Martin Amis' “Night Train”

(Vintage International, 1997 / read: January 2010)

“The ghost of a dead person must divide into many ghosts—to begin with.
It is labor-intensive—to begin with.
Because there are many bedrooms to visit, many sleepers to stand over.
Some sleepers—maybe just two or three—the dead will never leave”

Indeed, especially when the dead person was murdered and, even more so, when he or she committed suicide. As Camus suggests, suicide is perhaps the only philosophical question worth considering because it fully delves into the meaning of life. Yet, we tend to think that suicide is always the result of desperation, of shame, of depression, of impotence, of profound sadness or anger. Amis, however, seems to suggest just the opposite, that suicide might also be the result of a perfect life or, to put it more accurately, to a life lived perfectly according to what others demand or expect.

In “Night Train”, (female) detective Mike Hoolihan sets to investigate the death of Jennifer Rockwell, the daughter of her beloved commanding officer who, some years ago, helped her to overcome her drinking problem. Soon it becomes apparent that Jennifer killed herself, something that leaves everyone wondering, particularly her dad, why a young, beautiful and beloved women in a perfect relationship with her adoring boyfriend and the job she always dreamt for might have committed suicide. Mike discovers that, preposterous as it sounds, Jennifer used three bullets to kill herself. The troubling thing, what Mike founds out, is that Jennifer left many clues on purpose, as to suggest that she was living a double life, taking drugs, seeing other men, loosing it at work, when she in fact wasn’t. Jennifer thought, Mike deduces, that in this way those still living wouldn’t blame themselves, be more able to understand her decision and come to terms with it more easily: “As she headed toward death she imprinted a pattern that she thought would solace the living. A pattern: Something often seen before. Jennifer left clues. But the clues were all blinds” (171).

But the living, those who remained, can’t handle the fact that suicide might in fact follow boredom, complacency or just being tired of appearances, of living life according to someone else’s expectations. Mike knows that the Colonel won’t be able to handle the truth and decides to lie. At the end of the novel she tells Jennifer’s dad: “Colonel Tom, what can I tell you. People point themselves at the world. People show a life to the world. Then you look past that and you see it ain’t so. One minute it’s clear blue sky. Then you look again and there’s thunderheads all around… It measures up, Colonel Tom. It all measures up. Your little girls was on a break…” (174). Hers (Mike’s) is truly a heroic, compassionate act, a way for her to pay back the Colonel all he did for her.

“Night Train” is not really a novel about those who commit suicide but mostly about those who have to couple with the shattering fact that someone close and dear, someone they loved and cared for, decided to not live anymore, decided to do without them. Some, Amis suggest, must be spared the underlying truth because, as David Foster Wallace put it, “The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.”

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