by Martin Amis
you usually like Martin Amis's books, you probably won't
like Night Train. At the age of 24, with the publication
of The Rachel Papers, Amis already sounded jaded; by the
time he was 35, with the publication of Money, his voice
was so world-weary that nothing could come as any kind of
shock to him or to his readers. He charted the descent of
sex into pornography, of friendship into envy, of ambition
into greed -- all with emotionless aplomb.
With Night Train, Amis has taken a rather different direction.
This is not a strikingly clever book, and it isn't funny.
It reads like the work of a much younger man than his other
novels. Unlike his other works, it asks you not to keep
your distance, but to come close and suffer with the narrator.
The narrator in question is Mike Hoolihan, a policewoman
in a generic American town, who is working on an odd case:
the suicide of a young woman called Jennifer Rockwell. Mike
knew Jennifer before her death, and knew her as a young
woman whose open smile, cool intelligence, social warmth
and beauty marked her out as extraordinarily blessed. And
so the discovery of Jennifer in her pretty apartment, naked,
with her brains blown out, strikes Hoolihan not just as
a shock, but as an endlessly troubling mystery.
As Hoolihan attempts to lay that mystery to rest, Amis takes
us down the paths of the traditional detective novel: the
autopsy, and the interviews with Jennifer's doctor and lover
and friends in dingy bars and smoky police cells. But the
point of this detective story is that there is no point;
Jennifer didn't commit suicide for any of the com fortingly
banal reasons that Hoolihan tries to ascribe to her -- clinical
depression, sexual imbroglios, work crises, money troubles.
like that, Night Train sounds quite as bleak as John Self's
descent into the gutter in Money or Nicola Six's pursuit
of her own death in London Fields. But the difference here
is that Jennifer's story is told by Hoolihan, a woman who
is struggling to make sense of another woman's emotions,
and who talks of her with sorrow and respect. 'I'm sorry.
I'm sorry,' she tells you at the outset. 'I shed tears for
him and tears for her. And also tears for myself I shed,'
she tells you later.
Hoolihan is really the heroine of this tale; the woman who
works in a man's world and has a man's name, but remains
tied into traditional feminine virtues -- compassion, sincerity,
that sort of thing. In her and in Jennifer Rockwell Amis
turns a corner; for the first time he has created heroines
who are defined not by their underwear and the size of their
breasts, but by their work and relationships and human disappointments.
What's more, the two women have a connection even after
death. Here we have the usual Amis pairing of an ugly, unlucky
protagonist set against a beautiful, lucky one; the same
pairing that we see in Success or The Information. But here
it leads to empathy, not enmity. As Hoolihan hunts through
the false clues that Jennifer leaves her, she struggles
to enter fully into her mind, and Jennifer's despair gradually
becomes her own. It is impossible to overstate the difference
that this current of ordinary sympathy makes to Amis's imaginative
world. It makes a juddering contrast with the plot's nihilism,
and that unresolved conflict between love and cynicism gives
this book a haunting, unsettling quality that Amis has never
All this is not to say that Night Train is an unadulterated
success. It may be emotionally richer than Amis's previous
novels, but in terms of style and form it doesn't measure
up. For a start, its brevity doesn't allow the themes the
space they require. Too often Amis uses shorthand images
culled from films and fiction, or riffs of rhetoric that
haven't been tied into experience.
As Hoolihan remarks at one point: 'TV, etc, has had a terrible
effect on perpetrators ... But TV has also fucked up us
police. No profession has been so massively fictionalised.'
Indeed, Amis staggers under that dead weight of 'TV, etc'
- it dulls his responses and slows down his prose.
But through all its losses and lapses, something remains
with you at the end of this book. 'Ever have that childish
feeling, with the sun on your salty face and ice-cream melting
in your mouth, that you want to cancel worldly happiness,
turn it down as a false lead?' asks Hoolihan. Amis has remembered
that the sun is out there, even if it is a false lead. Source: