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Night train's dark lesson.


Upon occasion evaluated dismissively as mere pop novel, and thus unworthy of serious academic response, Martin Amis's Night Train nonetheless provides a remarkably effective tool for introducing postmodernist notions in general literature classrooms.


Commonplace in theory has been the assumption that novels allow for a particularly emphatic experience since they are read in waves, cycles, over multiple sittings, and as a developing whole. D. H. Lawrence aptly surmised novels allow readers not merely to observe but somehow to "develop an instinct for life" (538). His notion, I believe, yet obtains, even in our own brevity-besotted era. What is more, simply because of the genre's demand for negotiation[]in both time and mind[]the novel remains a handy classroom tool. As an instance, I have found assigning Martin Amis's short novel Night Train an effective means of introducing postmodern notions to students registered in survey courses[]many of these students having arrived in search of general humanities credit. The little book's demand that students pretend to live the narrative allows me to invite them, in turn, to approach notions sufficiently complex that they might otherwise, I fear, flee.

Debate persists regarding appropriate definitions for the postmodern. I try to begin with basics. For example, critics do seem to agree that at the heart of the matter lies, what one recent handbook names succinctly "a general skepticism towards previous distinctions and certainties" (Brooker 175). Mark Currie argues that, at its heart, the postmodern recognizes that previously respected meta-narratives, or all-encompassing cultural tales, are merely narratives (109). Madan Sarup reminds that this line of thinking usually is directly allied with the vocabulary and theorizing of Jean-Francois Lyotard, who warns that "(older) master narratives no longer function" to unify contemporary society, having lost their power in the explosion of political and technological complexities that dominated the century just closed (137). As a result, Currie observes, postmodern cultures experience an "elevation of the particular," of the "fragmentary little narrative," and a lively countering of universal ideologies with politics that are local (109). Lyotard sums, for the postmodern world the "grand narrative has lost its credibility" (37).

Focusing on one aspect of such a diverse process as the postmodern has risks. Moreover, theorists like Hans Bertens have exposed the difficulties in applying Lyotard's thinking without fully acknowledging its philosophical context (see, e.g., Bertens' chapter "The 1980s: Theorizing the Postmodern Condition"). However, in my general literature classes, this dissolution of the metanarrative has proven a fine place at least to start, and Amis's novel has been my wedge in the door. At first blush, Night Train appears a sort of inviting crossbreed, joining the traditional procedural novel with characters and dark moods readers might more readily associate with noir fiction or a contemporary genre like the prime-time cop show (Gleick).

Significantly, too, Amis has presented a story played out upon a deeply American cultural stage. Interviewed, Amis admits as much, calling his book "'an American document" (Miller). Mind, some critics have quarreled with the authenticity of Amis' reproduction of American idiom (see, e.g., Foreman), but, most of the time, readers in my classes find the novel an inviting read and, more importantly, worth arguing about. Students have returned from spring break complaining Amis interfered with their beach time: they couldn't put the book down. Night Train, as well, presents a recognizable plot device: the first-person confession of a cop who reflects on a daunting case. Students have heard the like. The officer in question sports a moniker apt for an American procedural--Mike Hoolihan--and shares the procedural hero's usual affection for the rituals of gathering evidence. As George Dove notes in his history of the genre, for the procedural's hero, "Routine breaks cases" (64). Indeed, the book sounds to be a kind of catalogue of cop routines.

Importantly, though, Amis undercuts his readers' initial expectations. As an example, readers learn that Mike's tale is not a standard whodunit: it sports the kind of case cops dread, a suicide. Careers are not nurtured sorting crimes against self. Mike notes, "A made homicide means overtime, a clearance stat, and high fives in the squadroom." In contrast, "a suicide is no damn use to anyone" (28). Nor are crimes against self tidy. They're not easily, as the cops say, "down" (14). Can anyone, finally, know why someone else kills himself?. The general nature of the case alone, that is, may well prevent this procedural from completing the genre's usual business.

Specifics of the case, students recognize, further thwart resolution. The suicide victim is a young woman named Jennifer Rockwell, with whom Mike has history in that, during a deep and difficult stage of the officer's battle with alcoholism, Hoolihan has been taken in by Jennifer's father, a now high-ranking police administrator referred to authoritatively as "Colonel Tom" (32). At Colonel Tom's behest, Mike accepts the case. Further to complicate matters, Jennifer is beautiful, brilliant, a successful astrophysicist, partnered in a healthy and passionate relationship, and, in the minds of most who knew her, at the top of her game. Students read Jennifer as a cultural ideal. Why would anyone end a life as attractive as hers? And, why would Jennifer do so in what looks to be such a symbolic manner: naked, sitting in a chair, and by firing not one but three bullets into her own brain? Is her act a defiant joke? An expression of anger? One of Mike's colleagues notes, "You shoot yourself once [...]. That's life. You shoot yourself twice. Hey. Accidents happen. You shoot yourself three times. You really got to want to go" (38). Or, is the triple-shot merely testimony to her physical prowess, her sense of will? And by being naked, was she showing off her body, or simplifying the crime scene? After all, Jennifer knew what cops need to see.

Maybe, students react, this narrative is not as transparent as expected. Readers note that the language of the text, as an instance, is highly manipulative. Mike describes an environment almost too familiar: this "second-echelon American city," Mike points out, is famous for "its harbors and marinas, its university, its futuristically enlightened" computer corporations and "high unemployment" (13). Sounds a lot like Baltimore, or Philadelphia, one critic guesses (Lanchester 80). Street names ring familiar, as well. To reach the institute where Jennifer worked, Mike drives "the MIE around CSU, skirting Lawnwood." Then, spends "twenty minutes stuck in the Sutton Bay tailback" (105). One is tempted to check details against city maps.

Cop talk is busy, too. Flashing a shield, Mike will "badge" into a room (19); the coroner's team do not just remove Jennifer's body, they "roll" it and "'pronounce her" (21). Later, under the tools of the medical examiner, she is not autopsied, but "cut" (33). Amis uses cop talk, like place names, to invite readers into the scene, Mike offering helpful asides, as when asked to "ride a note" and stopping to explain that this means to compose an "n. o. d.--notification of death" (16). Everything readers know, reviewer Geoffrey O'Brien cautions, is "filtered through Mike's voice," and given Mike's careful spin. "We are prisoners of [... Mike's] language," O'Brien argues, "a stylized dialect which resembles a hardboiled brand of bar talk, bristly with obscenities and technical jargon (more precisely, with obscenities as technical jargon), yet made odd by allusions to Homer and The Sorrows of Young Werther, interpolated Latinisms," and arcane vocabulary.

Amis' naming is not neutral but manipulative, inviting readers to accept this procedural as whole cloth, all the while deliberately putting them off by displaying itself as performance ... challenging readers to rethink their own willingness so easily to be led. The double-tone is established as early as the first page, where readers learn that Mike is not some hard-nosed Irish tough guy, but a deceptively named woman, a self-confessed "big blonde old broad," default complement for Jennifer's "embarrassment of perfection" (17). The performance, what is more, commences early. For example, when Mike first speaks, she introduces herself as "a police," and then qualifies her vocabulary by noting that this expression is "a parlance we [cops] have" (11). The book is jammed with alleged parlance. Yet, as perceived and received by readers, is not cop talk another kind of procedure, a routine? "'Jumpers, stumpers, dumpers, dunkers, bleeders, floaters, poppers, bursters," Mike confesses. "I've seen them all. [...] I have seen bodies of gang-raped nonagenarians. I have seen bodies left dead so long that your only shot at a [... time of death] is to weigh the maggots" (14). Her claims are cynical. However, that phrase "weigh the maggots" marks a triumph of poem over pathology.

Actually, throughout Night Train, fictive and real, history and conjured scene, constantly blend. Interrogation techniques, as an instance, have been hampered, readers learn, not only by court rulings but by the familiarity of suspects with police dramas on television (57). Even jurors are affected, desiring in court to see not so much reason as what Mike calls "reruns of Perry Mason ..." (127). People seem trapped, by language itself, between stories and fact. Folks can commit the most atrocious cruelties, they can murder a child and then stuff the body in a picnic cooler after an argument over a diaper ... and explain it away, with stories (146).

Mike describes sitting in her apartment and realizing that her boyfriend in the next room is "watching a taped quiz show where the contestants have been instructed beforehand to jump up and down and scream and whoop and french each other every time they get an answer right." The questions have been answered before the images are aired. Everything is over, told, before it begins (48-49). Against such a backdrop as this, Mike's policing techniques prove less than trustworthy. Mike begins by assembling the traditional case file and then logging all the reasonable conclusions she can imagine (e.g., 92). She scours the crime scene, canvasses the neighborhood. She chases down clues that Jennifer may have been purchasing drugs on the sly, to deal with a deep depression. But, as the medical examiner documents, Jennifer's insides are as perfect as her outsides--the woman was not abusing her body chemically (165-67). Mike is doing all the right things, getting nowhere. Jennifer appears to have left Mike all the types of evidence she knows a cop will need, the whole catalogue meant to defeat.

As a final jarring confrontation with the limitations of her own professional behaviors, Mike chases down the possibility that Jennifer may have had another man on the side. Following up on a phone message, she meets, in the slain girl's stead what turns out to be not a lover but a used, and confused, traveling salesman, at the destination picked by Jennifer before her death: a bar called the "Decoy Room" (102, 118-20). That room's name might well describe Mike's whole world as exposed by the novel. Everything that Mike has been trained to do leaves her standing before Jennifer's actions dumbfounded with the realization that she has been set up ... perhaps even left some kind of message ... by Colonel Tom's perfect dead daughter.

What could Jennifer have meant to say?

Students (and critics) induce that productive clues to her intentions lie not among the data usually gathered by "a police," but somehow in the nature of the young woman's work. Jennifer held a position in the local university's "Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Institute of Physical Problems." She and her colleagues studied the age of the universe, measuring what could be known of the "eighty-billion-year heartbeat" pulsing from "big bang to big crunch" (105, 107-08).

Jennifer's investigations had been pushing her to the brink of what her boss labels a "paradigm shift." Jennifer and her peers have engaged the shattering notion that behind the universe that humans can see and attempt to chart, lies an immeasurable void--"a cavity 300 million light years deep. Where there's zip. The truth is," Denzinger warns, facing such an emptiness, "human beings are not sufficiently evolved to understand the place they're living in" (111-13). Jennifer was banging her head "against the lid," as Denzinger calls it, of the limits of human knowing. She has grasped the pitiful arrogance of creatures who purport to celebrate their own importance, facing that extreme (113-14).

Thus, Mike surmises, Jennifer had perhaps been conducting an experiment--with time. Tutored beyond normal human comprehension, Jennifer "took fifty years" she may have had remaining, "and squeezed them into a few seconds." Bang-bang-bang! In her final instant of consciousness, Mike theorizes, Jennifer "must have felt it--the eighty-billion-year heartbeat" (115). Perhaps judgment of her fellow scientists' bleatings, as one of her final actions on the job, Jennifer has deliberately--maliciously, Denziger judges--scrambled some of her boss's data and left him standing before a Princeton conference, he complains, feeling naked: "Without a stitch on" (116). Even as Jennifer herself has been discovered, later, by Mike.

Jennifer's death scene has, thus, been rigged: to introduce the notion that all our individual attempts to cobble grand narratives that might solve existence are relative, born of idiosyncratic perspectives, humbled before a universe so unthinkably huge as to have vacant spaces in it, 300 million light years across. In the face of such emptiness, human narratives dwindle.

In the end, Mike cannot tell Colonel Tom the truth about his daughter or what his daughter has seen. Mike only can fabricate a narrative that she believes he emotionally can bear. Jennifer's story cannot be named by any of the narratives the man trusts and will recognize as valid (173-74). The Colonel's dilemma, Amis teaches, is akin to the plight faced by us all. Amis asks: Can we survive when the metanarratives we've grown to adore (here, for instance, the faith that life and death can be understood, can be explained, in scientific, reasonable terms ... or can be made to fit a file at a cop shop) have been shown to be just stories among stories, even as our star is a star among stars? Moreover, can we face the freeplay of ideas and re-conceiving of our nature (the "paradigm shift") lurking, in turn, just beyond that recognition? Engaging that void is a principal burden we receive from the postmodern, itself but a narrative among others.

The night train in Amis' title, then, is not only the actual train rumbling past Mike's apartment, nor a rift in a famous Oscar Peterson Trio song (see Pruzan) that perhaps inspired Amis's choice of central metaphor: it is, finally, the truth arriving in the dark.. . the truth that Jennifer saw, that the postmodern delivers, and that Colonel Tom's remarkable daughter packaged for a lady cop she'd seen sweat and fight her way through withdrawal. A lady cop in love with procedures but honest enough, maybe, to be the only person Jennifer could think worthy of hearing her lesson.

Night Train the book is, students conclude, itself a trap--yet another decoy. For, the game still is in play. Readers are Amis's cop. Indeed, engaging the novel, readers are forced to endure a sort of short course, at Mike/Jennifer/Amis' hands, in the limitations of spinning received tales and procedures to understand life. As the novel closes, Mike abandoning her lists and wandering "off to the Battery and its long string of dives," readers, too, are being led ... toward the recognition that life merely can be lived. Will Mike risk drinking again? Amis does not say; but readers do know that Mike has lost much of her confidence in talk. Her last thoughts are of her boyfriend, her tone defiant, mentally daring him to say "so much as one single word" (175). Teachers might well rethink the urge to relegate Amis' physically unimposing book to the ranks of lightweight--pop--literature. In my classes, Night Train has effectively (and amazingly powerfully) cracked open the postmodern for even reluctant readers; the book sagely reconfigures a notion as abstract as the loss of the metanarrative ... as personal experience, as finding "an instinct for life."


An earlier version of this essay was read at the 2002 University of Louisville 20th-Century Literature Conference.

Works Cited

Amis, Martin. Night Train. 1997. NY: Harmony, 1998.

Bertens, Hans. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. London: Routledge, 1995.

Brooker, Peter. A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory. London: Arnold, 1999.

Currie, Mark. Postmodern Narrative Theory. Transitions. General Ed. Julian Wolfreys. NY: St. Martin's P, 1998.

Dove, George N. The Police Procedural. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green Popular P, 1982.

Foreman, Jonathan. "'Cop Land." Rev. of NT. National Review. 9 Mar. 1998: 64-65. Texshare. 19 Jan. 00 <>.

Gleick, Elizabeth. "A Darker Shade of Noir." Rev. of NT. Time 16 Feb. 1998: 100.

Lanchester, John. "Death Becomes Her." Rev. of NT. The New Yorker 16 Feb. 1998: 80-81.

Lawrence, D. H. "Why the Novel Matters." Phoenix. NY: Viking, 1972. 533-38.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Foreword by Frederic Jameson. Theory and History of Literature. 10. Minneapolis: U of MN P, 1984.

Miller, Laura. "The Sadistic Muse." Salon. 4 May 00 <>.

O'Brien, Geoffrey. "The Big Sleep." Rev. of NT. New Republic 16 Mar. 1998: 32-35. Texshare. 19 Jan. 00 <>.

Pruzan, Todd. "Mystery Train." Print May 1998: 16. Texshare. 19 Jan. 00 <>.

Sarup, Madan. An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. 2nd ed. Athens: U of GA P, 1993.

Robert Johnson teaches writing and literature at Midwestern State University, in north Texas.
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Author:Johnson, Robert (English judge)
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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