Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man's necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.

Here is another meditation on control and authority from Muriel Spark, who delights in the supreme joke the author plays on her characters: no matter how carefully they plan their lives, they are as at the mercy of their creator as we are at the mercy of ours. The titular conceit of The Driver's Seat is not the subtlest in Spark's oeuvre. It is easy enough to understand what it means when the heroine steals a car; she wants to be in the driver's seat.

The heroine is Lise, a young Danish woman, who tries to carefully design one fundamental moment in her life--the last, her death. Lise flies from Denmark to a "foreign city" (ostensibly Rome) in order to make the perfect arrangements for her murder, from the right color necktie that will bind her ankles to the identity of the murderer himself.

What is conspicuously lacking is any sort of rationale. We are not admitted into Lise's psyche, and are not permitted to know why she wants to die, much less in this particularly gruesome fashion. The details seem haphazard--why this color necktie? Why does it matter, beyond the fetish for control? Why does Lise purchase for her murder an orange, mauve, and blue dress and a decidedly non-matching red-and-white coat? Why does she change her story for every person she meets, when her need for control should warrant a meticulously composed lie? It is as if she wants only this moment to be perfect, and throws every superfluous detail to the wind.

It is possible that this is randomness disguised as order. It does not necessarily follow that because we do not know Lise's rationale she must not have one; it may be opaque to us. In this way Lise models God, who is notorious for working "in mysterious ways."

Or is it a rejection on God's insistence on determining who Lise is? If all determinism can be traced back to God--if every human plan has traces of God's design, since God has designed each human--then the only way to reject God is to embrace chaos and incongruity. Perhaps the brightly-colored dress is an act of rebellion. If Lise rebels against God, she really rebels against Spark, always standing in for Him, but the joke is on her because she can do nothing that Spark does not intend.

Like Lise, frantically trying to find the right murderer, Spark lacks patience. She seems unwilling to linger on Lise's motives, partly because it develops her theme, but also because she simply seems not to care. Because Spark is always aware that Lise is a fictional construct, we are aware of it, and we cannot connect with Lise because Spark cannot connect with her. Not coincidentally, Lise seems to be barely able to connect with herself.

As a result, it is difficult to say, as Frank Kermode does in his introduction to Spark's Everyman's Library collection, that The Driver's Seat is "chilling and desperate." Lise is desperate, but The Driver's Seat is not, and not a single word is chilling. Instead, it represents Spark at her most unmoving and brutal, and those who would seek the kind of pathos found in good thrillers would be advised to look elsewhere. As I have said before, the most unnerving thing about Spark's God complex is how little she seems to care about her characters. Should we find we are characters in a divine novel, I hope we find Him a bit more charitable.


Brent Waggoner said...

Muriel Spark makes Graham Greene look like Kenneth Grahame.

Christopher said...