After the collapse of civilization, the map of Britain has been redrawn. Its citizens have been diagnosed with one of four personality types—choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, or sanguine—and relocated to the appropriate Quarter (Yellow, Blue, Green, Red, respectively), each of which is as separate from the others as East Berlin was from West. Our narrator has been assigned to the Red Quarter, whose citizens are characterized by an overabundance of cheer and goodwill, but still he is haunted by the trauma of the initial Re-arrangement that tore him from his parents, and by a less explicable, lingering malaise. By the end of the novel, his attempts to restore what he is missing will have led him across all four Quarters of the divided kingdom.
So—what the hell kind of novel is this?
First, it’s a thriller. The premise is so bizarre, it’s almost impossible to imagine someone pulling it off, but Thomson does it—this is the kind of novel you dive into headfirst and read in a single weekend, the kind of novel whose combination of suspense, writerly grace, and knack for spectacle pull you straight through from beginning to end.
But on the level of ideas, what sort of book is it? This isn’t quite the “cautionary tale” sort of dystopia, a la Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The humors, while an essential tradition in British literature—think Jonson, Burton, Shakespeare—are unlikely to be proposed as the basis of a political state. Yes, an argument might be made that the novel describes the damage done by borders of any kind, that Thomson is demonstrating how the lines dividing a Hindu state from a Muslim state (or—should I even say it?—a “red state” from a “blue state”) leave humankind as unbalanced as a diseased human body. The borders themselves certainly are deeply, inherently unwholesome. In one of the novel’s many moments of quiet fantasy, it’s suggested that they have been drawn along black ley lines, subjecting anyone who lingers on or around them to some very nasty feng shui.
And yes,Thomson figures the divisions in ways that recall a Brit-lit tradition even more essential than that of the four humors: namely, class anxiety. When the narrator is sent away from his parents to be educated with other sanguine boys, it smacks of “public school,” and the boys certainly are coached into a sense of election reminiscent of the old ruling class. And while a new anxiety of today’s Old World, racial difference, is all but a memory in the divided kingdom, a citizen/inmate of the avaricious and violent Yellow Quarter argues persuasively that one form of racism has only been supplanted by another.
But unlike, say, Gulliver’s Travels, this picaresque’s social critique is ultimately too broad be called political satire. While the protest against social division per se is quite vigorous in the world of the novel, it is accepted almost without challenge that all of humanity would fit into one of these four absolute categories—the only ones who don’t are the lowest of the low, the (touché!) “White People,” an eerie race of untouchables with no discernible desires, or even language, of their own. Deconstructing these categories matters less to Thomson than using them as a framework for a vivid and suggestive poetry of incident. His portrait of each Quarter becomes as real and emotionally immediate as a dream; on the map of human feeling, Divided Kingdom draws an intricate compass rose.