Elementary

John Sutherland

  • Air and Fire by Rupert Thomson
    Bloomsbury, 310 pp, £15.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1382 1
  • Dreams of Leaving by Rupert Thomson
    Penguin, 435 pp, £6.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 14 017148 7
  • The Five Gates of Hell by Rupert Thomson
    Penguin, 368 pp, £5.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 14 016537 1

‘In order to write this book, I had to do a great deal of research,’ Rupert Thomson tells us; the research for Air and Fire evidently took two forms. The narrative centres on the quixotic attempt by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel to build a modernist cathedral, based on the Tower’s logical steel geometry. This would be unsurprising in 1890-something, except that this architect chooses to build his cathedral in a god-forsaken small town in Baja California, the peninsula that dangles along the West Coast with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Pacific wastes on the other. It’s one of America’s Erewhons, forgotten by history. Air and Fire’s epigraph is taken from Johan Jakob Baegert, one of the region’s few chroniclers: ‘Among people like the California Indians, and in a land like theirs, not many significant events occur which deserve to be recorded and known to posterity.’

My own research reveals that the event at the centre of Air and Fire, the building of the Eiffelian cathedral, did not occur – or if it did it was not considered significant even by Baja Californian standards. Nor, by research in my atlas, can I discover that Thomson’s Santa Sofia exists. Larousse informs us that Eiffel himself had some misfortunes designing locks for the Panama Canal, which may have sown a seed in the novelist’s mind.

Thomson records spending much time in Paris and London archives, boning up architectural history – an effort reflected in the novel’s density of specialised detail. The other area of research is fiction’s equivalent of location shooting. Thomson’s first novel, the aptly-named Dreams of Leaving, was set in a prison-like London (a club called ‘the Bunker’ featured importantly) which enclosed the hero like a prison cell. The stifled vision of the novel is encapsulated in one of the many snapshots of Thatcher’s grotty metropolis.

It was three in the afternoon and he was standing in a call-box in Soho. Dead ducks rotated on a stainless steel spit ten feet away. A green neon sign – SPANKERAMA – flashed in a curtained window. Somebody had scratched the words GOD and FUCK into the red paintwork above the phone. With a coin probably, because the O was a pyramid and the U looked like a V-sign. A copy of the Sun soaked up urine on the floor. BIG FREEZE CHAOS, the front page said.

Thomson’s second effort, The Five Gates of Hell, was a novel of departure – although it chronicled no Odyssean voyage. It is set in a phantasmagoric America: the kind of America which you could pick up from a ‘see Disneyworld in two weeks’ off-peak, cut-price package tour to Miami Beach. Air and Fire, by contrast, re-creates an inaccessible and exotic region which is largely arid-Mexican-nothing. Even today you are wise to take petrol cans if you drive down the peninsula’s 700-mile length. The Yankee tourism which has made Tijuana the world’s largest whorehouse and Acapulco and Mazatlan American family resorts has missed out Baja California. It must have cost Thomson a packet of money to get to know the region.

Rupert Thomson is a leader among his young generation of novelists and was unlucky not to make the twenty alleged Best of British. Different as this novel is from its predecessors, one can discern in it traits typical of his fiction-writing generation. Whereas in the Sixties and Seventies the adventurous novel hybridised with journalism to create docufiction, in the Nineties it seems to marry more readily with travel writing – a genre which is currently enjoying a little golden age. Air and Fire, like recent novels by Louis de Bernières and Nicholas Shakespeare, conveys a powerful sense of faraway places.

As with de Bernières and Shakespeare, Thomson’s traveller’s tale gravitates to the Hispanic New World and invokes the tricks of writers like Vargas Llosa and Marquez. A body explodes on the operating table, killing the surgeon with organic shrapnel. A disproportionate (but very funny) space in the novel is devoted to La Huesuda – ‘the bony one’ – the skinniest whore in the Gulf of California: ‘so skinny, you could gather her into your arms like a bundle of sticks. She was short too; her shoulder knocked against your hip-bone if you walked together down a street.’ So undesirable is she that jocose miners in the Bar El Fandango have epic drinking competitions – loser to sleep with La Huesuda, ‘all expenses paid’. There are many jokes on the edge of what is in other ways a rather portentous narrative.

Thomson likes high-concept fiction which proclaims its ‘meaning’ so obviously that the reader is made to feel uneasy. Dreams of Leaving took the story of Moses in the bullrushes and transposed it to a semi-fantasised Eighties. Baby Moses Highness is floated by his loving parents out of New Egypt – a kind of Belsen crossed with Ambridge. Moses grows up in the London streets to become a semi-criminal layabout in never-ending search for his roots while Chief Inspector Peach, New Egypt’s Himmler, hunts him down. One needs no great ingenuity to read the novel as an allegory of the thousands of runaway teenagers who every year leave home to doss in the London streets.

Thomson’s second novel, The Five Gates of Hell, envisions a Florida – the retirement state – in which the funeral business has merged with McDonald’s (63 BILLION BURIED, reads the neon sign over the mortuary). As a taxi driver explains:

The funeral parlours, that’s a business, they got to expand, but people’re living longer than before, advances in medicine, right? So there’s all this advertising to get people to move here. Suntrap of the south, the gold coast, shit like that. They’re giving people tax breaks, casino vouchers, free cars. You name it. You know why? They’ve got to feed the funeral parlours, that’s why. You listen to those buildings sometime. You can almost hear them chewing, man.

Jed duly joins up with ‘the womb gang’, to make war on death. Again, the novel’s message is written in letters a foot high, like a Brechtian slogan. As Evelyn Waugh observed fifty years ago, the only problem the Americans haven’t been able to solve is death. But, in their can-do way, they keep trying – with cryogenics, channelling, tele-evangelism, liposuction, or whatever.

Both of Thomson’s earlier novels – when they weren’t shouting their message – contained impressively delicate writing. But they often didn’t go anywhere in narrative terms and just fizzled prettily on the page. It was hard to escape the sense that the novelist was not always in control of his novel. Air and Fire is different. The narrative suggests thoughtful planning. Structures and connections reveal themselves to the reader with more delicacy than one is used to from this author.

The novel begins with a sea-voyage from France, the home of reason, to ‘the land where legends are born’ (as a sailor ominously whispers to the heroine, Suzanne Valence). If Five Gates seemed an update of Waugh’s The Loved One, Air and Fire recalls Golding’s The Spire. Théophile Valence has come with the mission of imposing Eiffelian rationality on Mexican muddle. The steel cathedral will take its place with Santa Sofia’s Calle Francesa and Hotel de Paris as part of France’s civilising mission in the Latin world. The narrative (which in places is characteristically hallucinatory) is anchored to a series of pedantic reports from Valence to Eiffel, describing the progress of the structure – which is, of course, doomed. Catastrophe is predicted by a running joke in which a Mexican baker desperately tries without success to produce the baguettes his French masters demand. When everything fails (including trampling his dough with shoes recently dabbled in dogshit) he is run out of town by his infuriated clientele.

As Valence discovers, the difficulty is not with technology but with ‘the human problems that abound’. Summer is the very worst time of year to build. The steel structure becomes the biggest oven in the hemisphere. The Indian construction workers are surly, the rurales who discipline them are brutal and trigger-happy. No one in Mexico wants the thing anyway. Suzanne attracts lovers while her husband fiddles with his 2348 girders. As part of his wooing Captain Felix Montoya, the garrison commander, takes her for a ride in his submarine, which is either state-of-the-art technology for the 1890s, or perhaps as much an invention as the Beatles’ little yellow vessel. The underwater jaunt is an opportunity for Thomson to unleash a couple of pages of his most vivid descriptive writing. Shoals of technicolour fish glide by and a dreaded manta ray is glimpsed: ‘As they slid through a gap in the coral, its walls as intricate as lace, she saw something flap past overhead, a huge moving shadow, a cloak with a cruel mouth.’

In another part of the narrative, we follow the parallel quest of a visionary American gold hunter – Wilson Pharaoh. His character compounds the American instinct to exploit Mexico’s resources with the ineradicable romanticism with which the United States thinks of the world south of the border (it has never felt like that about Canada). Wilson, who penetrates farther into Suzanne’s affections than his submariner rival, whisks her off into the desert, on a combined gold-hunt and elopement. Meanwhile, in town, the dôme Eiffel is falling down, with a crash like Babel. Wild things happen to the lovers in the wilderness. Gold may or may not be found; perhaps they consummate their adultery. She seems to die and he buries her – but it turns out that she has not died at all, and he has somehow rescued her. The elements of fire and air trigger a phantasmagoric series of visions. Wilson Pharaoh recalls in hideous detail the memory of what he had repressed, his horse-thief father tortured and branded by a vengeful marshal. These excessive desert scenes may recall what was least effective in the earlier fiction, but they are only one aspect of a novel which reveals Thomson as a gifted writer growing impressively.