Even for a novella (though the publishers call it a novel) of slightly over one hundred and thirty pages, there is not a lot of plot movement in Rupert: A Confession. The story is basic: the protagonist, Rupert, gives a three-art confession to a jury about a crime he was alleged to commit. In the process, we discover he has a vast array of pornography meticulously cataloged, has been thrown out of massage parlor for ejaculating on the proprietor, and conceives of his own life as either a stage production or an offspring of Japanese warriors. Otherwise, the book centers on the rise and fall of his idealized girlfriend Mira, who at turns is taciturn, cranky, or sexually insatiable.
However, the novel is written in first person subjective (a series of long, rambling speeches), and Rupert can be described as a self-loving, socially-maladjusted, borderline predator with a talent for talking – however intellectually masterful/incoherent his speeches might be. A reader might conclude that the author, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, is creating a Dutch variation of Lolita, but Nobokov’s novel allowed for a greater depth of characters beyond the narrator’s own eyes. Rather, I think Rupert has more in common with the nearly forgotten Frederick Exley masterpiece A Fan’s Notes who sported a protagonist at once so immensely brilliant and so out of touch with any surface reality. His world was funny, violent, disturbed, and completely believable; it was, however, not the planet most human beings inhabit.
Thus, in Rupert’s Netherlands, we see the cafes, squares, and houses one might actually find in the country. However, Rupert’s descriptions and ruminations on their social functions and their philosophical and emotional import are outright strange. Rupert is a mix of high philosophy and aesthetics as well as sex-obsessed pervert Romantic. Thus we get the narrator giving us his architectural treatise about squares in the world:
Of course, it is of great importance that the square is located in the right place in the city…The square should be the mouth in which all rivers lead. The streams of walking, working, and window-shopping people must all end up there…there have to be shopping streets nearby, small and big cafes, museums and churches, side streets and alleyways, cheap and expensive restaurants, cinema and theaters.
Versus this rendering of place, the venerable and often mentioned “Sexyland”:
As you know, that’s where, for a modest fee, you can get a look at a naked girl for five minutes. You go down a steep, dark staircase, then you’re in the basement, where it’s warm and damp and the deforming acoustics transform hard dance music into hellish, other-worldly sounds.
In the beginnings of the novel, we see Rupert able to keep these two distinct worlds separate, but as his story unravels (and it is a story of his unraveling), these worlds become confused, conflated, and ultimately base. To my mind, this progression was the most fascinating part of the manuscript: to observe the disintegration of sanity, which often puts things nicely in compartments.
Of course, the unraveling parallels the story of Mira – a Mira of Rupert’s romanticizing, objectifying, and sexualizing – an unattainable Mira due to Rupert’s inability to achieve erection. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you who Mira is beyond the OCD mind of Rupert, and this grew tiring. Even in Exley’s novel, there are moments where the writer places the character directly within the line of fire of other characters – even if for a glimpse – and readers are able to step outside the dominant voice of the narrator and see what might be a moment of truth. One would assume that moment would come when Mira describes the moment she cheated on Rupert with his friend, but instead, it reads like badly scripted porn.
Ultimately, Rupert melts down and brings us to his crime – or his version of it – and since it is the book’s climax, I will only say there are two crimes – one of Rupert’s imagination and one which the prosecution presents. Both are meant to be highly disturbing, and yet, by the end of the book, these things feel rather expected. That doesn’t take away from their grotesque natures, but its grotesqueness that offers no new insights into Rupert, no way to glean a sense of his humanity.
I suppose one could argue that the situation that grounds the story – a defendant who has not one scintilla on how to sway a jury – should make the character a sympathetic figure, a term not meant to be confused with likeable. But neither happens here. Rupert ends as Rupert begins: as a spectator to his own dysfunction and to the circumstances of normal life – only at the end, Rupert can not compartmentalize. In this way, the book is truly a chronicle of Rupert more than a story that could intersect a reader emotionally and even intellectually. Readers are meant to observe passively – to be an audience for the narrator – and by the end, the audience, like Rupert, is unchanged if not just a little bit cheapened.