The mid-life crisis that turned one historian into a terrorist

In Rupert Thomson's novel, a Londoner turns on Western civilisation
In Rupert Thomson's novel, a Londoner turns on Western civilisation - Getty

Rupert Thomson’s 14th novel, How to Make a Bomb, is a compelling if uneasy portrait of one middle-aged, middle-class man having an existential crisis. Philip Notman is a respected historian with an enviable life; he teaches at a prestigious university, and lives with his adored wife and 19-year-old son in a large house in leafy north London. (In America, the novel took its more Google-friendly title from the name of that neighbourhood, Dartmouth Park.)

It only takes a second, however, for all this to change. Travelling home from an academic conference in Norway, the should-be “innocuous” beep of another passenger’s travel-card against the card reader on a Bergen tram induces a catastrophic rupture in Notman’s comprehension of reality. His response is both physical and psychic: he’s afflicted by a sudden nausea, awash with an all-encompassing feeling of revulsion for the modern world.

Notman tries to carry on regardless, but finds reality increasingly “unbearable”; so he flees the old familiar safety of the life he knows, and embarks on an odyssey that takes him first to Cádiz in Spain, then onward to the Greek island of Crete, and finally back to London, the city he once called home but now seems like an alien and alienating metropolis.

The Crete-set section of the book is the highlight. The “elemental bleakness” of the landscape – nothing but “rocks and sand and water” – reflects a land of “lawlessness” and “simplicity”. The ominous tone reminded me of Katie Kitamura’s A Separation (2017), a similarly hypnotic, unsettling novel in which a woman searches for her estranged and now-missing husband in and around a tiny Greek fishing village, the panorama decimated by wildfires. Psychological collapse leads these characters to question language, law and truth.

But Notman is having no run-of-the-mill midlife crisis, nor the onset of a mental breakdown, no matter how much others interpret his actions thus. His is a much more deep-rooted malaise, echoes of which he identifies in bunmeibyõ, the Japanese concept of “civilisation sickness”, in which everyday reality becomes, for some people, “unreliable, enervating, even toxic”, and Native American beliefs about the kinship between humans and their environment (and the responsibility the former have towards the latter).

How to Make a Bomb is published by Apollo
How to Make a Bomb is published by Apollo - Geoff Pugh for DT

Notman considers joining Extinction Rebellion, or the writer Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Project – a form of storytelling that responds to what Kingsnorth identifies as the current “ecological, social and cultural unravelling” – but neither option seems effective enough. He can’t envisage any form of creativity as the answer to his suffering. Instead, his quest for meaning takes him to a place of radical, catastrophic destruction. “If your cause is just,” he argues, “you take up arms.” Thus he metamorphoses from exemplary citizen to domestic terrorist.

For the most part, then, How to Make a Bomb is a magnetic portrait of one man’s radicalisation. And the overarching question that it asks – if you feel this way, how extreme should your protest be? – is distressingly timely. The thriller-like propulsion of Thomson’s narrative is assisted by the fragmentation of his prose: the novel is completely devoid of full stops, which have all been replaced by line breaks, meaning that each paragraph is made up of what looks like a list of short almost-sentences: an impression, a description, a line of dialogue.

That may sound disjointed and chaotic, but the result is anything but. The text sparkles with clarity and precision, and frequently beauty too. Take lines such as these: “The night slipped and shifted, like a lift dropping an inch or two inside its shaft”; or “Then he was in the corridor, and the silver door closed over her, like water closing over somebody who’s drowning.” It’s as if all the extraneous stuff of existence had been stripped away. Meaning is found in the granular detail of a moment or a word.

And then, in contrast to this lucidity, How to Make a Bomb ends on an ambiguous note. Some readers will revel in its abstruseness; others might find the opacity a disappointment. Personally, I think Thomson gets away with it, and the equivocation heightens the power of everything that’s come before. Either way, it feels fitting for this novel – a book that strikes to the core of our age of uncertainty.

How to Make a Bomb by Rupert Thomson is published by Apollo at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books