“The way of the train is also the way of the boarding school, the convent, the prison and the psychiatric hospital,” Jenny Diski wrote in her 2002 travel memoir Stranger on a Train, in which she interweaves the story of a trip around the United States by Amtrak with her memories of incarceration in mental hospitals in her youth. She is taking the journey to write a book but her stated intention is “to keep still”. Her hope is for “a substantial journey without going anywhere exactly, meetings and conversations which also would go nowhere”. But lying in her sleeping compartment, she finds that “all the separate stories, all those minds and hearts took on volume and mass, occupying the empty space in my compartment, squeezing out the very air before spreading to the corridor outside and the entire train”.
Diski isn’t the only person to board a train with no direction in mind. After developing an excruciating migraine that did not relent for 10 months, Oliver Mol struggles to read more than a few words. Even after it eases, he can no longer conceive of doing the things that had defined him for his entire adult life: “I had become a reader who no longer read and a writer who no longer wrote.” So he applies for a job as a guard on Sydney Trains for which, crucially, he needs no prior qualifications. His duties provide a welcome relief from both intellectual stimulation and the fashion in which this was ripped away by the migraine: “I had the trains, and it was a relief to know my role, to be given a daily plan, to surrender to something larger than myself.” At the end of his five-month training course, his instructor tells the class: “You’ve all won the lottery. I’ve been with the railway for 47 years, and I’ve never worked a day in my life.”
Train Lord is not so much a book about trains as an account of an unfinished process of healing. At its weakest it’s a self-help book, with too many passages quoted from “cod philosophers”, such as the discredited British journalist Johann Hari, that are left unexplored and unexplained. But as it flits between the genres of memoir and short-story collection, it beautifully captures the complexities of illness and of coming to terms with life as an adult. Mol recalls childhood memories and present-day intimate conversations with a tenderness that rivals Karl Ove Knausgård, though his prose is more cluttered and less succinct.
He can also do observational comedy, especially when it comes to the intricacies of railway life. On one occasion he is “riding up front” with the driver, “smoking cigarettes and listening to jazz from a transistor radio with our feet on the dash”, when his workmate tells him of a signaller ahead who, because his arm is missing, can’t wave it as the job requires.
There is the “Transport Nod” exchanged between workers after “checking that no one had fallen between train and track, that kids had not leapt from prams, that lovers had not pushed one another on to the rails” – also useful when bunking off work and seeking a free fare on the bus without being detected.
And there is Bruce, a mysterious octogenarian colleague who entered the railways 15 years after retirement and “failed his practical exam three times because he kept falling asleep in the guard compartment”. Mol clearly identifies with his workmates but – somewhat jarringly within a sector with such a strong collective identity – this doesn’t extend beyond idle chitchat. “I never learned anyone’s name – except Bruce,” he observes. There are occasional nods to the realities of industrial relations – such as the possibility that bosses will scrap guards altogether – but Mol’s narrative is fairly distant from the workplace politics more present in the railways than in almost every other industry worldwide.
Then again, the narrative slips in and out of reality with such ease that it’s hard to know whether to take him at his word. A haunting vignette about a childhood love interest totally absorbs us but is then revealed as largely fictitious in a discussion between the author and his father. “We can never tell the whole story because truth, unlike people, cannot be isolated, and therein lies its beauty, its attraction,” says Mol. The wordplay of this sentence, in which beauty and attraction “lie” within truth, is the most convincing evidence of Mol’s inner turmoil as a writer and as a man. His stylistic tics – such as beginning chapters with “know this” or “understand this” – can be irritating, but his intrepid self-reflection turns a narrator who is upfront about his suboptimal behaviour into a likeable character.
“No one cares,” a friend tells Mol at the “tail end of a bender”. Train Lord is imbued with that morning-after feeling of trying to make it make sense – and realising precisely that no one does care. The world’s indifference can be liberating too. “We were on a train, out of the way of our lives, any of us could tell any story we liked,” as Diski puts it. “We were, for the time being, just the story we told.”
Michael Joseph, 272pp, $49.99 (hardback)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "Train Lord, Oliver Mol".
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