In the Train
You know those niche documentaries about people who are really into some specialized hobby or interest—old-school arcade games, typography, central Asian throat singing? The ones that make you think: wow, these people are so kooky, they make me seem normal! and yet at the same time you can almost, in a way, see where they’re coming from? I don’t mean that you can necessarily relate to their specific interests, though naturally that is possible. For the majority of us who are neither typeface designers nor reigning Donkey Kong champions, though, what draws us to the protagonists of these films is their passion—persistent, imperfect, somehow essentially human—for their hobbies, their professions, their artistic pursuits.
In the Train is like that, in the sense that its narrator is undeniably odd and yet, despite—or maybe because of—his social ineptitude and mild-to-moderate neurosis (his characteristics and motivations are identifiably human, only taken to extremes), also strangely endearing.
Oster’s novel begins in a train station in Paris, where Frank, the narrator-protagonist, notices a woman (Anne) on the platform struggling with a heavy bag—which Frank immediately identifies as a potential premise for getting to know her. However, Frank does not operate on whim, exactly. On the surface, his actions may appear unhindered by a second thought, but the truth is that he thinks everything through and takes pains to justify (to himself, to the reader) every action that might otherwise seem out of the ordinary or socially unacceptable. Take this passage from the second page, an early glimpse into Frank’s inner monologue:
My immediate problem was knowing whether I should offer to carry it, her bag, or, more rationally, more economically, in terms of effort—as much mine as hers—to get her to agree to put it down. The second solution was definitely short on panache, on gallantry even. The first, in comparison with the second, didn’t have that obvious necessity without which any man feels that addressing a woman betrays premeditation.
Now there was nothing premeditated about what I was doing, I just instantly felt a need to help this woman.
The irony, of course, is in Frank’s trying to pass off his action as unpremeditated, immediately after having described exactly the thoughts he struggled with as he was premeditating it. This is just the beginning of the humor woven through the entire book. It is worth noting that the sole reason Frank has come to the station in the first place is not to go to any particular place for any particular reason, but, essentially, to pick up a woman:
At best, mind you, I was picturing a sort of honeymoon: I met her, she liked me, we more or less traveled together, depending on the availability of seats. It was more than the beginning of a story, it was a story. At worst, either I set off on my own or I went home to my apartment alone, having asked for a refund on my ticket.
If you think about it, the “at best” scenario is not so outlandish to imagine. And if you really think about it, who among frequent or even occasional train travelers has not entertained a similar storybook fantasy? People meet by chance in all sorts of places, and every so often those places are trains (in fact, I’m speaking from personal experience here—but I assure you the original and principal purpose of my taking an overnight train from Seattle to San José was to get home). Normal people might allow such a meeting to happen by chance, the companionship to develop naturally, whereas Frank has the express goal of making such a “chance” occurrence happen on purpose. As it happens—or rather, as it is made to happen—the “at best” scenario is more or less how the story plays out, thanks not to any special chemistry between Frank and Anne, but rather to Frank’s persistence and his patently strange, creepy, stalkerrific behavior.
Therein lies the vital difference—what makes the novel a parody of the human condition, specifically the human desire for companionship. As readers we can, on a certain logical and psychological level, understand Frank’s motivations; the difference is that he acts out in a way no person in their right mind would dare. And yet Frank’s constantly analyzing and justifying his thoughts and actions are clearly his attempt to demonstrate that he is in his right mind. This is part of what makes the book so hilarious, and the humor shines in Adriana Hunter’s English translation. There is a delicate balance to be found in the narrative voice of In the Train—a balance which, in order for the book to be effective both as a whole and at every point along the way, must have the reader continually teetering on the fulcrum between sympathizing with Frank and thinking him completely mad—a balance that Hunter has navigated with incredible sensitivity to nuances of rhythm and tone.
To better illustrate this seamless duality of the voice, here is one final example from the text. Having already accompanied Anne on the train and then secretly followed her to her hotel, Frank is now wrapped up in the task of locating her within the hotel by what seems to him a perfectly rational and unproblematic means: systematically knocking on the door of every guestroom in the building until Anne answers one of them.
In the meantime, more doors, other doors, kept opening. Some at the same time as each other, in fact, because my knocking proved so firm. It saved me time, at least. I gave my apologies to two people, even three or four at once. And on I went. On my travels I met a few reps, at least people who I took to be reps, initially seeing them just as sales people, sales representatives, but then, when I thought about it, simply as representatives of humanity, because I felt for the first time that I was meeting it, humanity. It was all there, it seemed to me, laid out in samples in that hotel, and every time a door opened the spectrum grew wider, I felt not only that I was integrating myself in it but that I too was opening, and all this, as usual, was because of a woman, it was always women who brought me to other people. Except that in this instance, as I’ve said, I’d never seen so many people, or established so much contact. So it was as if my sociability improved with every door, I felt more and more comfortable, and by the time I got to the last few doors it felt like a routine, I could see myself as a visitor, in the same light as a hospital visitor, watching over not only distress but every ramification of human feeling, surprise, irritation, intolerance, joy, sometimes, that the door should be opened, shyness, generosity, not to mention the women, of course.
Frank’s behavior is so embarrassingly awkward that the scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable to witness, as Frank draws more and more people out into the hallway and into his delusional world, and yet—and yet, there are occasional moments like this one where his calculating thoughts digress to something approaching perceptiveness… until they crumble once more under the weight of his social dysfunction topped with cluelessness.
In the Train is a short novel, yet it is anything but superficial; on the contrary, it manages to be deeply disturbing—in a productive, thought-provoking way. What’s more, it’s immensely entertaining. If you’re easily embarrassed by laughing out loud in public, I recommend staying home with this one… but by all means, read it. A little added skepticism of unusual men in train stations aside, you won’t regret it.