Human Beings Can Adapt To Almost Anything, Novelist Rupert Thomson Finds
No one culture has a lock on literature of the apocalypse, but Great Britain may have an inside track on the literature of the near-apocalypse. From Ernest Bramah and Patrick Hamilton to George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, and even Martin Amis, a Britain on the verge of total social collapse is a theme that pops up frequently in its literature. While the armchair-psychoanalytic why behind such is best left to those with more time on their hands (see bloggers, grad students), they can add Rupert Thomson’s latest, Divided Kingdom, to the research pile.
In an indeterminate future, social unrest in the United Kingdom compels the government to reorganize the country by a rather old set of criteria—the elemental four humors, which organized knowledge around archaic Hippocratic medicine, and were pretty much discarded when modern science reared its observational head. The country is quartered, both with respect to its physical boundaries and its population, with the four humors serving as the psychological leitmotif for their inhabitants. Choler being associated with yellow bile and fire , it defines the Yellow Quarter, where all the excitable rabble-rousers are sent. Since phlegm is associated with water, the Blue Quarter is where all the sickly of mind and body are gathered. The black humors are represented by the Green Quarter, where the melancholics go about their depressing business. And the upstanding, even-keeled sanguine humor is an honor bestowed only upon the country’s best, who live in the relatively benign Red Quarter. Finally, the borders between the quarters are as guarded, barb-wired, mined, and tense as those of a war-torn state.
The young narrator is one of those chosen Red few. Plucked from his home and torn from his parents as a child on Rearrangement Day, he is whisked away to an all-boys school comprised of all the other lucky few, where their days are filled with the new history lessons about the new regime. They’re incubated to forget their old lives and parents, and are even given new, better Red names. Our narrator, Matthew Micklewright, is eventually christened Thomas Parry, which his headmaster decides is a good, solid name. “You could be anything with a name like that,” he says.
Anything is exactly what the young man becomes: not any one thing in particular, but a conduit for his surrounding world—until he discovers his own person inside himself as a thirtysomething young man. Ignore whatever preconceived notions you may have about the colors: Thomson is less interested in mining a political alternative universe within his color-coded quadrants than he is in exploring the interpersonal machinery of the forced acculturation. Parry is malleable clay, easily becoming one of the smart, gifted, upstanding Children of the Red Quarter in no small part because he is constantly reminded that such is who he is. At school, he quickly assimilates into the pack; Thomas goes with the proverbial flow, but whether it’s because he believes in his new country allegiance or is afraid of the consequences is another matter. Less hearty and troublesome boys disappear, never to be heard from again.
Come his teenage years, Thomas leaves the school for his new family: the genial father Victor, and a girlishly impish sister Marie, for whom Thomas carries an almost always alit torch, even if his fiery teen desires do turn to a more ashen adult adoration. Through high school and even college, Thomas is the model new Red man, dutiful to his Red kin and caring of his adoptive family—on whom Thomas is asked to spy, to make sure they’re maintaining their Red countenances.
Thomson is a relatively unknown writer in America, nowhere near as renowned as Amis, Julian Barnes, Will Self, and other contemporaries. It’s a shame, because he’s no less scathingly witty or linguistically inventive. His entertaining trick here is fluid, readable prose that dips into the florid for dramatic flourish and doesn’t overpower the page, carving detailed sketches of this odd if sometimes familiar new world in quick simile strokes. Marie kicking off her shoes at night makes two quick tumbling sounds across the floor, “like dwarves turning somersaults.” The local dry-cleaner Mr. Page wore a permanent smile “like a slice of melon after you’ve finished eating it.”
What read like surprise flashes of the fantastic are merely brief glints of the carnivalesque turns in store. Thomas becomes Thomson’s Gulliver/Candide through this fantastical landscape, earning a positioning in the Red Quarter administration for his dutifulness and eventually traipsing around the country and across the borders on official business, though it’s never entirely clear if he is turning out work for the government or if the government is turning on him. Sent to an inter-quarter conference in the Blue Quarter, Thomas wanders into a bizarre club called the Bathysphere, where he hallucinates some of the happiest moments of his life—moments which he finally decides to take into his own hands.
Sadly, once Thomas becomes more than a mere cog in the proverbial machine, Thomson loses grip on his own story, and his episodic set pieces become more and more contrived. An underground wave pool for surfing in the Blue Quarter becomes the scene of a pointless accident. A hotel bombing during a day trip to the Yellow Quarter provides Thomas with a cover for a hasty escape from the conference and a peripatetic journey through the Yellow Quarter back toward the Blue Quarter and his now-beloved Bathysphere, encountering ornery locals around every turn. And while Thomas’ travels are intended to accrue a symbolic weight as he surmounts obstacles keeping him from his imagined dreamland, the odyssey never achieves any real significance, and you’re left feeling that Thomson’s intricate, grand scheme is little more than a filigreed dressing around a hollow human center.