Natives of Amsterdam often describe their city as gezellig. The adjective, which means something between "convivial" and "cosy", does it justice, but there is another, perhaps more popular conception of Amsterdam, which views it as an edgy, seedy place. This latter identity should make it a prime location for noir-ish fiction, but although Nicholas Freeling's Van der Valk novels visit it repeatedly and Irvine Welsh and Martyn Bedford have recently written about the city, it continues to attract little attention from contemporary British writers.
The edgy, seedy Amsterdam of casual repute seems purpose-built for Rupert Thomson, whose five previous novels have all explored underworlds, ranging from a dusty Mexican copper-mining town to an imaginary, funereal city called Moon Beach. His latest offering, The Book of Revelation, is set in Amsterdam, but the city is barely visible; the choice of setting is calculated simply to draw on the stock impression of its tawdry claustrophobia.
The central figure is an English dancer, a young man of extraordinary physical beauty, who pops out one April day in a break between rehearsals to buy cigarettes for his girlfriend. It is an errand that should take ten minutes, but he is abducted by three women and doesn't return for nearly three weeks. When he does come back, he refuses to explain his absence. His silence is interpreted in different ways by different characters, but the truth is that he is ashamed of what has happened.
The details of what he undergoes during his imprisonment take up almost half the book. His captors play out their sexual fantasies on him, choreographing elaborately degrading set pieces. They attach a weight to his foreskin and then ask him to dance for them: he performs the final scenes of Swan Lake. They hold a dinner party at which his role is to be a platter; they plug every crevice of his body and pile him high with food, decorating his chest with medallions of cold meat, wedging aubergine and seared red pepper in his groin. When all the delicacies have been demolished, the diners fellate him for dessert. Some of the women's fantasies are elaborate, some brutally straightforward, but they make the most of his defenceless condition. He is sodomised. He is crudely tattooed. And finally, perhaps most frighteningly of all, the women release him back into the outside world as abruptly as they snatched him away from it.
The second half concerns the dancer's attempt to recover a sense of self-worth. He travels to escape his old life. This narrative of flight is sparse. The point of the journey is "to forfeit all awareness . . . to disappear completely into what I was looking at". Charting the larger trajectory of his protagonist's rediscoveries, Thomson explores issues such as concealment, revenge, emotional disengagement and the poetics of the human body in an oblique but telling manner. He is especially interested in investigating the debatable land in which reality blurs into the surreal and the impossible: he writes of the way suggestions sell themselves to the unconscious and of the perpetual fascination of surfaces.
In the hands of a less skilled writer, none of this would work. Much of the subject matter would seem gratuitously lurid, and the examination of its consequences would be either portentous or bland. Thomson is able to make it all work, though, chiefly because his writing is so nuanced and evocative. It may be a mark of lazy reviewing to rave about adroit similes, but Thomson's ring uncannily true. One woman has labia which are "uneven, swollen, slightly ruffled, like the pages of a book that has fallen into water and then dried out"; another has a sweet smell, "a mixture of parsnip and oat biscuits".
Despite manifesting all his customary style and poise, The Book of Revelation is not Thomson's best work. Less quirky than his earlier fiction, it continues his fixation with the troubling and the deranged, but if it is perhaps less nourishing than his longer books, it remains a haunting and original fable of abuse and its antidotes. Yet for all the precision of the writing, it can seem strangely hollow. Which may be the novel's point, a comment on the virtuality of modern living; it's a point that scarcely proves a revelation.