And I must agree

I’ve been thinking for a while – a phrase which here means “a couple of years” – about adding to my occasional series of book reviews. Something about why Light left me feeling simultaneously awestruck, existentially uprooted and in need of a wash; or how The Star Fraction brought me out in a mild case of conspiracy mania, but Descent didn’t do a thing; or how Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell only really works if you read it as a secret history of the actual England; or the roles of psychosis, neurosis and therapy in the Frieda Klein books; or the artist’s eye and the problem of genius in The Maker of Swans; or what was actually going on in The Thing Itself (although I might need to re-read it first).

But I’ll start with an easier one: what’s wrong with Paula Hawkins’ phenomenally successful novel The Girl on the Train?

1. The girl on the train

First problem: there is no girl on a train. The main character commutes into London and consequently spends a fair bit of time on trains, and she makes an observation which is central to the main plot (or seems to be) while looking out of a train window; but that’s about it. The plot mutates part of the way through, but in neither of its forms is it actually about her. In any case, she isn’t a girl. Admittedly, different people draw the age boundary between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ at different points – 16? 18? 21? – but it would be a very odd definition of ‘girl’ that included somebody who had (a) got a job (b) got married (c) bought a house (d) tried and failed to get pregnant (e) suffered from depression triggered by (d) (f) got divorced (g) moved out to live in a friend’s spare room (h) become an alcoholic (i) lost her job and (j) spent two years(!) concealing (h) and (i) from all around her. Not to mention that she describes herself as getting married seven years before the period of the novel and moving into her first house aged 26. Once I’d realised that I was reading Scenes observed by a woman on a train I started to wonder if an actual girl on a train was going to figure in the narrative later on (oh, that‘s what…), but no.

2. The narrative voice(s)

The book has three narrators, whose names are helpfully given at the start of each chapter. Saying that this sort of thing was done better by William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would be a bit beside the point – their audiences were very different from Hawkins’ – but I will say that John Wain did it a lot better, and nobody even remembers John Wain these days.

Here are our three narrators:

My phone beeps. There’s a message on it, received hours ago. It’s Tom again. I don’t what to hear what he has to say, but I have to, I can’t ignore him.

No one comes. The lights are on, but no one comes. Perhaps he has seen me outside, lurking, perhaps he’s upstairs, just hoping that if he ignores me I’ll go away. I won’t.

I’m upstairs, in the bedroom. Tom’s watching TV with Evie. We’re not talking. It’s my fault. He walked in the door and I just went for him.

As Kevin Rowland might say, their internal monologues are various (various, yeah, various) but they’ve all got one thing in common: they all sound the same. Hawkins’ idea of character differentiation seems to consist of having them talk about different things. So voice 1 (who’s an alcoholic) talks about how delicious her first (or second) cool (or warm) drink tastes; voice 2 (who’s wild and impetuous) talks about feeling frustrated and cooped-up in the hell that is suburbia; and voice 3 (happy young mum) says things like “treated myself to a very cute Max Mara mini dress (Tom will forgive me once he sees me in it)”. But they all talk the same way. Like this, in short sentences. Then longer sentences, ungrammatical (mimicking speech patterns), sometimes creating a sense of urgency by going on just a bit too long. Then short ones again – I mean, obviously.

All this might be bearable if the characters themselves were… well, bearable, or even if they were annoying in interesting ways. (Read Some Effing Dickens! Or listen to the Archers, for that matter.) Even to say that the three narrators talk about different things does Hawkins too much credit; they all spend most of their time talking about the same thing – themselves. Internal monologue is a wonderful thing in the right hands; in the wrong ones it just gets you endless sentences beginning with “I” and “My”.

3. The present tense

As the three extracts above suggest, the book’s written in a breathless present tense, as if spoken by the three narrators. Not only is each chapter headed with the name of its narrator; each chapter – or rather each section within a chapter – also has a date, giving the effect of a series of diary entries. The chapters belonging to one of the narrators take place over a different, longer time period than those of the other two; just to make sure we don’t miss this, the section headed Thursday, 11 July 2013 is followed by a chapter headed with a different name and the words: One year earlier: Wednesday, 16 May 2012. This system makes it very easy for readers to check what’s taking place before what, and lets us know when the earlier timestream starts to catch up with the other two; there’s no other justification for it, though, which is to say that there’s no justification for it at all within the characters’ own reality. For instance, there’s never any suggestion that any one of the narrators is particularly obsessive about dates – or that any of them actually is keeping a diary. It isn’t even suggested that the narrators are reconstructing events after the fact – a plausible framing device that Hawkins could easily have helped herself to, had she not used the ‘diary’ format for all three of the narrators.

Perhaps the thinking was that endless present-tense narration would be disorientating if readers didn’t get regular reminders that time was in fact passing. If so, it would have been much better to ditch the commitment to use the present tense, which Hawkins does in fact abandon whenever it starts to be too much trouble. And it is trouble, writing in the continuous present; that’s why it’s so effective when it’s done well. (Read some effing Silverberg – “Passengers” for a start, and “Sundance” after that; a day or so after, perhaps.) Here are our three narrators again:

‘Did you see this woman on Saturday night?’ he asked. I stared at it for a long time. It seemed so surreal having her presented to me like that, the perfect blonde I’d watched, whose image I’d constructed and deconstructed in my head.

I turned up to my session late, and walked straight into his office without a word to the receptionist. He was sitting at his desk, writing something. He glanced up at me when I walked in, didn’t smile, then looked back down at his papers.

Tom rang me back – he was between meetings, he couldn’t come home. He tried to placate me, he made all the right noises, he told me it was probably a load of rubbish anyway.

Present-tense narration, indeed. Our narrators talk to themselves at great length and in what’s basically the same voice, beginning each day’s ruminations with a quick timestamp for ease of reference. Then later – when the plot starts to pick up – they tell themselves the story of what’s been happening to them and what they’ve been doing, in the past tense. Some events are still narrated as taking place in the present, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this, other than to make the present-tense sections seem more gripping. As with the diary dates, it’s a completely spurious device.

4. Women and men

All this wouldn’t be so bad if it was fun to listen in on our narrators chatting to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s tough spending time with these people. The main cast is tiny – three women (the narrators), three men. The women aren’t women, they’re airheads: a drunken, neurotic airhead, a scatty, hippyish airhead and a smug young-married airhead. The men are drawn in less detail, but they’re all alike: they’re all strong, silent and secretive, and they’re all devastatingly attractive. One’s a nice guy – although he’s also a therapist, so it may just be the job talking – and the other two are jealous, possessive bullies and thugs; devastatingly attractive bullies and thugs, mind you. The two women who aren’t drunk are pretty hot stuff themselves – one of them comes close to seducing the therapist, which is of course at the top of page one on the Therapist’s Big Book Of Things You Must Absolutely Not Do. But I guess he’s too weak to resist her, what with being a nice guy and not a thug… ugh. It’s like a Mills and Boon with the masochism turned up to 11.

Each narrator goes in for a lot of flappy will-I-won’t-I-yes-I-will-damn-it equivocation, treading irresolute water for a while and eliciting our sympathy for her indecision, before deciding on a course of action and eliciting our sympathy all over again; it’s the kind of thing you used to see in short fiction in women’s magazines, like Bella‘s “Tales with a twist”. To be fair, when it’s done sparingly, and when you’ve invested in the character, getting inside her head in this way can work really effectively. When it’s done over and over again – over the length of a novel – it just seems mechanical and exploitative. It also uses up a lot more words than just getting on with it would do – which may also have been a factor in those Bella stories, of course. And how our narrators like using up words! Was a character thinking about work as he put on his shirt and tie? Yes, he probably was. More specifically, he was “probably running through his schedule for the day – meetings, appointments, who, what, where.” Oh, that kind of schedule.

People do go to work – or rather, the men do; not one of the women has a job. But for the most part work is something that people just disappear off to and come back from. Even outside work, nobody has any hinterland at all – nobody reads books, nobody watches films, nobody even watches TV as far as we can tell. They go shopping, they go to the gym; the alcoholic goes to the pub, the young mum goes for coffee with “the NCT girls”[sic]; and, er, that’s it. About two thirds of the way through somebody mentions a band she used to listen to, and it’s like opening a window in a stuffy room.

And then there’s

5. The plot

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. An awful man was rejected by the Army and trained to be a surveyor instead (he just did, all right), then conned lots of money out of his parents and got married to a woman who worked in PR (no, I don’t know what he spent it all on). She couldn’t get pregnant, got depressed and started drinking heavily, and he started an affair with a woman who worked in a gallery. He also started threatening his wife and beating her up, but only when she was too drunk to remember what happened the next morning. Then he divorced her and married Gallery Woman, had a child with her and started an affair with the (married) childminder, who promptly got fed up with being a childminder (but carried on with the affair). Meanwhile PR Woman had taken to getting horribly drunk and harassing, or stalking, Awful Man – although very often when she did this she was too drunk to remember what had happened the next morning. When less drunk, during the day, she caught the train into London – where she worked until she was sacked for being drunk – which she could afford to do because reasons. ♠She got into a habit of looking at her old house, and then looking at the house a few doors down where Former Childminder lived with her husband, who was in fact a Very Slightly Less Awful Man. One day she saw FC kissing another man. In fact, Former Childminder had been seeing a Nice Therapist about her traumatic (but unrelated) backstory, and had fallen for him horribly, as patients in therapy often do; it was innocent! In any case, she’d decided to break off the affair with Awful Man. She then told her husband about it; being awful himself, he attacked her violently. She escaped and met Awful Man, who took her away in his car and (being a lot more Awful than she, or indeed we, had realised) killed her. PR Woman, who was in the area at the time stalking Awful Man, saw them in the car, but she forgot all about it the next day, due to being drunk. She then read about FC’s disappearance, put the police on to Nice Therapist, got him arrested and ruined his life, went and introduced herself to VSLAM under false pretences, tried to put the police on to VSLAM instead, and generally got in everyone’s way. (You can’t help feeling there’s a decent black comedy in here somewhere.) Eventually she remembered what she’d really seen and tried to rescue Gallery Woman from Awful Man. He admitted everything, there was a confrontation, and the two of them killed him, in self defence, sort of, not really. At the end of the story PR Woman still hasn’t got a job, but she’s given up drinking and her mother’s given her a lot of money (“Mum was quite generous when she discovered everything I’d been through”), so it’s a kind of happy ending.

It’s pants. The plot is driven by two completely unbelievable characters, one of them the main villain: a failed squaddie turned surveyor(!), a con artist, rapist and murderer, who is described as irresistibly charming but consistently portrayed as a thug. It only works at all because it starts in medias res – at the point marked ♠ above – and fills in the backstory afterwards. The dice are loaded further by the interleaving of the victim’s story, told over a longer timeframe; this makes it possible to withhold the (crucial) information about her and the therapist for a long time, and postpone the murder itself for even longer. The interleaving and the timelag don’t seem to have any other justification, though; once again, a technical device is used for no other reason than to create suspense. Not too much suspense, though. If, for instance, the entire story had been told through the eyes of PR Woman, without the interleaved chapters from FC’s point of view, the truth about the murder would have been deferred even further, leaving us in some doubt right to the end of the story. Running a supposedly unreliable narrative alongside a perfectly truthful account of the same events lets readers feel a frisson of doubt without ever really losing the comfort of omniscience.

6. Boozing, bloody well boozing

And what about that unreliable narrative? Everyone says this book’s got an unreliable narrator. It hasn’t. An unreliable narrator is a voice that tells you what the character believes (s)he’s seeing – or wants to believe (s)he’s seeing – but also lets you know that that’s happening, and leaves you not quite knowing what you can believe. (Read “Sundance”. Read some Ruth Rendell, come to that.) What we’ve got here is a narrator who drinks till she blacks out and wakes up not remembering the night before. Sometimes the memory comes back later, and she tells us what it was. Sometimes another memory comes back and she decides the first one was wrong, and she tells us that too. We know we’re reading a narrator who doesn’t know the whole story – and by the end of the book we know we’ve just read a narrator who was sometimes mistaken – but at no point do we know that what we’re being told isn’t reliable. Once again – yet again – a technical device which can be used to do amazing things is being used, clumsily, for no other reason than to postpone a crucial revelation.

I referred to two completely unbelievable characters, and the main narrator is the second; she’s nothing like any alcoholic I’ve ever read about, or any drinker I’ve ever known. She doesn’t seem to have an addict’s craving for alcohol; the way that she describes her longing for a drink, it’s not something she needs to make her feel normal or get her through the day. It’s just… a drink; she just really, really likes a drink.

The pre-mixed gin and tonic fizzes up over the lip of the can as I bring it to my mouth and sip.

I open one of the little bottles of Chenin Blanc I purchased from the Whistlestop at Euston. It’s not cold, but it’ll do.

I finish the second can and make a start on the third. The blissful rush of alcohol hitting my bloodstream lasts only a few minutes and then I feel sick. I’m going too fast, even for me, I need to slow down

(Halfway through the third drink? Never mind an alcoholic, she isn’t even a seasoned drinker.)

The pleasure she takes in the drink – in every drink – seems all wrong, as does the variety: red wine, white wine, pre-mixed G&Ts, shots of Jack Daniels (none of your rubbish)… It’s like a non-drinker’s idea of what it would be like to have a drink problem: alcoholism as a really extreme form of self-indulgence.

But it doesn’t have to be realistic as long as it serves its purpose. The booze, like most other things in this novel, is only a means to an end: the blackout. She drinks, she gets drunk, she remembers nothing. In a suspense novel that derives most of its suspense from withholding information, this is mightily convenient.

7. Tales with a twist

I suppose I should conclude by saying something positive about the book, but – without recourse to lying, distortion or cheating – I’m not sure what it would be. I wanted to carry on reading until I’d finished it, I’ll say that much. But that’s not so much praise as testimony to the effectiveness of its narrative devices. Beyond that, I don’t think it has any value at all. The characters are paper-thin, the story’s ridiculous, the gender politics is truly awful, and everything else in the book is a manipulative and rather badly-executed contrivance with no internal justification – the multiple narrators, the multiple time frames, the ‘diary’ structure, the amnesia.

But I guess the success of the book does tell us something interesting. You’d think that, as between the proverbial “good story well told” and a rather poor story dolled up with literary tricks and twists – it’s being told backwards! she’s a boy! they’re all ghosts! – the latter would only work on the jaded palates of the literary fiction crowd. The success of The Woman Who Saw Something From A Train – a novel which is nothing but literary devices, to the point that it would fall apart without them – suggests that there’s a real appetite for writing that takes readers outside their narrative comfort zone, even if it only goes a little way outside and doesn’t end up anywhere interesting. That’s encouraging news, at least for lovers of literary technique.

Advertisements

One Comment

  1. Posted 28 May 2017 at 18:08 | Permalink | Reply

    On a slight tangent, just rereading this I’d missed the reference to The Thing Itself. I really like his books but I can’t help feeling that some of them attempt to engage with the same territory as Ian Watson and Christopher Priest – for example TTI seems to me to be close in intent to Miracle Visitors by Watson (and so did his earlier Yellow Blue Tibia which I also liked). And in fairness Roberts has never been coy about his liking for Watson (can’t remember if he likes Priest too).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: