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  • Written by Rupert Thomson
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  • Written by Rupert Thomson
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The Book of Revelation

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A Novel

Written by Rupert ThomsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Rupert Thomson

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On Sale: July 03, 2001
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-375-72779-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In an edgy psychological thriller that is as mesmerizing as it is profound, Rupert Thomson fearlessly delves into the darkest realm of the human spirit to reveal the sinister connection between sexuality and power.

Stepping out of his Amsterdam studio one April afternoon to buy cigarettes for his girlfriend, a dashing 29-year old Englishman reflects on their wonderful seven-year relationship, and his stellar career as an internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer. But the nameless protagonist's destiny takes an unthinkably horrifying turn when a trio of mysterious cloaked and hooded women kidnap him, chain him to the floor of a stark white room to keep as their sexual prisoner, and subjected him to eighteen days of humiliation, mutilation, and rape. Then, after a bizarrely public performance, he is released, only to be held captive in the purgatory of his own guilt and torment: The realization that no one will believe his strange story. Coolly revelatory, meticulously crafted, The Book of Revelation is Rupert Thomson at his imaginative best.

Excerpt

One

I can see it all so clearly, even now. The studio canteen was empty, and I was sitting in the corner, by the window. Sunlight angled across the table, dividing the smooth, blond wood into two equal halves, one bright, one dark; I remember thinking that it looked heraldic, like a shield. An ashtray stood in front of me, the sun's rays shattering against its chunky glass. Beside it, someone's coffee cup, still half full but long since cold. It was an ordinary moment in an ordinary day -- a break between rehearsals. . . .

I had just opened my notebook and was about to put pen to paper when I heard footsteps to my right, a dancer's footsteps, light but purposeful. I looked up to see Brigitte, my girlfriend, walking towards me in her dark-green leotard and her laddered tights, her hair tied back with a piece of mauve velvet. She was frowning. She had run out of cigarettes, she told me, and there were none in the machine. Would I go out and buy her some more?

I stared at her. "I thought I bought you a packet yesterday."

"I finished them," she said.

"You've smoked twenty cigarettes since yesterday?"

Brigitte just looked at me.

"You'll get cancer," I told her.

"I don't care," she said.

This was an argument we had had before, of course, and I soon relented. In the end, I was pleased to be doing something for her. It's a quality I often see in myself when I look back, that eagerness to please. I had wanted to make her happy from the first moment I saw her. I would always remember the morning when she walked into the studio, fresh from the Jeune Ballet de France, and how she stood by the piano, pinning up her crunchy, chestnut-coloured hair, and I would always remember making love to her a few days later, and the expression on her face as she knelt above me, a curious mixture of arrogance and ecstasy, her eyes so dark that I could not tell the difference between the pupils and the irises. . . .

Brigitte had moved to the window. She stood there, staring out, one hand propped on her hip. Smiling, I reached for my sweater and pulled it over the old torn shirt I always wore for dance class.

"I won't be long," I said.


Outside, the weather was beautiful. Though May was still two weeks away, the sun felt warm against my back as I walked off down the street. I saw a man cycle over a bridge, singing loudly to himself, as people often do in Amsterdam, the tails of his pale linen jacket flapping. There was a look of anticipation on his face -- anticipation of summer, and the heat that was to come. . . .

I had been living with Brigitte for seven years. We rented the top two floors of a house on Egelantiersgracht, one of the prettier, less well-known canals. We had skylights, exotic plants, a tank of fish; we had a south-facing terrace where we would eat breakfast in the summer. Since we were both members of the same company, we saw each other twenty-four hours a day; in fact, in all the time that we had lived together, I don't suppose we had spent more than three or four nights apart. As dancers, we had had a good deal of success. We had performed all over the world -- in Osaka, in São Paulo, in Tel Aviv. The public loved us. So did the critics. I was also beginning to be acclaimed for my choreography (I had created three short ballets for the company, the most recent of which had won an international prize). At the age of twenty-nine, I had every reason to feel blessed. There was nothing about my life I would have changed, not if you had offered me riches beyond my wildest imaginings -- though, as I walked to the shop that afternoon, I do remember wishing that Brigitte would give up smoking. . . .

I followed my usual route. After crossing the bridge, I turned left along the street that bordered the canal. I walked a short distance, then I took a right turn, into the shadows of a narrow alley. The air down there smelled of damp plaster, stagnant water, and the brick walls of the houses were grouted with an ancient, lime-green moss. I passed the watchmaker's where a cat lay sleeping in the window, its front paws flexing luxuriously, its fur as grey as smoke or lead. I passed a shop that sold oriental vases and lamps with shades of coloured glass and bronze statues of half-naked girls. Like the man on the bicycle, I had music in my head: it was a composition by Juan Martin, which I was hoping to use in my next ballet. . . .


Halfway down the alley, at the point where it curved slightly to the left, I stopped and looked up. Just there, the buildings were five storeys high, and seemed to lean towards each other, all but shutting out the light.

The sky had shrunk to a thin ribbon of blue.

As I brought my eyes back down, I saw them, three figures dressed in hoods and cloaks, like part of a dream that had become detached, somehow, and floated free, into the day. The sight did not surprise me. In fact, I might even have laughed. I suppose I thought they were on their way to a fancy-dress party -- or else they were street-theatre people, perhaps. . . .
Whatever the truth was, they didn't seem particularly out of place in the alley. No, what surprised me, if anything, was the fact that they recognised me. They knew my name. They told me they had seen me dance. Yes, many times. I was wonderful, they said. One of the women clapped her hands together in delight at the coincidence. Another took me by the arm, the better to convey her enthusiasm.

While they were clustered round me, asking questions, I felt a sharp pain in the back of my right hand. Looking down, I caught a glimpse of a needle leaving one of my veins, a needle against the darkness of a cloak. I heard myself ask the women what they were doing -- What are you doing? -- only to drift away, fall backwards, while the black steeples of their hoods remained above me, and my words too, written on the sky, that narrow strip of blue, like a message trailed behind a plane. . . .


It is only five minutes' walk from the studio to the shop that sells newspapers and cigarettes. I ought to have been there and back in a quarter of an hour. But half an hour passed, then forty-five minutes, and still there was no sign of me.

I had last seen Brigitte standing at the canteen window, one hand propped on her hip. How long, I wonder, did she stay like that? And what went through her mind as she stood there, staring down into the street? Did she think our little argument had upset me? Did she think I was punishing her?

I imagine she must have turned away eventually, reaching up with both hands to re-tie the scrap of velvet that held her hair back from her face. Probably she would have muttered something to herself in French. Faít chier. Merde. She would still have been longing for that cigarette, of course. All her nerve-ends jangling.

Maybe, in the end, she asked Fernanda for a Marlboro Light and smoked it by the pay-phone in the corridor outside the studio.

I doubt she danced too well that afternoon.


That night, when I did not come home, Brigitte rang several of my friends. She rang my parents too, in England. No one knew anything. No one could help. Two days later, a leading Dutch newspaper published an article containing a brief history of my career and a small portrait photograph. It wasn't front-page news. After all, there was no real story as yet. I was a dancer and a choreographer, and I had gone missing. That was it. Various people at the company came up with various different theories -- a nervous breakdown of some kind, personal problems -- but none of them involved foul play. My parents offered a reward for any information that might throw light on my whereabouts. Nobody came forward.

All this I found out later.

There was a point at which Brigitte began to resent me for putting her in such a difficult position. She found it humiliating, not knowing where I was; I was making her look ridiculous. It must have been then that it occurred to her that I might have left her -- for another woman, presumably. How cowardly of me to say nothing. How cowardly, to just go. Brigitte was half French, half Portuguese, and her pride had always resembled a kind of anger. There was nothing constant or steady about it. No, it flared like a struck match. When she was interviewed by the police she told them that I had abandoned her, betrayed her. She couldn't produce any evidence to support her theory, nor could she point to any precedent (in our many years together I had never once been unfaithful to her), yet the police took her seriously. A woman's intuition, after all. What's more, she lived with me. She was supposed to know me best. So if that was what she thought. . . . The police did not send out any search parties for me. They did not scour the countryside with tracker dogs or drag the city's waterways. They did not even put up Missing Person posters. Why would they? I was just a man having an affair.

This, too, I found out later.

One other thing. The last person to see me before I disappeared was not Brigitte, but Stefan Elmers. Stefan was a freelance stills photographer who worked for the company. He took pictures of us dancing, black-and-white pictures that were used in programmes and publicity. Both Brigitte and I counted Stefan as a friend.

As I was walking along the canal that afternoon -- and this could only have been moments before I turned into the alley -- Stefan happened to drive past me in his car. Usually he would have stopped and talked to me, or else he would have shouted out of the window, something cheeky, knowing Stefan, but there was another car behind him, right behind him, so he just kept going.

Apparently, I looked happy.

For the next eighteen days no one had the slightest idea where I was.
Rupert Thomson|Author Q&A

About Rupert Thomson

Rupert Thomson - The Book of Revelation

Photo © Hugo Glendinning

Rupert Thomson is the author of seven previous novels, of which Divided Kingdom,The Book of Revelation, Soft!,The Insult, Air & Fire, and The Five Gates of Hell are available in Vintage paperback. He lives in Barcelona.

Author Q&A

Q: It's very unusual not to learn the name of a novel's main character. Why did you decide to keep your narrator anonymous? Is there any literary precedent for this?

A: Obviously, it's a conscious choice on the narrator's part not to reveal his name, the conceit being that he does not wish to be identified. If it's shameful and humiliating for a woman to admit that she's been raped, then how much more so for a man, that's the idea. Despite the title of the book, there are, in the end, certain things that he does not--will not--reveal.

Is there a literary precedent? I can only think of Max de Winter's second wife in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca who refers to herself quite deliberately as Mrs. De Winter. Her true name is never revealed. I was not thinking of literary precedents at the time however. My mind doesn't work in that way. The character's anonymity was just something that developed naturally out of the material.

Q: How have women readers responded to the novel's reversal of gender roles or its placing of women in the positions of sexual power and the man as the object of their pleasure and humiliation?

A: So far women's reactions have spanned the entire spectrum, everything from accusations of misogyny to an absolute and emotional identification with the narrator's predicament. It was only recently that it occurred to me that female readers would be more equipped to identify with the narrator than most male readers. Interestingly, the only hostile reviews I've had have been from men. I think men are rendered more uneasy by the central preoccupations of the novel--i.e. the notion of being deprived of power and control, of being rendered ornamental. Simone de Beauvoir once said, "One is not born a woman, one becomes one." Could this now also be true of men?

Q: Why did you decide to switch from first to third person narration for the period of the narrator's captivity?

A: The third person narrative establishes distance. Once again, it's a device that conveys the extent of the narrator's trauma. He tells the story in the third person because that's as close as he can get; he is pretending that it happened not to him but to someone else, someone he will never meet, a stranger. Only when he is trying to reconcile himself to what has happened can he begin to use the first person. It was this aspect of the construction of the novel that made me realise that it was in some sense a distillation of everything I have written so far. Most of my previous novels use a dualistic approach, moving between two different voices, two different characters. In The Book of Revelation I also employ two different voices--but they both belong to the same character.

Q: Could you talk about the germination of the novel? Is it based in any way on real events? Did you begin with the intention of exploring the effects of sexual abuse?


A: A book usually lives in my head for quite some time before I start work on it. I leave it there, in the back of my head, and over a period of months, or even years sometimes, it begins to change, to grow--to mature. The process feels curiously organic. With The Book of Revelation none of that happened. There was no germination--at least not that I was aware of. The book was just suddenly there. In fact, the time that elapsed between knowing the book was there and starting work on it was less than twenty-four hours--and the first draft came very quickly. I started writing on October 1st 1995 and by October 29th I had finished it. One hundred and forty-three pages in 29 days. It was a curiously William Faulkner-like experience (he is supposed to have written As I Lay Dying in six weeks--except that he wrote the whole book in that time whereas it would take me another two years to complete The Book of Revelation).

Q: Which contemporary American writers do you read and admire? Do you find that American audiences react differently to your work than British audiences?

A:
I admire the following contemporary American writers: Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, Tobias Wolff, William Vollman, Don DeLillo, Jayne Anne Phillips, Cormac McCarthy, and Barry Lopez. Dead American writers I admire would definitely include Paul Bowles, Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner.

Q: So much of your novel seems to be about concealment and the limits of knowing. Why did you choose The Book of Revelation as your title? Do you want readers to make any specific connections with the biblical book of Revelation?

A: The title The Book of Revelation only presented itself while I was writing the final draft. It had previously been called The Book of Nakedness. I thought that title had a pleasing Milan Kundera feel to it until a friend told me it sounded pretentious. Then I noticed that the word "reveal" cropped up quite frequently in the text. It was almost woven into the tapestry of the novel. From there it was a short (but daring) jump to The Book of Revelation.

Q: The author biography on the book's jacket is very brief. What else can you reveal to us about your life thus far?


A: Like many writers, I started off with a rather elaborate bio (see any edition of my first novel, Dreams of Leaving). Inevitably, perhaps, journalists spent more time talking about my life than they did about the novel--or at least that's how it felt. I wanted to discourage that. The bio dwindled. Perhaps I've gone too far the other way, though--i.e., it's so short that it positively invites curiosity. So here, for the record, is a skeleton version of my life:

* Graduated from Cambridge University in 1976, aged 20.
* Traveled in America, Canada and Mexico. Moved to Athens, Greece, early 1977. Tried to write a novel. Failed.
* Moved to London 1978. Worked as a copywriter in various advertising agencies for the next four years. Retired 1982
* Moved to Italy autumn 1982. Started another novel. 1982-1986 lived in Berlin, New York, Tokyo. Worked intermittently on the novel and various short stories. Returned to London 1986. Completed the novel.
* Dreams of Leaving published June 1987.
* Since 1987 I have lived in Sydney, Los Angeles, Zanzibar, Amsterdam, and Rome, and have published five more novels--The Five Gates of Hell (1991); Air and Fire (1993); The Insult (1996); Soft! (1998); and The Book of Revelation (1999).

Praise

Praise

?Extraordinary?. The Book of Revelation delves uncompromisingly and with lucidity into the mysteries of power and sexuality.??The New York Times


From the Trade Paperback edition.
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The introduction, questions for discussion, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Rupert Thomson's The Book of Revelation. We hope they will offer you helpful ways to understand and discuss this extraordinary and unsettling novel.

About the Guide

Set in Amsterdam, The Book of Revelation is both a crime novel and an extended, complex, and often disturbing exploration of sexual abuse and its aftermath. When the unnamed narrator, a highly successful English dancer/choreographer, goes out to buy a pack of cigarettes for his girlfriend, he is drugged and kidnapped by three hooded women pretending to be fans. He wakes up in a white room, chained to the floor, with no idea where he is, who the women are, or why he's been taken. What ensues is a series of harrowing and increasingly bizarre sexual tortures that leave the narrator utterly humiliated and profoundly changed. After 18 days he is released, but he quickly finds he can't escape the memories of his experiences in the white room, making it impossible to resume his life.

His girlfriend, disbelieving of the outrageous and unusual story behind his disappearance, leaves him. Having also lost the desire to dance or choreograph he feels like a stranger in his own skin, "a bad likeness" of himself. He tries to escape from his memories by travelling, and later obsessively tries to find his tormentors by sleeping with dozens of women, until he falls in love with Juliette, a black woman whose innocence is evident in the color of her skin. But, when a chance encounter in an Amsterdam dance club brings him face to face with a woman he thinks was one of his captors, he commits an act of sudden violence which could either send him to prison or free him, finally, from his past. Shocking in its reversal of power relations between men and women, and unflinching in its portrayal of the psychological realities of sexual abuse, The Book of Revelation is also an unforgettable meditation on the limits of what we can know about each other, and ultimately ourselves, by one of England's most gifted young writers.

About the Author

Q: The author biography on the book's jacket is very brief. What else can you reveal to us about your life thus far?

A: Like many writers, I started off with a rather elaborate bio (see any edition of my first novel, Dreams of Leaving). Inevitably, perhaps, journalists spent more time talking about my life than they did about the novel—or at least that's how it felt. I wanted to discourage that. The bio dwindled. Perhaps I've gone too far the other way, though—i.e., it's so short that it positively invites curiosity. So here, for the record, is a skeleton version of my life:

• Graduated from Cambridge University in 1976, aged 20.

• Traveled in America, Canada and Mexico. Moved to Athens, Greece, early 1977. Tried to write a novel. Failed.

• Moved to London 1978. Worked as a copywriter in various advertising agencies for the next four years. Retired 1982.

• Moved to Italy autumn 1982. Started another novel. 1982-1986 lived in Berlin, New York, Tokyo. Worked intermittently on the novel and various short stories. Returned to London 1986. Completed the novel.

Dreams of Leaving published June 1987.

• Since 1987 I have lived in Sydney, Los Angeles, Zanzibar, Amsterdam, and Rome, and have published five more novels—The Five Gates of Hell (1991); Air and Fire (1993); The Insult (1996); Soft! (1998); and The Book of Revelation (1999).

Discussion Guides

1. The novel begins and ends with first person narration. Why do you think Thomson chooses to tell the story of the protagonist's imprisonment and sexual abuse in the third person? Did you find this narrative shift disorienting? How does this shift affect the emotional texture of the events that take place in the white room? How would these scenes be different if told from a first person, "I" perspective?

2. Thomson's story hinges on a startling reversal of roles, with women assuming the positions of power and reducing the male to an object for their sadistic pleasure. How did you react to this reversal? Did you find it believable? Disturbing? Why do you think Thomson cast his novel in this way?

3. The plot of The Book of Revelation takes off from an old joke: "He went out to get a pack of cigarettes and. . . ." When the narrator does not return, his girlfriend simply assumes that he's left her for another woman, even though he'd always been faithful. What might Thomson be saying about the real stories that lie beneath the conventional ones with which we try to explain the unexplainable?

4. When the narrator asks his captors why they have kidnapped him, one of them responds, "Because you're beautiful. . . . Because we love you" [p. 35]. Is this a serious or mocking response? What do you think their real motives are? Do you think the narrator is right in suggesting that they are acting out their own sexual abuse and taking revenge for the damage that had once been done to them? What can be inferred about the nature of that damage from their behavior towards the narrator? Why does Thomson keep their motivations concealed?

5. Towards the end of his captivity, the narrator reaches a point at which he feels "his fate was no more or less than he deserved. There was nothing random or accidental about what had happened to him. There was nothing unlucky about it" [pp. 90-91]. Why does the narrator see his situation in this way at this point in his captivity? Does this interpretation reveal anything about his character?

6. At one point, the narrator realizes the white room he's held captive in is a "kind of stage" and that he was being "asked to sustain a performance with no knowledge of how long it was supposed to last" [p. 47]. In what ways are the torments he suffers tailored specifically to the fact that he is a dancer? What kinds of performances is he forced to give? How does he try to gain some power over his captors?

7. Once he's free, why doesn't the narrator report his abduction to the police or try harder to convince Brigitte that his story is true? Why doesn't he tell anyone else what happened to him? Does his passivity seem psychologically accurate?

8. After he is released, the narrator's mind fills with "images from the room—the black steeples of the women's hoods, their cloaks swirling around me like unconsciousness itself. . . ." [p. 115]. Earlier, we're told that "when they moved toward him, passing through the sunlight, it was an eerie moment, almost supernatural, like watching ghosts walk through a wall. He felt as though the fabric of the world had been tampered with, which only added to his suspicion that the women were beyond all natural law" [p. 72]. What symbolic value do the women have? To what extent do you think they are projections of the narrator's subconscious? Does this indicate that Thomson wants readers to question whether the women—and therefore the narrator's experiences with them—are real?

9. In trying to find his abductors, the narrator has sex with 162 women in fourteen months. In what ways does he perpetuate the cycle of abuse, even while he is trying to free himself from it? How has he become like the women he is searching for? Is he right when he thinks, "Like vampires, they had turned me into another version of themselves" [p. 199]?

10. One of the women the narrator sleeps with tells him that she was abused by her father but that no one had ever believed her. It suddenly occurs to him that "there were others like me, people who were operating in a fourth dimension, a world that was parallel to this one, a kind of purgatory" [p. 186]. Why does he say that people who've been abused inhabit a "fourth dimension"? Why is it a kind of purgatory? In what ways does the narrator operate in a world that is parallel to but severed from the "real" world?

11. After he is released, the narrator spends three years traveling. What is he trying to achieve by staying in constant motion?

12. Why is the narrator attracted to the story Isabel tells him of Norwegian explorer William Barentz who was stranded on the polar island of Nora Zemba? What does the narrator's intention to create a dance about that story reveal about how art is made? About the way artists use existing stories to tell their own? About the relationship between a historical incident and personal history in a work of art?

13. When the narrator first sleeps with Juliette, he thinks, "In the darkness, naked, she looked so black. Like something I could disappear into" [p. 222]. Where else in the novel does he express this wish to disappear, hide, or dissolve? Why is this such a powerful feeling for him? Why is he so drawn to Juliette? Why does he trust and feel safe with her?

14. The Book of Revelation ends just as the narrator is about to tell his story--the story we have just finished reading—to detective Olsen, who asks him to "go back to the beginning" [p. 260]. Why do you think Thomson has given his narrative this circular form? What is the importance of the narrator finally being able to tell his story? What do think Olsen's response will be? What do you imagine will happen to the narrator from this point on?

15. The novel is preceded by an epigraph from Stefan Hertman: "Will there ever be anything other than the exterior and speculation in store for us? The skin, the surface—it is man's deepest secret." How would you relate this idea to the title of the novel, The Book of Revelation? What connections do you find between the novel and the biblical book of Revelation? How does the novel dramatize the problems of revealing and concealing? How is the narrator's life affected by these opposites? What is concealed from him? What does he conceal and reveal? What does the novel seem to imply about the limits of knowing?


  • The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
  • January 09, 2001
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.00
  • 9780375708459

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