By Gavin James Bower.
James Palumbo, TOMAS, Quartet, 2009
Kitchens, like hospitals, are essential. The colours, the tiling, the trusty cooker, the fridge – maybe with an automatic ice dispenser. Then there are the accoutrements. Oh, the accoutrements! Pots and pans, ceramic mugs, giant salad bowls, the coffee machine, electric things. Tableware all matching, reassuringly expensive when bought. All symbols of your success…
This is TOMAS, the much-hyped debut novel from Ministry of Sound founder James Palumbo. Specifically, the passage is from ‘The Sermon on the Tower’, when Palumbo’s eponymous anti-hero addresses his millions of fans SLASH followers from atop an inverted Eiffel Tower, having survived death by firing squad and been resurrected as the new Messiah. On the brink of war, with Russia’s Great Bear, symbolic of capitalism at its most vulgar and inhumane, facing Tomas and his alternative world order, this surreal soliloquy on the latent dangers of apathy coupled with affluence perfectly captures a novel that is at once temporal and fantastical, satirising our obsession with wealth – desiring it, accumulating it, flaunting it – by creating a world so grotesquely decadent it might be considered comical, if it wasn’t for the fact it so closely resembles our own.
How tragic it would be if you came home to find that shockingly, inexplicably, a vicious sledgehammer had done its work on your kitchen. Imagine your kitchen now. The fridge stoved in with a mighty gash, the cooker irretrievably disfigured, the comfortable table splintered and everything smashed. A thousand pieces of glass and crockery, the salad bowl giant no longer. Pots and pans twisted like deformed limbs. Most horrifying of all is the shit of your assailant amid the rubbish and the rubble. And nothing else in the house disturbed, just your kitchen mangled.
But if you thought TOMAS was all sledgehammers and shits in kitchens, you’d be wrong. This is a book like no other. Aside from the Napoleonic necromancy, time travel and telekinetic aliens, as well as a torture scene that’s certain to make male readers wince at the mere sight of truffles, there’s a Russian oligarch with a detachable stomach, ‘King Rat’ and his army of ‘Cocksack’ soldiers, bankers that transmute into pigs at the point of climax, trophy women with breasts so huge they need to be transported on trolleys – all of them indicative of a world turned upside down through excess, deftly employed by Palumbo to show us for what we really are: in the gutter, looking at the stars.
In TOMAS, of course, the ‘stars’ are celebrities, footballers and reality TV show contestants, all of them like supernovas burning brightly but ultimately moribund, a conveyor belt of morons begetting other morons, to paraphrase the book’s slick London underground poster campaign.
Which leads me back to the hype. The aforementioned puff surrounding TOMAS makes any review difficult. (Endorsed by the likes of Stephen Fry, Niall Ferguson and, um, Noel Fielding, and with a snazzy website and sophisticated PR campaign to boot, it might not even need one.)
And yet, cut through the blurbs, the radio love-ins and the double-page spreads in weekend supplements, and TOMAS is just a book. More to the point, in the stranglehold of global recession and with the popularity of the architects of capitalism’s most recent crisis – bankers, politicians, even journalists – at an all-time low, TOMAS is an important book, taking aim at all of them, as it does, and well worth reading as a result.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
TOMAS is published by Quartet Books. Gavin James Bower’s debut novel Dazed & Aroused, also published by Quartet Books, is out now. Nepotism is indeed rife…
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 25th, 2009.