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Martin Amis: Night Train

Love him or hate him for his outspoken views on this, that, and the other, you can’t deny that Martin Amis has a way with words. And I say this having read very little of his work, namely Time’s Arrow and his essay collection, The War Against Cliché. So, wanting to return to some more of his fiction, it was a case of boarding the Night Train (1997), knowing little of what the novel was going to be about or where it was going to take me.

But knowing little of the novel’s content is different from knowing about the novel’s story, and especially its reception; and, in this case, Night Train is one of those that split opinion. Not for the story, the themes, or shock tactics, but for Amis’ choice of narrator: an American. Of course it’s not as simple to just make your character American and tell the story. The voice must carry authenticity.

And he begins with an attention grabbing paragraph so strange that it makes the reader questions whether, from the off, he has ever heard an American speak:

I am a police. That may sound like an unusual statement – or an unusual construction. But it’s a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman, also.

Yes, as if it isn’t a hard enough task for a non-native to achieve an American voice, Amis makes his narrator female, too. But Mike Hoolihan isn’t all that feminine. In fact she’s rather masculine, her voice gravelled by years of smoking; and legs like “road drills on castors.”

As a police, Mike has worked her way up from the beat through robbery units, plainclothes assignments, and, notably, homicide for eight years (“I was a murder police.”). Nowadays, thanks to a drink problem, and subsequent illness, she’s assigned to Asset Forfeiture. But her skills in the field are very much in demand, as she finds when her superior’s daughter, Jennifer Rockwell, has seemingly committed suicide. Of course, murder is suspected:

Make no mistake, we would see it if it was there- because we want suicides to be homicide. We would infinitely prefer it. A made homicide means overtime, a clearance stat, and high fives in the squadroom. And a suicide is no damn use to anyone.

The investigation into Jennifer Rockwell (“Guys? She combed them out of her hair…”) turns up a number of suspects, notably her partner, Trader Faulkner. But the novel keeps coming round to the notion of suicide. In fact, to disprove suicide becomes the name of the game, as Mike’s boss pushes her to get the conclusion he needs:

His head vibrated, his head actually trembled to terrible imaginings. Imaginings he wanted and needed to be true. 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.

As Jennifer would have known, through her career as an astrophysicist, the world moves in mysterious ways. How could a woman who had no grievances and no enemies take her own life? It could never make sense. Such is the relevance of chaos in human nature, allowing for interruptions in the determined universe. And Night Train takes time to call at such stations, exploring the universe; or Mike’s way of interpreting it:

Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness. You won’t get there so quick, not by natural means. You buy your ticket and you climb aboard. That ticket costs everything you have. But it’s just one way. This train takes you into the night, and leaves you there. It’s the night train.

But does Amis succeed with his voice? Mostly. There are moments where his sentence structures seem alien to written English, never mind spoken. Beginning sentences with ‘too’, for example. But much of the book bears a considered authenticity. And it can be feminine, especially when discussing men:

Murders are men’s work. Men commit them, men clean up after them, men solve them, men try them. Because men like violence. Women really don’t figure that much, except as victims, and among the bereaved, of course, and as witnesses.

It’s a grim piece of work, Night Train, taking Amis’s punchy prose into the realms of noir fiction and it manages to make the crime genre a more interesting place.  In its attempt to understand people, their motivations, and the fear of not knowing, the novel goes to dark places. But that’s the nature of Night Train. Luckily, this novel is worthy of further reading, so it guarantees a return.

March 14, 2008

5 responses to Martin Amis: Night Train

  1. steffee said:

    Ooh, I have that cover.

    I really liked this book. I’m not sure if that’s because I have quite a penchant for crime, being unfamiliar with the genre to a certain extent, or just because Amis is such a delight to read.

    Your review seems favourable, overall, which was a surprise. Fabulous review, as usual, Stewart.

  2. chartroose said:

    Wow, this sounds intriguing! There must be a reason why he called his masculine female officer “a” police. Was it supposed to be vernacular? Was it a symbol of something insidious that the reader has to figure out?

    This is what I love about Amis. There’s always something he tries to sneak in on you. The “suicide is the night train…” paragraph is wonderful. I’ll definitely have to read this now!

    Thank you.

  3. It does indeed have some excellent prose, I’ve written up the book myself here and came by to see your take on it. Happily similar to mine in the main, though I hadn’t written about the fear of not knowing, which on reading your review I now rather wish I had.

  4. Peter said:

    Thanks for the review. I just finished it today for the second time. (First time was probably 8 or so years ago). I’m not ready to put it down yet though. It’s one of those books you can pick up at any point and enjoy and be challenged by the prose. The characters were awesome. As I was nearing the end I thought of some of the minor characters (Tobe, Mike’s boyfriend in particular) and just how well drawn they were.

  5. Stewart said:

    Peter, it’s good to hear that the book does stand up to repeat readings. I agree, the prose is brilliant and I think Amis gets a fair amount of unnecessary stick because of it, perhaps because some have difficulty splitting the man from his work.

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5 responses to Martin Amis: Night Train

  1. steffee said:

    Ooh, I have that cover.

    I really liked this book. I’m not sure if that’s because I have quite a penchant for crime, being unfamiliar with the genre to a certain extent, or just because Amis is such a delight to read.

    Your review seems favourable, overall, which was a surprise. Fabulous review, as usual, Stewart.

  2. chartroose said:

    Wow, this sounds intriguing! There must be a reason why he called his masculine female officer “a” police. Was it supposed to be vernacular? Was it a symbol of something insidious that the reader has to figure out?

    This is what I love about Amis. There’s always something he tries to sneak in on you. The “suicide is the night train…” paragraph is wonderful. I’ll definitely have to read this now!

    Thank you.

  3. It does indeed have some excellent prose, I’ve written up the book myself here and came by to see your take on it. Happily similar to mine in the main, though I hadn’t written about the fear of not knowing, which on reading your review I now rather wish I had.

  4. Peter said:

    Thanks for the review. I just finished it today for the second time. (First time was probably 8 or so years ago). I’m not ready to put it down yet though. It’s one of those books you can pick up at any point and enjoy and be challenged by the prose. The characters were awesome. As I was nearing the end I thought of some of the minor characters (Tobe, Mike’s boyfriend in particular) and just how well drawn they were.

  5. Stewart said:

    Peter, it’s good to hear that the book does stand up to repeat readings. I agree, the prose is brilliant and I think Amis gets a fair amount of unnecessary stick because of it, perhaps because some have difficulty splitting the man from his work.

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