Is It a Moral Awakening or Just One Man’s Midlife Crisis?

DARTMOUTH PARK, by Rupert Thomson

Philip Notman, the history professor protagonist of Rupert Thomson’s 14th novel, “Dartmouth Park,” is, by his own estimation, an essentially anonymous man, disguised by his education, Christianity, whiteness, heterosexuality and middle age. Long stuck in his ways, he isn’t expecting to have his life upended while returning to London from an academic conference in Norway, even after spending an unexpectedly memorable few days roving about with an enthralling younger sociologist from Cádiz named Inés Vaquero de Ayala. But an upending is exactly what happens to Philip when, on the way home, he experiences what he later calls his “Damascene moment” — a woman near him taps a travel card to get on the airport tram, and the mundane beep the card reader makes sends him into a brief but visceral fugue, wherein “his head began to float sideways and backward,” and he feels a sensation akin to a hand wrapping around his brain and squeezing, leaving him momentarily unable to think or react.
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Afterward, Philip finds his surroundings newly unbearable. The problem, it seems, is the artificiality of modernity. “Everything had been designed and manufactured, and he was trapped in it,” he thinks. Simultaneously, his mind seems to open and he becomes “aware of possibilities that might or might not have been explored.” But is this newfound “hypersensitivity” or “nausea,” as Philip alternately calls his post-fugue condition, an actual revelation or is it merely the intellectualized manifestation of an otherwise ordinary midlife crisis, incited by a few days spent in the company of a younger woman?

Thomson doesn’t tip his hand one way or the other as to the objective validity of Philip’s experience, and Philip, perhaps afraid of the answer, doesn’t dwell on the question either. Instead, he takes a temporary leave from his wife and his troubled teenage son, booking a one-way ticket to Cádiz, where he resumes his nascent friendship with Inés. In and out of her flirtatious company, Philip indulges in what he terms his “not-knowing,” deciding he should “dispense with structure, and open himself to possibility and chance,” an approach that soon leads him onward from Cádiz to a borrowed home in a stark oceanside village in Crete, then to a nearby monastery and the attractively unadorned lifestyle of its gnomic monks.

As Philip travels, he crafts a hodgepodge but earnest anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist philosophy, assembled from the lives of the people he encounters as well as bits of contemporary and historical environmental thought. His mishmash includes the Japanese concept of bunmeibyo (“civilization sickness”), Native American beliefs stating that “the environment was also a relation,” and the ideas of the novelist Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Project. Once his pilgrimage is completed, Philip returns to London having decided that drastic action might be warranted in order to save his culture, the natural world and himself: “If your cause is just,” he thinks, “you take up arms.”

In this final act, “Dartmouth Park” becomes a masterfully ambiguous depiction of how the sincere convert is often at risk of becoming a dangerous zealot, and also what one chances in adopting an extremist view. The novel is left morally open; Thomson neither directly sanctions nor condemns Philip’s actions, his justifications or his equivocations, even as Philip distills his medley of borrowed ideas into a manifesto — and as he builds the bomb with which he plans to effect the attention-seeking destruction of a famous London monument. Instead, Thomson simply depicts Philip’s journey from vaguely dissatisfied middle-aged academic to would-be domestic terrorist, and never interjects with apology or judgment. His restraint transforms the novel into an ethics lab. “Dartmouth Park” raises complicated questions — Is there a truer bedrock reality that’s been obscured by modern life, and, if so, is it possible to return to it? What good are the right ideas if they come at the cost of love and family? — but doesn’t neatly wrap them up. Rather, it allows the ideological inquiries at the center of the book to linger and bloom for continued consideration.

“Dartmouth Park” provides a powerfully evocative catalyst for thought and feeling, one Thomson must hope will incite as much inquiry and introspection in his readers as that innocuous airport card reader beep did in Philip.

DARTMOUTH PARK | By Rupert Thomson | 422 pp. | Other Press | Paperback, $18.99

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