For as long as civilization has been with us, societies have tended to break down along racial and ethnic lines. But in Rupert Thomson's latest...

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“Divided Kingdom”
by Rupert Thomson
Knopf, 334 pp., $25.95

For as long as civilization has been with us, societies have tended to break down along racial and ethnic lines. But in Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, “Divided Kingdom,” the line of demarcation is not color or background, but temperament. Cooking up a stew that should make pop psychologists blush, Thomson dreams up a Brave New World where like sticks with like.

Here’s the conceit: Fed up with crime and social unrest that’s beyond its control, the government in a country that sounds a lot like England turns to a massive government relocation program called the Rearrangement. The unnamed nation is divided into four parts, each with heavily fortified borders that ensure everyone stays put. Then, based on personality tests, it forcibly relocates its citizens into the four quadrants.

The formula is based on the four humors or customary frames of mind as defined by classical texts: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. The feisty fill the Yellow Quarter, the sluggish Blue, depressed Green and cheerful Red. Obviously, each quadrant reflects the basic disposition of its occupants, so that the cholerics, for example, are always fighting with each other.

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The story’s narrator, Thomas Parry, has been assigned to the Red Quarter. That’s because he’s the kind who “liked to look on the bright side, make the best of things.” And maybe that’s why, years later, he remembers little about being yanked from his bed and his parents except how embarrassed he was by his mother’s wails.

Tom is sent to live with a more compatible family. But, as a look-on-the-bright-sider, he’s a bit perplexed that his new father and older sister aren’t as upbeat as he. Although vaguely aware that their wife and mother has been hauled away as part of the relocation campaign, he can’t quite grasp how that experience has altered their natures.

In a poke at genetic predeterminists, the author uses his bold social experiment to make some observations about personality: Tom’s obliviousness to his new family’s sorrow suggests that temperament isn’t immutable and can be influenced by events. Likewise, its Janus-faced aspect: While the sanguine types in the Red Quarter trip over themselves praising how well they get along, they seem oblivious to other traits, such as compassion and introspection, that have been sacrificed.

As an adult, Tom advances quickly in the bureaucracy. By his mid-30s, he becomes a delegate to the Sixteenth Cross-Border Conference. This allows him a rare chance to travel to the Blue Quarter and meet some of his opposites. As might be suspected, this encounter will add up to more than a few dull meetings and free drinks. As he begins to interact with those unlike himself — including the White People, the nomads who can’t fit in anywhere and are left to roam like homeless people — Tom wakes up to what it means to be human.

Thomson’s sharp mind and dry wit are in top form here. At the most obvious level, “Divided Kingdom” makes fun of government social experiments that typically founder on the realities of behavior. But the author’s ridicule isn’t reserved just for those who run the body politic. The book’s surreal vision is meant to tweak just about anybody who thinks the complexities of personality can be reduced to sound bites or softened with a few pills.

“I hadn’t understood that facts were only the servants of some greater message,” Tom observes in one of his “ah-ha” moments. Chew on that one for a while. There’s more subtlety than flashes of insight in this book. But “Divided Kingdom” is a worthy successor to such iconic nightmares as “1984” and “A Clockwork Orange.”

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a book critic and writer who lives in Portland. With Margo Hammond she writes the Book Babes, which can be found at