FFB: The Driver’s Seat – Muriel Spark

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?
If she was asking for it,
Did she ask you twice?
Hole – Asking For It

2018-01-07 15.32.47It seems redundant to call this a lean novel from Spark — her novels are singularly lean. I always feel as if they have been sanded fine. I’ve been on a kick since the winter break before and after seeing The International Style of Muriel Spark exhibit with Miss Wendy at the National Library in Edinburgh, which I highly recommend you see. I loved it in the nosy way writers always want to peek at the process of others, but also damn, the woman had style — and chops. I feel like I need to cut my own prose to the bone like her or I’m just dithering too much. But you can’t miss anything: you have to absorb every clue. The thing is you don’t always realise what is a clue. You have to become hyper-vigilant and note everything which leads to a kind of madness rather like the heroine of this book.

coverThe Driver’s Seat is a great example of this. There is not one word in excess. This is a crazy book, off-putting to many I’m sure (I looked at some of the contemporary reviews) but both brilliant and searingly insightful. The blurb on the back (and what a marvelous cover, Penguin) from David Lodge calls it not only a ‘tour de force’ but ‘a crime story turned inside out’ which is a great description. Within the first few pages, you know that Lise is going to die. With mordant zeal, the narrator points out the clues that will be put together at the end of the investigation.

Many of them will puzzle the police forces. They’re both vivid and seemingly inexplicable. Like the clothing captured well in this cover: ‘the necessary dress’ as she calls it. the colours are so garish the porter of her building laughs at her.

She says, ‘Are you going to join a circus? Then again she throws back her head, looking down through half-closed lids at Lise’s clothes, and gives out the high, hacking cough-like ancestral laughter of the streets, holding her breasts in her hands to spare them the shake-up. Lise says with quiet dignity, ‘You are insolent.’

How marvelous is that? This whole world is at a slant, Lise’s particular slant, from her model of efficiency modular flat to the sudden and violent reaction to being informed that the dress she’s trying on is ‘stain resistant’ (‘I won’t be insulted!’). The alternation between helpless laughing and crying quickly leads to the deduction that the ‘months of illness’ that punctuate her sixteen years at the same job are definitely related to her mental health.

Now, here’s where it might get a little spoilery if you don’t want to know more about it than the fact that she’s doomed. She heads off on her holiday telling people she’s meeting a boy-friend though she doesn’t seem to know who and constantly lies about what she has done and plans to do. Even the narrator draws back at times, shying away from true omniscience at the most interesting junctures yet with chilling suggestions that have to be carefully sifted.

Lise is lifting the corners of her carefully packed things, as if in absent-minded accompaniment to some thought, who knows what?

The narrator seems uncertain what’s really going on, yet knows a great deal of facts –they’re just impossible to explain.  The novel reads like an assemblage of facts that took some time to put together, yet still don’t add up. Lise buys all the items used in her murder, deliberately and particularly. She even urges her befuddled killer to murder her: ‘She told me precisely what to do.’

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?

I suspect that like many of us, Spark may have heard one too many times about a ‘girl who was asking for it’ and wondered what sort of woman would ask to be killed, really. A mad woman, an insanely driven woman who is both consumed by lust and gravely puritanical — and utterly deranged. Asking for it?

I have bookmarked the Liz Taylor film version, but I dunno…

I admire her hugely. Check out all the FFB over at Patti Abbott’s blog including Evan Lewis’ post on Bill Crider’s celebration of life.

Spark Satire