“Divided Kingdom” by Rupert Thomson

Part literary fiction, part social satire, this genre-bender from the author of "The Book of Revelation" offers a unique look at modern Britain.

Topics: Fiction, Books,

"Divided Kingdom" by Rupert Thomson

If you’re already a fan of Rupert Thomson’s novels, all I have to tell you is that he has a new one. You’ll understand already that it won’t fall readily into any known literary genre, but that it’ll crackle along like a thriller (in this case, a sci-fi thriller of sorts), driven by sharp and luminous writing. You’ll also know that in the end there’ll be something mysterious about it, as if its exciting events and characters are just a sort of smokescreen for something deeper and scarier still.

If you don’t know Thomson’s work yet, that’s a sad commentary on the state of our literary culture. In another era, the unclassifiable author of such previous volumes as “The Book of Revelation,” “Soft!” and “Air & Fire” might have been rich and famous, like, say, Aldous Huxley, his most obvious literary ancestor. Thomson has one foot in literary fiction and one foot in social satire, the way Huxley did, and like Huxley he’s an Englishman in exile (Thomson lives in Barcelona) who writes about his homeland with a combination of lyricism and disgust.

For my money, “Divided Kingdom” is Thomson’s best yet; it might, in fact, be his “Brave New World.” As the title suggests, this is a novel about Britain, but the words “Britain” or “England” never appear (poor old meaningless Queen Elizabeth is mentioned once, if not by name). In the divided kingdom where Thomas Parry grows up, the old names are not used anymore — in fact, Thomas himself used to have another name, before men with guns dragged him out of his parents’ house one night when he was 8 or 9. Like many other young people, he was subjected to the Rearrangement, in which the population was divided into four quadrants and kept apart with barbed wire, fortified walls and a vicious enthusiasm reminiscent of the Soviet empire at its peak.

“Divided Kingdom” is more a fantastic work than a realistic one; despite its family resemblance to other recent British dystopian fiction (such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s shattering “Never Let Me Go”) Thomson isn’t asking you to consider his Rearrangement soberly. You see, the citizens of this balkanized kingdom are not divided by race or religion or intellect or genetics or any other shibboleth of our era. Rather, they’re split up according to the ancient Hippocratic theory of the “humors”: angry “cholerics” in the Yellow Quadrant, gloomy “melancholics” in the Green Quadrant, and so forth. It’s a ridiculous concept, but Thomson turns it into a richly imagined picaresque adventure — and after a while you’ll start wondering if it’s any stupider than some of the social-science constructs of our day.

Writing episodic yarns with large and varied casts of characters is something of a lost art in high-end fiction, but Thomson has a natural-born storyteller’s shameless gift for it. Thomas grows up and becomes an important bureaucrat in the Red Quarter — the progressive, optimistic zone of the “sanguines,” almost free of crime and pollution — and then sets out on an illicit Alice-in-Wonderland odyssey, traveling alone to almost every corner of his disunited country.

While traveling to a conference in the Blue Quarter, where the doleful, spiritual “phlegmatics” live, Thomas visits a strange nightclub called the Bathysphere, and here his story, and “Divided Kingdom,” begins to move in a mystical, perhaps symbolist direction. Fueled by the oddly realistic visions the Bathysphere conveys — visions of the life he and his country have left behind — Thomas embarks on his underground pilgrimage, meeting a brilliantly sketched panoply of characters along the way. These range from the worldly Mr. Vishram, Thomas’ boss at the Department of Transfer and Relocation, to cryptic Blue Quarter secret agent Walter Ming, jodhpur-wearing Yellow Quarter rebel Fay Mackenzie, and Brendan Burroughs, Thomas’ Green Quarter housemate, who is convinced he is made out of butter (and hence may melt or go rancid).

As in any thriller worth its salt, there are unattainable women too, from Thomas’ stepsister Marie, his not-quite-incestuous first love, to a copper-haired, freckled girl named Odell Burfoot, who can actually make herself invisible. As Thomas’ story becomes more phantasmagorical, Thomson borders on the territory of Stephen King or, more precisely, Mervyn Peake. Thomas sees a blackened, fire-breathing man who may be the Devil himself (or one of his minions) and for a time joins the White People, a voiceless, abused, seemingly primitive group of telepaths who cross from zone to zone but belong to none of them. Thomson handles these more fantastic elements so skillfully you may feel you’re reading two novels simultaneously, one an almost-realistic adventure story and the other to be considered as an extended dream narrative or metaphor.

One way of understanding “Divided Kingdom” is to suggest that all four of its zones represent contemporary Britain as seen through a different satirical scrim: The Yellow Quarter is violent, vulgar America-lite, while the Blue Quarter is a brooding, mystical nation of witches and pagans, and the Red Quarter belongs to sensible, upper-middle Labor Party voters. (And the Green Quarter is very clearly the bleak and shabby Britain of the postwar years.)

Yet if Thomas’ odyssey is sometimes comic it is also and always tragic. I’ll leave it to British readers to decide how much “Divided Kingdom” reflects the psychic wounds of modern Britain, but Thomas’ exaggerated narrative is really more universal than that. Like many Thomson protagonists, he feels cut off from his own past, his family and his childhood, and can’t figure out how he became the person he is now. For many of us in the so-called real world, that remains a problem — whether we’re sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric or melancholy.

Read more of our reviews of this month’s best fiction

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>