One does not know exactly where or when Rupert Thomson's latest novel, Divided Kingdom, takes place, but he does describe a "united kingdom" full of social maladies that hits close to home: People are obsessed with acquisition and celebrity, children kill each other, and citizens take the law into their own hands. In response, the government enacts a radical plan to divide the nation into four republics based on the "humours"ancient psychological fault lines defined by the sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic. Narrator Thomas Parry is classified as sanguine and taken from his melancholic parents at a tender age. Though not brimming with nationalistic fervor, he turns out to be a model citizen, never questioning the state of things and certain of his place in the world.
By Rupert Thomson Knopf, 338 pp., $24.95
While the Skinnerian ploy seems cruel and oppressive, the kingdom's mental mitosis ends up satisfying the citizenry's hunger for something deeper: identity. This pre-formed, pro forma ID, of course, is false. Parry, who grows up to become a government bureaucrat, takes a diplomatic trip to another quarter, and the plot is evident: He rebels, and as a fugitive, crosses all borders, dredging up all his "humours" along the way. As much as Divided Kingdom is a political fable in the manner of George Orwell's 1984, and thus aims to be poetic in its absurd framework, Thomson upsets this scheme by baring his intent bluntly. A diplomat from another republic offers the reader guidance: "What was so clever about the way they divided us . . . It's like racism. . . . I'm not interested in the color of someone's skin. It's their thoughts that bother me."
Thomson dots his lean prose with colorful similes and has a knack for lively descriptions of nature. But he ultimately derails his cautionary tale by cramming ham-handed exegeses into the margins, producing quaint political observations that ring with desperationa call to arms that, unfortunately, is all too easily ignored. Edmund J. Lee