Saturday, September 06, 2014

Seeing in the Dark

I read this novel by Rupert Thomson shortly after it first appeared in the US in 1996 and again last week, and both times I had the same reaction: I was impressed with the writing, intrigued by the premise, but more than a bit baffled by the way the story played itself out. Not that the story, bizarre as it is, is particularly hard to follow; but it is, in the end, a little hard to know exactly what to make of it — if indeed that matters.

The story is relatively simple to relate, but I'll just give you the set-up: one Martin Blom, resident of an unnamed European country (most of the names are German- or Slavic-sounding) is shot by an unknown assailant while carrying a bag of groceries across a car-park. The injury, to his head, destroys his visual cortex, leaving him, according to medical opinion, permanently blind. While recuperating in a clinic, however, he discovers that he is in fact able to see, but only in the dark — either that or he is suffering from a phenomenon called Anton's Syndrome, in which a patient, though blind, believes that he or she can see. The truth of the matter is difficult to pin down, especially when Blom also begins to believe that he is receiving television signals through the titanium plate used to repair his skull, and suspects that he is part of an obscure neurological experiment engineered by his doctor. Thomson occasionally drops in little hints that cast doubt on whether Blom is really able to see, but on the other hand there will be an otherwise inexplicable incident in which he drives a car...

Blom is discharged from the clinic and moves into a seedy hotel which may or may not be a brothel (he witnesses things that no one else seems to see, or will admit seeing) and meets a mercurial young woman named Nina, with whom whom he begins an affair that ends when she suddenly vanishes. Following her traces he comes to a remote hotel in the hinterlands, where the proprietress spins a bizarre tale-within-a-tale — about which I'll say nothing — that runs on for more than a hundred pages and concludes shortly before the novel's end.

In one sense, The Insult is simply one more brooding, atmospheric thriller, the kind in which dark secrets will eventually be revealed and the hero (who of course must have his own complicating backstory) will himself become a suspect, at least to the police. It could be objected that Thomson's novel isn't even a very accomplished representative of the genre, leaving too many fundamental matters unresolved and being essentially made up of two only tangentially related narratives. But there's something about Thomson's lean but evocative narration, about the book's unsettling psychological realism even when skirting into territory that, on the face of it, seems wildly implausible, that keeps the reader from feeling cheated.

Thomson has written eight other novels, most recently the fairly lackluster Secrecy. Of the ones that I've read, The Insult and the earlier Dreams of Leaving, which likewise combines an outlandish premise with meticulous writing, seem the most successful.

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