped in pieces. It is Thomson’s most conventionally plotted and structured novel: the arrival of the beautiful Suzanne stirs up the locals and attracts the attentions of a hot-blooded Mexican officer and a diffident American prospector named Wilson. It’s also a bit schematic, bordering on the allegorical, moving between the foolish pretensions of the Europeans in the upper town and the more elemental antics of the Mexicans in the lower town.
The best scenes revolve around Wilson, who is hopelessly in love with Suzanne, and perhaps the best of those depicts Wilson’s ride to Suzanne’s rescue after she disappears in the desert. This is a gorgeously written scene, mixing reality, hallucination, and memory as Wilson staggers through the dark: The night grew softer, another presence, warm and close, as if he were lying in bed and a face had lowered over him. Eyes patched with shadows. A needle like a splinter of the moon between his father’s fingers. He cried out. The desert took the cry and swallowed it. Towards the end his father had begun to believe in his own punishment. All his misfortunes had been earned. Any apparent fulfillment of a dream was only another persecution in disguise. Hope became a poison to him; he lanced the place inside himself where it had lived, and drained it out of him like pus.
Martin Blom, the protagonist of Thomson’s next novel, The Insult (1996), shows a similar diffidence and longing, as well as a similarly conflicted relationship with male authority figures. Martin is also Thomson’s first first-person narrator, leading the reader through another curious hybrid of genres. As the book opens, Martin has been shot in the head, and his neurosurgeon, the mysterious Dr. Visser, tells him he’ll be blind for the rest of his life. It turns out that Martin can still see, but only at night—a perfect condition, it would seem, for the narrator of either a noir or a gothic novel. The mystery is compounded when Dr. Visser tells Martin that what he sees at night are merely hallucinations, and further compounded by Martin’s increasingly strange and vivid dreams.
With an opening like this, it would seem that The Insult (the title refers to Martin’s injury) is leading into an examination of the shifting boundaries of memory, perception, and delusion, but then, like Dreams of Leaving, it wanders off in another direction. It becomes instead another diffident bildungsroman, as Martin finds a room in a hotel near the red-light district of an unnamed city that has a gloomy, Central European feel to it and befriends several colorful lowlifes. He takes up with a mysterious young woman named Nina and travels to the village where she grew up, at which point the book takes another tangent as an old woman in the village tells Nina’s complicated family history (over the course of 100 pages), which has nothing to do with what came before. After which the book simply ends.
As a piece of storytelling, the book is a failure, the apotheosis of a tendency in Thomson’s early work to privilege exquisite prose, the evocation of setting, and a certain grotesquerie in characterization over storytelling. The stories are complicated in these early books, even ornate, but they aren’t necessarily very memorable. Given the roots of his work in the subconscious, this tilting of the balance toward the surreal and away from cogency is perhaps the biggest risk Thomson has taken as an artist; in his early novels he inadvertently changed the question from “Where did that come from?” to “What was that about?” And yet, page by page, sentence by sentence, The Insult is still compelling and memorable. It was the first Thomson book I read, and however the book may frustrate conventional narrative satisfactions, it led me to seek out his next two books, in which Thomson perfectly combines intriguing premise, storytelling, and mise-en-scène.
* * *
Soft! (1998) is the most thrillerish of Thomson’s novels, and it is the tension between the fantastic premise and the solid genre armature of its narrative that makes it so successful. Unlike Dreams of Leaving and The Insult, Soft! does not introduce a premise in the opening chapter that is then abandoned but builds it into the narrative for the reader to discover; and we don’t find out until well into the book that a soft-drink manufacturer has initiated a secret marketing campaign for an orange soda called Soft! by planting a subliminal lust for the drink in the unsuspecting subjects of a fake psychology research project. As in The Five Gates of Hell, the outlandishness of the premise is grounded by the specificity of Thomson’s prose and further bound by the complicated, intertwined lives of the novel’s three point-of-view characters.
The first 50 pages introduce a tough bouncer from the west of England named Barker Dodds in pure hardboiled prose—“So far he’d been lucky. But prison ran in the family, like wiry hair and heart disease. Sooner or later he’d be put away for something, even if he was innocent”—as he tries to flee his violent past and reestablish himself as a barber in London. But as with all noir protagonists, there’s no escaping the past, and Barker is forced into the canonical One Last Job, a murder contract against a seemingly innocent young woman named Glade Spencer. The novel then switches to Glade’s sad backstory—half-assed artist working as a waitress, exploited lover of a peripatetic American businessman, devoted daughter to a sad-sack father—as she becomes a research subject for a sleep study so that she can buy a dress with the £100 fee. It isn’t until nearly halfway through the novel that we learn that the‚60úsleep study” is actually a subliminal marketing campaign devised by a feckless, ambitious young marketing executive named Jimmy Lyle to impress the American bosses of the conglomerate that owns the soft-drink company he works for. The marketing scheme goes spectacularly awry as the campaign’s “ambassadors” (as the research subjects are called) quickly go crazy, and Jimmy Lyle watches in some dismay (though not nearly enough) as his superiors resort to murder to cover up the fiasco. Meanwhile Barker closes in on Glade as she becomes obsessed with all things orange, dressing completely in orange clothing and buying endless quantities of Soft!, a drink that she doesn’t even like.
On the surface, the book is a sharp satire on consumerism and advertising. Lyle’s campaign isn’t all that different from a real marketing campaign, an attempt to plant a brand identity ineradicably deep in a consumer’s consciousness. But despite some witty scenes of corporate gamesmanship, Thomson’s intent isn’t mainly political, and even in this classic noir setup he leans more toward the gothic, a choice that further illuminates one crucial difference between the two genres, namely that noir is more secular and political. Classic noir authors such as Dashiell Hammett and the pulp genius Jim Thompson were also Marxists (at least for a time), and the doom they inflicted on their characters reflected their curdled idealism. In their novels, fate is often just another tool of monopoly capitalism. In the gothic narrative, however, fate is fate, the thing itself, and it’s far more dangerous even than capitalism. On Thomson’s continuum from surreal to cogent, Soft! falls closer to the center than The Insult, but more importantly, its gothic fatalism is more convincing. In the final pages, Barker closes in on the incurably deranged Glade not so much as a corporate hit man, but as a dark angel of mercy, seeking as well his own dark redemption. Soft! bypasses the bitter cynicism of Hammett or Thompson and becomes something more mysterious, terrifying, and beautiful. At the book’s climax, as Barker leads Glade across an enormous suspension bridge, the tormented killer and his crazy victim achieve a tragic poignancy denied not only to poor saps at the end of a Jim Thompson novel, but to the diffident Jimmy Lyle: As he walked on, with Glade beside him, the wind grew stronger, more deliberate, and he could feel the ground opening beneath his feet. Although the bridge weighed many thousands of tons, it felt delicate, almost fragile in the face of the great black emptiness that surrounded it. Those heavy cables stretching up towards the towers—if he looked at them for too long, he had the feeling that he was falling. There was a railing, but it didn’t seem enough. You could be holding on and then it would give. He had the same feeling in dreams sometimes. In nightmares.
This contemporary gothicism, several shades darker than noir, is pushed into pure nightmare in Thomson’s next novel, The Book of Revelation (1999), which brings the gothic’s undercurrent of the perversely erotic to the surface. The premise is still surreal, but this time it’s also simple: a young English dancer in Amsterdam goes out one day to buy his ballerina girlfriend a pack of cigarettes and he is accosted, drugged, and kidnapped by three women in hooded cloaks. He wakes up in a large, empty white room, where he is chained to the floor and where, for the next 18 days, he is sexually used, humiliated, and tormented by the three women. The psychological cruelty of the dancer’s captors is, if anything, even more shocking than the actual physical discomforts they inflict upon him—especially their final humiliation, in which they tether him to the wall by a chain and a ring through his foreskin and require him to choreograph and perform a dance before an audience of masked people.
As lurid as this sounds, Thomson makes two interesting artistic decisions that push the novel far beyond the merely sensational and heighten its unsettling effect. One is that while much of the book is narrated by the dancer in the first person, the long sequence of his captivity and sexual torture is narrated in the close third person. This keeps the reader in the dancer’s head, so that we only experience what he experiences—and consequently share his anxiety about whether he is even going to survive—but at the same time it puts the reader at a slight distance, so that at least subliminally he sees the dancer at times the way his captors might, as an object to be used and disdained. Indeed, it is a mark of this novel’s psychological acuity that even the dancer begins to see himself the way his captors do: Sometimes he would catch a glimpse of himself in one of the steel rings that held his wrists. He could only ever see himself in fragments. A cheekbone, an eyebrow. Part of an ear. He was like a vase that had been broken thousands of years ago. He would never be whole again. He only existed in pieces. In memory.
He turned slowly, gingerly, on his side and pushed his shackled hands towards his groin, as close as they would go. Somehow, the mere fact of proximity was soothing.
A milky glow spilling from the skylight.
The ticklish, slightly peppery smell of dust between the floorboards.
That low groaning he could hear, a sound that was so constant, so present in the room that it seemed to have a form—a dog run over by a car, a coat thrown on the ground—that groaning sound, that was him.
The tension between distancing and empathy, as well as the unfailingly elegant precision of Thomson’s prose, also rescues a story that could easily have played like glossy, Euroshock porn from any hint of the cheap or exploitative so that the dancer’s predicament, no matter how graphically described, is never as titillating as it is deeply unnerving. It’s another virtuoso evocation of a dream, in this case an erotic nightmare from which the reader can’t tear his eyes away, though he is terrified of what he might see next.
Thomson also shrewdly decides to continue the story in the first person for another 150 pages after the dancer is released by his captors. The long aftermath of the narrator’s captivity and humiliation—his rape, to put it plainly—is the book’s true subject. At first he wanders the world trying to forget what happened and repair his shattered sense of himself. Then he returns to Amsterdam and begins a series of cynical seductions, ostensibly to track down his captors (whose bodies he learned in every detail, but whose faces he never saw), but in truth to act out a kind of revenge in the flailing, oblique fashion of the abused. In its later pages, as the narrator haunts the bars and clubs of Amsterdam, the novel expertly walks the line between the psychological—will these endless, joyless seductions redeem him or destroy him?—and the noir satisfactions of the narrative—will he find out who did this to him?—leading to perhaps the most satisfying conclusion of all of Thomson’s novels. The final pages of the novel are also, given the story’s descent into the gothic’s despairing view of human nature, surprisingly and persuasively hopeful.
Divided Kingdom, Thomson’s latest book, comes six years after the publication of The Book of Revelation and represents the apotheosis of his artistic technique and his fascination with the evocation of life as a dream. The premise of the book, while characteristically dark and mysterious, is also downright whimsical. A modern, unnamed country a good deal like Britain has become “a troubled place . . . defined by envy, misery and greed”; crime and homelessness are epidemic, as are divorce, teenage pregnancy, and violence between people of all ages and classes. “For decades, if not for centuries,” writes Thomson, “the country had employed a complicated web of manners and convention to draw a veil over its true nature, but now, finally, it had thrown off all pretence to be anything other than it was—northern, inward-looking, fundamentally barbaric.” As a result, the country’s government, meeting in secret, has decided to split the nation into four parts, but not on the basis of ethnicity, region, ideology, economics, or class. Instead, each of its citizens is categorized according to the medieval division of human nature into four “humours”—the choleric, the melancholic, the phlegmatic, and the sanguine—and then relocated to a corresponding quarter of the country. Choleric, or aggressive, people will live in the Yellow Quarter; melancholics, or the morbid and introspective, will live in the Green Quarter; phlegmatic, or empathetic and spiritual, people will live in the Blue Quarter; and the sanguine, or the optimistic and good-humored, will live in the Red Quarter. Each quarter is fenced off from the others, like the two halves of Germany during the Cold War, and travel across these fortified borders is strictly regulated.
Again, as in a dream, Thomson simply elides the implausibility of his eerie premise, making it clear from the start that this book is not your ordinary political dystopia. The novel’s narrator, born Matthew Micklewright but renamed Thomas Parry when he is moved to the Red Quarter, is a little like Winston Smith in 1984; he grows up to be a functionary for the clandestine government service that maintains the Rearrangement (as it’s called) by resettling miscategorized citizens from one quarter to a more appropriate one. And, like Smith, halfway through the book he abandons his job in an act of personal rebellion. But this rebellion is not any sort of political awakening; it arises out of something surreal. While attending a conference of resettlement officials from all four quarters in the Blue Quarter, he visits a strange nightclub, the Bathysphere, where, like Alice in Wonderland, he is asked to choose a door without knowing what’s behind it. Behind the door he finds himself in his bedroom in the house he lived in before the Rearrangement, and hears the voice of his long-lost birth mother calling him to breakfast. But before he can see her face, he accidentally shatters the dream, losing the moment of reunion forever, and then spends the rest of the novel in an epic quest through all four quarters, in an attempt to get back to that place and time.
This summary oversimplifies a complex and hugely ambitious book. As a display of novelistic technique, the book is Thomson’s riskiest act yet, as he treads the balance again between the surreal and the cogent. It is largely successful, too, once the reader, like Parry choosing a door in the Bathysphere Club, gives himself over to the sheer, vivid strangeness of the situation. Unlike a more conventional dystopian novel, where the rebellious protagonist might try to reintegrate the Four Quarters, Divided Kingdom takes the Rearrangement as a given and uses it as a way for Parry to investigate the four humours of his own nature, as he lives like a depressive in a Green Quarter boarding house; stays at a spiritualist commune in the Blue Quarter; tiptoes through the Yellow Quarter like a suburbanite in the worst part of town; and even becomes for a time one of the White People, the speechless, semi-barbaric vagabonds who fit none of the categories and live in the wild. Even more vividly than Thomson’s previous books, Divided Kingdom exploits the tension between the surreal and mysterious on the one hand, and the acutely observed detail of Parry’s trek through the gorgeously evoked landscapes of each quarter. Here the elements of noir and gothic so freely intermix with the fantastic as to become something else entirely, the sort of vivid dream that few writers have ever successfully managed on the scale of a novel. Its antecedents are not so much 1984 or Brave New World as they are Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and the British nature writer Richard Jefferies’s strange post-apocalyptic ecological fantasy After London: Or, Wild England (1885).
What Divided Kingdom has in common with these two books, in fact, is that despite its dystopian premise, it is not really a satire or even an allegory, in that there seem to be no obvious point-by-point equivalences between characters and events in the novel and anybody or anything recognizable in the real world. And yet Thomas Parry is an allegorical protagonist like Swift’s Gulliver or Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress—not a compelling or complex character in the usual realistic sense but rather a template for a series of behaviors and ways of looking at the world that changes as he passes through each quarter. This is not a failing of the book but the point of Parry’s journey, as Parry himself realizes. “I had been so many people during the past few weeks,” he says in the book’s final pages, “and, in the end, I had been nobody at all.” In this respect it is helpful to use another metaphor from classical and medieval philosophy, the concept of the body politic, through which philosophers from Plato to Thomas Hobbes considered the state as a human body, usually to make sure that the lower classes (the feet or the hands, say) obeyed their rulers (the head). Thomson, in his novel, has inverted the analogy, making the fragmented state a metaphor for Parry himself as he moves through the four quarters of his own nature. In the end, Parry crosses back into the Red Quarter with the help of a mysterious young woman named Odell—who is sort of Virgil and Beatrice rolled into one, and who has mastered the trick of vanishing in broad daylight—and Parry returns to his old life and his old job as if nothing had happened, and the novel comes full circle as he waits on a park bench for Odell to return to him.
I’m not sure what John Gardner would have made of the vivid dreaminess and exuberant ambiguity of this ending; along with his novels and his guides to the writing of fiction, Gardner was also the author of the stodgy On Moral Fiction. Not that Thomson writes immoral fiction, but he clearly loves raising questions more than he loves answering them. One of the other things one often wonders when waking from a dream—along with “Where did that come from?”—is “What does that mean?” Thomson has as distinctive a voice as any novelist writing in English today, but unlike, say, Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, he is not interested in tackling the Big Issues of the moment. Instead, like Nabokov, Thomson seems to be making an implicit claim that laying bare the mystery of every moment of human existence is tackling the Big Issues, and that the only way to evoke that mystery is not through windy pronouncements, but through the sharpest possible observation of quotidian detail. To ask anything else is missing the point. We don’t look to our dreams for advice on who to vote for or for solutions to great moral dilemmas; dreams are revealing because they are ambiguous, not because they tell us anything we already know. And no matter how deep you cut into the vivid and continuous dream of Thomson’s work—through the glittering detail of his prose, the startling evocation of setting, the dreamy passion of his characters—it’s mysterious all the way through.
At the end of Divided Kingdom, Thomas Parry returns to his old apartment shortly after he returns to the Red Quarter and tries to make sense of what has happened to him: That afternoon I sat in my living-room and tried to read a book, but I couldn’t seem to concentrate. My eyes kept skidding across the lines of print. Eventually I put on a choral work that Victor had given me one Christmas, then I lay down on the sofa and closed my eyes. Though my mind seemed coated with a kind of scale, the residue of everything I had experienced, the singing had a cleansing effect, the voices overlapping and merging in such a way that the inside of my head became a smooth, shining space. How remarkable, I thought, that my early life had been inaccessible to me for so many years! But might that not reflect how happy I had been back then, how loved? Surely there had to be a correlation between the two. That total blankness stood for something, in other words, something immensely powerful, and it might prove a source of strength and comfort to me, if only I could learn to trust it . . .
Then, of course, the phone rings, and Parry loses the moment—just like waking from a dream.
James Hynes lives in Austin, Texas. His most recent novel is Kings of Infinite Space.