<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 117 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 08, 2003

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The Night Train

Night Train
by Martin Amis

f 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.

Put 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 achieved before.
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: The Guardian



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