The Driver's Seat
Muriel Spark, 1970
An insane woman goes on vacation looking for someone to kill her.
Evaluation and commentary
Well, at least I read this one all the way through. It helped that
it was 117 pages of widely spaced big print.
I read this book because it's on the syllabus of the class on the
contemporary novel that I haven't been going to, hoping that it would
give me a reason to go. The class I have been going to is the
one on ancient history, and yesterday we covered Herodotus. The
professor said that one of the key advances Herodotus contributed to
the writing of history was the attempt to establish cause-and-effect
relationships rather than just list events. Following the old formula
that "the king died and then the queen died" isn't a narrative but
"the king died and then the queen died of grief" is, Herodotus brought
narrative to history. And it is this sort of cause-and-effect narrative
that is largely missing from The Driver's Seat.
This novel is basically a recounting of the sequence of events
leading up to the murder of the protagonist. Because she is insane,
and her reactions have little or nothing to do with the stimuli that
prompt them, it is basically 117 pages of "the king died and then
the queen fried some mayonnaise in a pan because she's schizo."
I have seen authors try with varying levels of success to make
mentally ill characters understandable to the reader; Spark does
the opposite and makes the main character opaque. Now, you can make
a pretty good case that cause and effect is an overly tidy fiction
and that ultimately much of what we do is fairly arbitrary, even if
we are sane, which is all too rarely the case. So I can see how
some might admire this experiment. But I didn't.
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