It’s only January and I have already devoured three Muriel Spark novels. I had already posted my thoughts on the rather wonderful Memento Mori, and I have yet to write about The Girls of Slender Means, which was brilliant and lived up to all the hype.
The Driver’s Seat is my third Spark novel this month.
Of the three, The Driver’s Seat is the weirdest, strangest and the most riveting.
When the book opens, the main character Lise is at a department store trying on a new dress that she is looking to purchase for her vacation. Within a few lines on the opening page itself, we are made aware of Lise’s bizarre behavior when she starts tearing at the dress, impatient to get it off her body.
What sets off this reaction is a comment by the salesgirl that it is an outfit made from a fabric that cannot be stained. Lise is insulted that the salesgirl should even try to sell such a dress to her.
Why is Lise interested in a dress on which stains are easily seen?
Lise’s intention to not conform is once again on display in another shop where she finally purchases a dress with bright, garish colours and a coat which does not go with it at all.
Subsequently, some hints about Lise are doled out to us.
Lise is thin. Her height is about five-foot-six. Her hair is pale brown, probably tinted, a very light streaked lock sweeping from the middle of her hair-line to the top of her crown; her hair is cut short at the sides and back, and is styled high. She might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six, but hardly younger, hardly older.
That’s about it. Also, we learn that she has been working at an accountant’s office ‘continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months.’
When her immediate supervisor urges her to go on a much needed vacation, Lise’s reaction once again gives an inkling that all is not possibly well with her from a psychological point of view.
Then she began to laugh hysterically. She finished laughing and started crying all in a flood, while a flurry at the other desks, the jerky backward movements of her little fat supervisor, conveyed to her that she had done again what she had not done for five years.
Lise dons on her brightly coloured and highly mismatched outfit and goes for her vacation to the South, which is never explicitly stated but could possibly be Italy.
Those bright colours ensure that she is never unnoticed as people stare at her wherever she goes. Maybe, that was her intention, that she leaves a mark on people’s minds?
More of Lise’s odd traits start spilling out. We never learn about her nationality and her claim that she can speak four languages seems dubious. Clearly, she is prone to lying.
We now come to that part of the novel (and this is pretty early on actually), where I believe the less said the better.
Indeed, in the first paragraph of Chapter 3, Lise’s fate is revealed to us, but because I delved into this novel having no clue what to expect, I was quite taken aback.
The next paragraph is also significant because it gives an idea of how Spark has turned everything on its head, a development that gives much food for thought after one has completed the book.
Crossing the tarmac to the plane Lise follows, with her quite long stride, closely on the heels of the fellow-passenger whom she appears finally to have chosen to adhere to. This is a rosy-faced, sturdy young man of about thirty; he is dressed in a dark business suit and carries a black brief-case. She follows him purposefully, careful to block the path of any other traveller whose aimless hurry might intervene between Lise and this man.
Why has Lise chosen to adhere to this man? Does she know him?
The development in Chapter 3 pretty much influences how you perceive the rest of the novel because we know what happens, but not the ‘how’ or more importantly, the ‘why?’
Meanwhile, Lise’s contrary and indefinable actions continue even when she reaches her vacation destination.
For starters, she appears to be on some sort of a quest to find her ‘boyfriend’. When she is asked whether there is a young man in her life, Lise responds thus:
‘Yes, I have my boy-friend!’
‘He’s not with you, then?’
‘No. I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.’
The response is a strange one. She is not trying to convey that she hopes to find a man at some point in her life, but that she is literally looking to find the man by the end of the day possibly. However, whatever men she meets, she writes them off as ‘not my type’, a refrain that is peppered throughout the novel.
What ‘type’ is she exactly searching for?
All of this clearly shows that Lise’s mind is unhinged. But is it? Because Spark also gives us hints along the way that Lise seems to have planned it all.
It is in this aspect that Spark refuses to pander to the reader’s expectations. We are constantly wondering why is Lise doing what she does, what is her motive? Spark doesn’t provide any.
Spark, sometimes, meticulously describes Lise’s actions – there is one section in the novel where Lise is in the hotel bathroom, taking out her purchases from her zipper bag, examining them and putting them back in – but Spark does not attempt to examine or even explain what exactly is going on in Lise’s head.
This is also where once again the ingenuity of Spark’s title for the novel is on display.
Who really is in the driver’s seat here? Is it Lise, who despite her heightened oddity, plots how she wants her fate to pan out? Is it Muriel Spark who controls the narrative and refuses to stick to the convention of the genre? Or, is it a literal meaning where Lise is actually in the driver’s seat as the novel reaches its conclusion?
In my new Polygon edition, The Driver’s Seat is a short novel at barely 90 pages, which can be read in a single afternoon. It is a lean, sharp, precise, brilliantly written book with not a single word wasted – all trademarks of a good Muriel Spark novel. Spark has painted a world that is alienated and only amplifies Lise’s heightened sense of isolation making her seem ‘unreal’ but in a compelling way.
It is very difficult to use the word ‘love’ when describing one’s response to the book because it just does not come across as an apt word.
It would be more appropriate to say that this is a superb and ultimately rather unforgettable novel that will be hard to dislodge from the mind.
Andrew O’ Hagan, in the introduction, writes:
The Driver’s Seat is a brilliant manipulation of our expectations, a glass of malt whisky in the middle of a fever, a hallucinogenic journey into moral doubt.
It’s hardly surprising then that Spark labeled it as her favourite of the 22 novels she wrote.