The male fantasy featured in porn magazines and films goes something like this: A man is kidnapped by women in masks who strip him bare, tease and violate his body while prancing about naked in high heels. The common assumption is that men will find a way to enjoy violation as long as it’s somehow connected to sex. This scenario, the inverse of the male fantasy of committing rape, allows men a taste of humiliation in a safely controlled context—the kidnappers do all the nasty things the supposed victims secretly crave.
In The Book of Revelation, Rupert Thomson, author of the brainy thrillers Soft! and The Insult, attempts to undermine the notion that a man can’t really be raped by a woman. His narrator and rape victim is a successful 29-year-old dancer who lives in Amsterdam with his French girlfriend, Brigitte. A caring, well-adjusted guy, his only discontent is Brigitte’s smoking habit. One morning he dashes out to buy her cigarettes and is stopped by three hooded women who express admiration for his dancing. One slips a hypodermic needle into his wrist and next thing he wakes up chained to the floor in a large, empty loft. (At this point, presumably in keeping with the dancer’s objectification, the narration shifts to the third person for the duration of his captivity.) Thus begins a not untitillating (at least for this reader) program of sexual use—and sometimes painful abuse. After undressing him, they touch his body—”no curve or hollow, that they did not, in the end, explore”—and when he’s sufficiently aroused they take turns climbing aboard. Then they want him to masturbate. “We want to see the expression on your face,” one woman says. “Like you’re lost inside yourself. Like when you dance.”
He differentiates his anger and hatred for each of these women and names them accordingly: Astrid, the hostile one with the model’s body; Gertrude, the leader with white hands and darkly painted nails; and Maude, the quiet one who feeds and washes him, less powerful than the other two. As punishment for screaming at Maude, Astrid straps on a dildo and fucks him from behind, whispering in his ear the word “cunt” over and over. Textbook gender reversals like this are supplemented by more fetishistic activities. The women throw a dinner party and serve food artfully displayed on his bare body (except for the hood over his head), and later they pierce his foreskin (with a screwdriver!) and attach him with a ring and chain to the wall (here’s where all titillation fled). Then they invite guests to watch him dance a necessarily restricted passage from Swan Lake.
In spite of these grotesque tortures, Thomson’s character somehow manages toremain alert to sexuality’s metaphorical dimensions. In his dance—ever the artist—the captive imagines his leash as a symbol of the Prince’s “wayward sexuality: it was clear to everyone to see that, in pursuing Odile, he was being led by his most basic desires.” If such rarefied ruminations seem slightly incredible for someone raped and afraid for his life, the equanimity with which they are conjured compounds the perversity on display. The eerie allure of this bondage owes less to the ministrations of the women than to the mental refractions of their captive.
After 18 days the dancer is inexplicably freed. He returns home to Brigitte, who is convinced he was with another woman (wasn’t he?). Ashamed, he declines to tell the police. In an anomic haze, he moves away to stay with an older choreographer and mentor, and eventually spends years traveling around the world. When he returns to Amsterdam he beds hundreds of women in hope of finding Astrid’s scar, Gertrude’s red pubic hair, or Maude’s mole—the only identifying features he knows. Sometimes, after getting a woman’s clothes off and not finding the telltale marks, he loses interest. “What sort of man is it, who just submits?”—a question he asked himself while chained to the floor—hovers like an accusa-tion over his life.
This portrait of a sexually wounded man—”a stranger in [his] own body”—is hardly lacking in psychological realism, but aside from the dangled possibility that he might find his former tormentors, the last half of the novel feels as aimless as the narrator’s wanderings; the same knot of guilt, silence, and sexual redemption is tied and untied. Perhaps this falling off in pace and purpose is inevitable in a story that opens with sudden abduction and cruises for a hundred pages on insinuatingly inventive torture. Still, there is a therapeutic earnestness in Thomson’s focus on his narrator’s emotional dissolution and the journey toward healing; he’s too focused on proving that a man can be raped with consequences as devastating as for any woman. Yes, he shows how sexual assault will surely screw you up, but neglects the less obvious truth: Sex we seek out and rejoice in haunts us too. Thomson’s ample stylistic gifts are on display in The Book of Revelation, but they never quite lift the tale out from under the overarching facileness of its gender-flip conceit.