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How to Make a Bomb by Rupert Thomson review – struck by sickness, an academic seeks solace in love

How to Make a Bomb by Rupert Thomson review – struck by sickness, an academic seeks solace in love

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, the protagonist, Roquentin, suffers a strange “sweet sickness” that is the physical manifestation of a deep existential malaise. Phillip Notman, the hero of Rupert Thomson’s How to Make a Bomb, is, like Roquentin, an academic researching a biography of an obscure historical figure. Like Roquentin, he is struck by a sudden and paralysing nausea, one that threatens to capsize his apparently ordered existence. Like Roquentin, he seeks solace in a woman’s love. Thomson’s 14 novels are overwhelmingly disparate, sharing only a profound regard for style, an engagement with the European avant garde tradition, and an interest in the secret and occluded corners of life.

It is at a conference in Norway that Notman suffers his first bout of illness. He is on his way to the airport after an evening spent in the company of a Spanish academic, Inés. How to Make a Bomb is written in an unusual kind of free verse with line breaks replacing full stops, although, as with any successful stylistic effect, you stop noticing it after a page or two. On the tram to the airport, Notman feels as if:

“A hand had wrapped itself around his brain, and it was squeezing
He was worried he might throw up or pass out
He was worried he might scream
He couldn’t think
There was nothing left to think with”

Notman decides to leave his “ordered and predictable” life, his wife – the stoical Anya – and his troubled son, Seth, and set out to find the Spanish academic, feeling that she is in some way implicated in his breakdown. He flies to Cádiz; Inés is “surprised and flattered” by his arrival. They embark on a kind of chaste affair, immersing themselves in the life of the city, inhabiting a dreamlike world of very European pleasures: good wine, flamenco, deep conversations. Notman tells Inés that he doesn’t want anything from her, that to get into bed with her would be to fall into a cliche. He meets an elderly couple who offer him their holiday house in Crete. On a whim, he flies there, hoping to find a more rugged and essential version of the world.

That idea about falling into a cliche seems important in this book and in Thomson’s writing more widely. There is always a tension between the austere avant-gardist and the crowd-pleasing storyteller. How to Make a Bomb is a novel about a midlife crisis, elevated and rarefied by its protagonist’s exalted view of himself in a literary and historical tradition of suffering men. The ending sees Notman attempt to wrest his life in the direction of a more heroic, tragic plotline, the final pages left pleasingly open to the reader’s interpretation: will Notman follow through on the dictates of his “Notmanifesto”, or will he return to the comfortable, ordinary family life that – incredibly – has waited for him over the course of his absurd midlife lurch?

Source: theguardian.com