The Insult by Rupert Thomson

IMG_0194Blame David Bowie for this one. The Insult by Rupert Thomson was part of the Thin White Duke’s ‘Top 100 must-read books’ list, published to coincide with the V&A’s David Bowie Is exhibition. It’s quite a recommendation and the novel starts promisingly: Martin Blom has been shot in the head by an unknown attacker in a car park and has lost his sight. Assured by health professionals that his blindness is permanent, Martin is staggered a few weeks later to find that he can in fact see – but only at night. His neurosurgeon, Bruno Visser, fears the worst for his mental state, perhaps with good reason. So we begin in JG Ballard territory: a bland institution, odd patients, a doctor whose utterances are slyly ambiguous, a beautiful nurse who takes off her clothes for Martin one night. Leaving the hospital, Martin takes up residence in a sleazy hotel and begins to explore his new nocturnal existence. The first of the book’s three sections, Nightlife, recounts this in the first person: we ‘see’ everything from Martin’s viewpoint, including when a knife-thrower-cum-juggler called Loots befriends him. In my experience, when winsome and eccentric circus folk turn up in a novel, it’s time to call the fiction police. But anyway. The names – Maria Janssen, Claudia, Arno Hekmann, the policeman Munck – suggest we are in an unnamed country in Mitteleuropa. It’s the sort of setting which worked for Kafka but that was a long time ago. To me it smacks of dreary cop-out to blur your location quite so wilfully, although it does add to the dreamy sense of dislocation felt by Martin. Because he begins to feel that, far from being gifted, he is in fact perhaps the subject of a sinister experiment…The second section of the novel, called Carving Babies (an arresting phrase which makes sense by the end), is a lengthy story told to Martin as he seeks to make sense of his circumstances. This is an odd, slightly frustrating book. Yet…Thomson knows what he’s doing. There is a lot to be said for a piece of fiction that starts as something and ends as something else. There’s not enough of that sort of thing about.

 

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