The Driver's Seatby Muriel Spark, John Lanchester Published 27 Apr 2006
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Lise is thin, neither good-looking nor bad-looking. One day she walks out of her office, acquires a gaudy new outfit, adopts a girlier tone of voice, and heads to the airport to fly south. On the plane she takes a seat between two men. One is delighted with her company, the other is deeply perturbed. So begins an unnerving journey into the darker recesses of human nature.
"The Driver's Seat" Reviews
Muriel Spark had enough brains for two normal people but this little novel was almost completely stupid. It was like a terrible joke whose heavily adumbrated punchline is a tiresome and obvious inversion of normal reality, like a banana slipping on the skin of a man. You carry on reading this book, and it is very readable, and doesn't take long, because you can't believe what you are suspecting will be the outcome will really be the outcome, and it is, that's all, no explanation, no nothing. Spark's fans mutter that this is a masterpiece. John Lanchester's introduction says :
It is fair to say that The Driver's Seat is not one of her most famous books. That, I think, is because it doesn't tell us a single thing that we want to know.
Okay, as ever, I usually try to find something I liked in a book I hated, and this made me smile. The year is 1969 or 1970 and the protagonist Lise is with an old lady who is confused by all the social changes of the 60s. They're in a large department store. The old dear says
"Is she what they call a hippy?"
"This one's a hippy," says Lise, indicating with her head a slouching bearded youth dressed in tight blue jeans, no longer blue, his shoulders draped with an assortment of cardigans and fringed leather garments, heavy for the time of year.
Mrs Fiedke looks with interest and whispers to Lise
"They are hermaphrodites. It isn't their fault.
Lise, a suicidally unhappy woman in a dead-end job, travels to southern Italy to find someone to murder her. Lise, women like her, I have not infrequently heard referred to as "bitches on wheels." She lies pathologically, casually steals cars, and perceives personal insults in matters that really have nothing to do with her. (She goes ballistic early on when told that a dress she's trying on is made of stain-resistant fabric. She thinks the salesperson, by stating this simple fact, means to call her a sloppy eater.) My favorite passages in the novella include the seduction of Lise undertaken by a macrobiotic diet fanatic, Bill, whose absurd monologues on Yin foods and Yang foods are hilarious. There is also Mrs. Friedke, an octogenarian, who tags along with Lise during shopping excursions. These jaunts devolve in time to a colloquy on who might or might not be "Lise's man," with Mrs. Friedke blithely oblivious to the real purpose this fellow is to serve. The Driver's Seat may have served as one of Martin Amis' models for his novel London Fields. In that longer book, another woman, Nicola Six, methodically sets out to locate her murderer. Needless to say, both women are successful. There are passages in both books, too, which self-describe them as "whydoits" as opposed to whodunits.
This is the sort of book that crawls into your heart. I read the first half of it on the train up to see my family for new year and I arrived inexplicably on edge; it took me a few minutes to realise I had to blame Spark. When I'd finished I put the book down like something too hot, and kept on reflecting on it for a while as I drifted off to sleep.
One thing I reinterpreted retrospectively was the reason for Spark's flat-toned foreshadowing. She was really playing with the concept of authorship at a moment when the possibility of autonomy was becoming increasingly available to women. I don't think I agree with John Lanchester's reading at all. I don't think the story expresses a horror of modernity itself, certainly not of emancipation, sexual or otherwise. My interpretation is that the story explores a particular flavour that modernity can give to alienation, and also perhaps satirises the backlash against feminism during the period. Lanchester seems to lack all sensitivity to these potentially radical possibilities.
What most puzzled me was deciding what depth, what quality of sympathy I need to have with Lise. The tension I feel is between Spark's play on patriarchal literature's habit of mounting to a heroic climax in which the loser is vanquished, and Lise's rebellious co-writing of her own text (for the incidental, the hindrances, are Spark's, aren't they? That three men attempt to rape Lise seems to me to express frustration at just how difficult it has been for women to wrest control of their lives, their subjectivities, their texts.
The Driver's Seat is a weird, evasive story in which we are introduced to a chameleon-like protagonist named Lise. In an opening that is instantly unnerving, the first scene sees her raging at a shop assistant for daring to suggest she should buy a stain-proof dress - rather than seeing this as a positive, she loudly berates the girl for implying she would spill food on her clothes. Despite having led an ordered, somewhat mundane life - she's worked in the same office for sixteen years - Lise seems to enjoy making a scene and either observing or imagining the aftermath, a pattern of behaviour that repeats itself throughout the story. The book is about a chain of events that unfolds when she takes a holiday in an unspecified location, constantly changing her voice, attitude and demeanour as she encounters a number of odd characters who she repeatedly abandons, moving on to the next strange situation, looking - she keeps telling people - for a man who is her 'type', whatever that may mean. But Spark tells the reader early on that Lise is ultimately murdered, and the mystery of who and how (particularly as Lise always seems to be into control) drives the plot towards a shocking conclusion. I had actually guessed Lise's aim early in the book, but I was still compelled to read on to see if I could come to understand the character and her motivations. However, Lise remains a mystery - she is unreadable and the narrative is unapologetic about that. It's detached, vaguely surreal, and the indistinct nature of the settings adds to its air of unreality. A quick, disconcerting read with a dark heart; I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer strangeness of this novel.
In this novel (novella, really, or very long short story) published in 1970, Spark turns traditional gender relations on their head. As the buoyant, frenetic Lise, dressed in clashing colors, goes on holiday in Genoa on the hunt for "her type," she meets the elderly Mrs. Fiedke. The two team up for a shopping spree (slippers for Mrs F's nephew; a food mixer, among other things, for Lise):
"They are demanding equal rights with us," says Mrs. Fiedke. "That's why I never vote with the Liberals. Perfume, jewelry, hair down to their shoulders, and I'm not talking about the ones who were born like that...there was a time when they would stand up and open the door for you. They would take their hat off. But they want their equality. If God intended them to be equal to us he wouldn't have made them different from us to the naked eye. They don't want to be dressed all alike any more. Which is only a move against us. You couldn't run an army like that, let alone the male sex. With all due respect to Mr. Fiedke, may he rest in peace, the male sex is getting out of hand. Of course, Mr. Fiedke knew his place as a man, give him his due...Fur coats and flowered poplin shirts on their backs...If we don't look lively...they will be taking over the homes and the children, and sitting about while we go and fight to defend them and work to keep them. They won't be content with equal rights only. Next thing, they'll want the upper hand. Mark my words. Diamond earrings, I've read it in the paper."
Much of the novella is as hysterical. But it's also very unsettling. The frenetic, inscrutable Lise's hunting down of her "type" proves very successful indeed, to unexpected and terrifying consequences.
Spark does it again: wholly original, pithy, and dark.
Driver's Seat abounds in a mordant wit. It doesn't admit much. The details revealed are rather baffling. That opacity should charge the narrative, maybe keep the reader off balance. Such remains inconclusive, the verdict is out. The fact that we know the ending should mitigate tension. It certainly doesn't. Muriel Spark delivers no fire in this novella, instead a most seductive smoke. There are whispers of Amis in this quest.
There is something modern, something concerning the consumer at the core of this tale. Do we all die by choice?