Train Dreams - Denis Johnson

The life of Robert Grainier, as depicted in Train Dreams, is probably not one that would expect to get so much attention. He is begat in unknown circumstances, orphaned or abandoned without any sort of clue as to why, marries and grows old without notoriety or infamy. Dealing with superstition and illusion seems mundane, and when faced with the unusual things that reality offers seems magical. Giving a plot summary would ruin this slim volume for you, so read on to hear my impressions.

Like a painting with an uninteresting central subject, Train Dreams is worthy in it's technique and expression. Robert is the every-man which we may impress ourselves onto, but as his life unfolds - as we stare at the details of the painting - we discover that he is not entirely usual.

When I picked this up in London, I supposed a book which crossed François-René de Chateaubriand with Ansel Adams, if that was possible. It was short, so I chanced it, and laid value in being shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.

The first few passages were dull, were slightly shocking for no apparent reason, and Robert was completely unremarkable. Too late I realized that book prizes and awards never guarantee a book, and how many wonderful books had I read which weren't lauded? However, I continued on, and late one night, weeks later, back in my own bed, I stayed up into the night to finish it. Something had changed.

Was it Robert who had changed? When one reads a book more slowly, I've found that I notice more and appreciate development more acutely. Having had time to settle on Robert's naïvité and thoroughly middle-road personality. Liked well-enough and never badly spoken of, if he was spoken of at all, Robert is perposefully unremarkable. Yet, I don't think it was him who had changed. Life had changed around him, had he slipped out of its stream, lost his place in it, and in his confusion become an interesting subject?

I can imagine Johnson's purpose was to show us a way of life, and with such a passive main character, remain absent from the more offensive pieces of our past. The ending, where superstition mingles with supernatural and reality, doesn't seem to fit or Johnson didn't lead us into it well.

This novella was a series of vignettes about Robert, basically, and if you're into that, then for god's sake, here's the book for you! Maybe I wasn't the kind of smart to appreciate Johnson's clever prose. Maybe you've some insights to help me understand?

116pp. Granta Books. 2013.
(Read/Skim/Miss) (Buy/Borrow)