My desire to avoid biography in this blog continues to prove impractical, so it goes.
When I was about 16 or so, I ran into a boy in my school that I didn’t normally spend time with. We chatted briefly, and he mentioned that he was reading the then latest Martin Amis novel. He made references to other Amis’ novels, and in so doing exercised an effortless literary superiority over my own, less cerebral, reading. Nobody is as status conscious as an adolescent.
So, keen not to appear uncultured I started reading Amis, and happily I enjoyed his work. Dead Babies, Success, The Rachel Papers, Money – which was a complete tour de force, I read pretty much everything he had then written (save possibly Other People, I can’t see why I wouldn’t have read it, but I have absolutely no memory of it). After Money, five years passed before Amis published his next novel (London Fields) and during that time I lost the habit of reading him and came to view him (quite unfairly) as a writer associated with adolescence, an English JD Salinger. That wasn’t a conscious judgement, more an association.
Fast forward more years than I could have imagined when I first encountered Amis, and I saw a review of Night Train on Trevor Berrett’s excellent literary blog The Mookse and the Gripes http://mookse.wordpress.com/2008/07/14/martin-amiss-night-train/. Trevor’s review caught my attention, and left me wondering if I had wrongly been ignoring a writer with much still to commend him.
For those losing patience with this biographical discursion, the short answer is that Amis still reads well and that Night Train specifically is a good novel but not I think a great one, due primarily to flaws in its narrative voice. Incidentally, I’m presently reading Caledonia Sputnik, which contains references both to Rothsea and to Ayr, both locations closely associated with my childhood. I may not be seeking to write any biography here, but biography appears to be seeking me.
Moving back to the novel itself, Night Train is a work of hardboiled/noir fiction, playing (as noir so often does) with ideas of meaning and existence. Those who know me will know that I tend to distinguish fairly firmly between hard boiled and noir fiction as separate sub-genres, this genuinely straddles the two and indeed I suspect this may be intentional as a hardboiled protagonist discovers to their horror that they are in fact in a noir novel.
In essence, Night Train is the story of an investigation into an apparent suicide which may in fact be a murder. Jennifer Rockwell, daughter of a senior police officer, has a life of as near to perfection as one can imagine. She is beautiful, she is brilliant, she has rewarding work as an astrophysicist, she has a fulfilling relationship with a near-perfect man working on many worlds theory (a point, among many, which may or may not be relevant to her death). Jennifer’s life is ideal, as good as a human life can be, which raises the question of why she is found naked in her bedroom apparently having shot herself three times through the roof of her mouth. Jennifer’s father, Colonel Tom Rockwell (generally referred to as Colonel Tom), asks old friend of the family Detective Mike Hoolihan to investigate his daughter’s death, “Because any outcome, yes, any at all, rape, mutilation, dismemberment, cannibalism, marathon tortures of Chinese ingenuity, of Afghan lavishness, any outcome was better than the other thing. Which was his daughter putting the .22 in her mouth and pulling the trigger three times.”
As ever, I don’t intend to write here anything which would constitute a serious plot spoiler, although I can (happily?) reassure you that the denouement is as bleak and depressing as one would expect from a work of noir fiction. Although this is not really as much of a plot driven novel as are many works of crime fiction, the plot is still important and Amis skilfully paces out developments within the narrative in a way that could still potentially be damaged. I don’t think, however, it is giving much away to say that this novel moves quickly from a whodunnit into a whydunnit. The question is not really how Jennifer met her death, it is why. Equally, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear to Detective Mike Hoolihan that she herself is as much a part of the narrative of Jennifer’s death as anyone else. This is a novel where the why becomes disturbingly personal, where Jennifer’s death carries a message which if not intended expressly for Detective Hoolihan nonetheless becomes increasingly directed at her.
My use of her in that last paragraph is quite intentional, Detective Mike Hoolihan is a woman. We discover this in the first paragraph, and though the fact of her having a male name is explored briefly in a (thankfully short) element of Hoolihan’s backstory it’s never really explained. Hoolihan does not just have a man’s name, she has a voice that sounds male due to years of heavy smoking and hard alcoholism, she has a heavy frame and from behind is mistaken as a man. She is a woman, but she seems like a man, and seeming is important in this novel. As such, there is to some extent a thematic purpose to the odd choice of name, but for me it was nonetheless a jarring element and the naming of characters in several parts of the novel proved something of a barrier to me in engaging with it. I didn’t really buy a woman detective called Mike, Jennifer’s perfect boyfriend is called Trader Faulkner and Trader seemed to me a bizarre first name (and one with no evident thematic elements I noticed), Colonel Tom seemed an odd thing for Mike to call Jennifer’s father, I could have seen Tom or Colonel Rockwell or just plain Colonel but Colonel Tom seemed unlikely. It’s not a major point, but to some extent it created a slight air of falseness to me, a reminder I was reading a novel.
And, to stick to criticisms for the moment, it is the voice of the novel where most of its problems are found. Martin Amis is an English writer, here writing from the point of view of an American character. For me, he didn’t always wholly succeed in convincing. For example, and I may be wrong in this, at one point Hoolihan uses the epithet “shite” which for me is a profoundly Scottish swearword. Do Americans actually use that word? Perhaps they do, but I have never heard one do so and whether they do or not when I encountered it I was thrown out of the novel wondering at the accuracy of the narrative voice. Worse yet, at one point in a conversation between state raised and ill-educated Mike Hoolihan and the urbane and highly educated Trader Faulkner I lost track of which character was speaking. I had to reread the passage, and it was only by noting which sentences referenced concepts in astrophysics I was able to work out which character had which lines. Falseness crept in at other places too, a Detective Sergeant who praises a report by saying “it’s goddamn Cicero versus Robespierre” – I have no issue with a Detective Sergeant who knows both, but I doubt many would address a squadroom with comparisons of that kind.
In general then, the narrative voice didn’t wholly persuade me, at times I was reminded I was reading a novel (a big sin in my personal book of literary failings) and at times I found the literary elements of the novel directly clashing with its success as a genre work, and this is not a book which could fail as genre but succeed as literature in my view.
All of which sounds fairly damning, but overall I liked the book and thought it worth reading. Partly because although some stylistic elements I thought failed, others worked far better, and partly because it is an ambitious book which deals in some large and serious themes in a short space and I found that ambition in itself refreshing.
Returning to style, at his best Amis is a spectacular writer of prose. His style in this book is suitably pithy, sentences are brief and to the point, descriptions short and precise, his prose is hardboiled and (unlike recent Ellroy novels) he knows to keep the work short so that the brevity of his prose does not become in itself predictable and so a barrier to the story. From time to time I noted page references for text I might quote as examples of his skill, about half way I stopped bothering, Amis is too good a writer for that to be a worthwhile approach. Some examples:
Hoolihan’s early refutation of loneliness: Is that Tobe now, starting up the stairs? Or is it the first rumour of the night train? The building always seems to hear it coming, the night train, and braces itself as soon as it hears in the distance that desparate cry.
I don’t live alone. I don’t live alone. I live with Tobe.”
A detective on the presumption of suicide: “You shoot yourself once in the mouth. That’s life. You shoot yourself twice. Hey. Accidents happen. You shoot yourself three times. You got to really want to go.”
A description of Colonel Tom: “He is shrinking. His desk is big anyway but now it looks like an aircraft carrier. And his face like a little gun turret, with its two red panic buttons. He isn’t getting better.”
At a funeral: “We held each other – partly for the warmth, because the sun itself felt cold that day, like a ball of yellow ice, chilling the sky.”
Amis is an accomplished writer. The failings of this novel described above are real, but they are only part of the picture. The novel is full also of superbly written prose which is in keeping with the genre Amis is writing within but which does not compromise his talent in the process of adapting to that new genre (adapting to genre can be peculiarly hard for literary fiction authors, whose prose style often struggles to work within the new framework).
Perhaps more interestingly, the novel is also an exploration of ideas. Issues such as the meaning of life and of existence itself, of our place in the universe, of our desire to impose a human meaning on the universe, of the gap between what we are and what we imagine ourselves to be in the personal narratives we craft of our lives.
Taking that last point first, a constant theme in the novel is that of appearances, of how things are and how things appear to be, of how what we expect determines what we do and say. The police in this novel are influenced by generations of films and tv shows, their conversations warped by their own expectation of their parts drawn from those media. Hoolihan seems at times almost to consider herself on tv (or in a novel), and police act in ways informed by their own expectations of how others expect them to act. Similarly, Jennifer’s boss is looking for data in star charts which may not be present, his own expectations of the universe and his desire to outperform Princeton being of more relevance to him than the actual data itself. We impose pattern in accordance with the stories we tell ourselves.
As well as the world of appearances, the novel also speaks to the world of actuality, the final third of the novel is titled “The Seeing”, a reference to Jennifer’s work in astrophysics and the desire to bring clarity to the sky, to see reality as it really is and to see in that reality where we fit within it. Jennifer’s boss speaks of how she was comfortable viewing the universe as it really is, the vanguard of a revolution in consciousness, that she was liberated by the possession of a truth from which most prior generations of humanity were barred, a truth about the nature of the universe and an understanding of how petty our everday concerns are in the light of that.
This is big stuff, material alien to the traditional concerns of the crime novel and more commonly addressed within sf. It is ambitious material to address in this way, and for me I found much to enjoy in finding these classic sf themes addressed in a new way and within a new genre.
Indeed, and at risk of giving much away to those reading this who know their sf, the novel reminded me strongly in places of the Larry Niven short story All the Myriad Ways about a detective investigating a string of seemingly motiveless crimes (available online in full at http://www.bundy223.net/~andyb/prose/myriad.html) and also of the Stanislaw Lem detective novel (again a writer operating outside his normal genre) The Chain of Chance in which a former astronaut investigates a series of mysterious and again apparently motiveless deaths (the Lem novel is in my view the better written of those two, Lem is a literary great deserving of wider recognition – I don’t think he is now that well known outside of his native Poland, but the Niven story is fun and makes its point in very little space, a strength of Niven’s). If Night Train interests you, these others may also (the Niven is workmanlike in its prose, but is brief and to the point. The Lem I recommend highly).
Another comparator is Dashiel Hammet’s 1923 short story The Tenth Clew (available in full online at http://arthursclassicnovels.com/arthurs/hammett/tclew10.html). In the Night Train, Hoolihan finds many clues to Jennifer’s death and its causes, really too many. There is the many worlds research, Jennifer’s work on physics and cosmology, a possible affair, a possible drug connection, a book on suicide hidden in her bedroom, an out of character act at work, clues abound, but none are very helpful. Hoolihan’s job is the same as Jennifer’s was, she has to sift through an ocean of data in order to achieve the seeing, in order to see past the data and the patterns it suggests to the underlying reality. As a detective, Hoolihan is recapitulating Jennifer’s work as a physicist, a parallel which Amis very clearly intends to draw out. It is also clear that the truth may not be palatable, that the act of seeing is a dangerous one, that it may be safer to exist within the patterns we ourselves impose upon the data.
For a 149 page novel the above is plenty, but there are of course (as always with good books) elements I have barely touched upon. The use of the night train itself as a constant metaphor (for a variety of things) through the book, the skilfully drawn relationships between Hoolihan and the various men in her life, Hoolihan herself (despite the brief problem with the dialogue with Trader I discuss above) is a well drawn character who fits comfortably within the hardboiled canon. The tragedy for Hoolihan, as I noted early in this blog entry, is that she is good at her job and that she is not in fact in a hardboiled novel. Hoolihan follows Jennifer’s trail, sees through the patterns and uncovers the truth, she takes a ride on the night train and it is as Hoolihan tells us from the beginning a train on which there are only one way tickets.
As a final aside, the cover of the version I read is that pictured in the Book Depository link below (as at the time of writing anyway). It is one of Vintage’s covers, which sometimes succeed and sometimes fail (and I applaud Vintage for choosing to take that risk with their covers). Here, for me, it succeeds with a cover that looks hand-written in cheap biro, begrimed, ink-smudged and with a doodled cigarette beneath Amis’ name. It is a bleak and dreary cover, the letters of the title suggestive of forward movement but also looking vaguely as if cut from a magazine. I rather liked it.