The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark (1970)

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The central character of this book is Lise, a single woman in her mid-thirties, who most likely is psychotic. Lise works in an accountancy firm and decides to take a vacation somewhere in the Mediterranean, in an unnamed place. Although she does meet people (on the plane and at her destination), she seems unable to connect with anyone, while at the same time she is desperately looking for the ‘right’ man, the one who has been waiting for her but doesn’t know it yet. To an older woman she has just met, Lise says, ‘I think he’s around the corner somewhere, now, any time.’

‘Which corner?’ asks the woman.

‘Any corner. Any old corner,’ Lise replies.

‘Will you feel a presence? Is that how you’ll know?’

‘Not really a presence,’ Lise says. ‘The lack of an absence, that’s what it is. I know I’ll find it. I keep on making mistakes, though.’

Eventually, Lise does find it, by finding him – the man she has been looking for. This man is ‘right’ because he can help her do what she needs, which is to die, to be murdered by someone who’ll enjoy killing her. He is more than ten years her junior, and he has previously been incarcerated for assault. He protests against Lise’s assertion that he is exactly her type, he resists her direct instructions on when and how to kill her, he explains time and again that he is not going to do anything to her, and in the end, inevitably, he complies.

And so Lise is found the following morning, exactly as Spark has told us she’ll be found (from the very beginning of the book), ‘dead from multiple stab wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.’

Lise is mad, and she finds a deranged maniac, who complies with her wishes to murder her in a rather dramatic way. She has planned this to happen during her holiday (she leaves her passport in a taxi, on purpose), she persists in her plan, and in the end she executes it almost to perfection. And so she’s clearly the one ‘in the driver’s seat.’ And yet, of course, one could argue that Lise’s state of mind renders her incapable of truly being in control of her actions. Lise’s mental dysfunction may well be the culprit, many would say.

But the deeper one reads this book the more one sees that Spark has a different perspective: she doesn’t want us to feel so sure about who is responsible for Lise’s fate, even after we account for the possibility that Lise is being led by unknown forces, which are out of her control, due to her abnormal mental state. For we should also consider the murderer to be the one who’s in the driver’s seat. After all, he’s a convicted criminal, he’s done this before, he knows how it will end and yet he doesn’t walk away from Lise, even though he could do so (he’s had ‘six years of treatment’ and he’s now cured, by his own admission). And, obviously, if we don’t believe him, that is, if we don’t accept that he has been cured, and we consider him to be bound by a sickness he can’t escape from, then – once again – we are asked to be open to the possibility that it is his impaired psychological state which is actually doing the driving, instead of the real ‘him’ (whoever ‘he’ is).

And, on an even higher level, one could take the view that, at any rate, “it’s all fiction”, anyway. The whole story was made up in Spark’s mind, so arguably it’s the author who is in the driver’s seat. But the author is herself subject to various forces, both internal and external, which are largely unknown to her. Then again, if you believe in God (like Spark did) shouldn’t it be ‘Him’ who has ultimately been driving everything, at least indirectly, since the beginning of time?

So in a certain way this is a book about writing, and the responsibility of creating something out of nothing. In parallel to the question “who’s in the driver’s seat?”, which is about Lise and her situation, one is also faced with the question “is the writer playing God?”. Neither of the two questions is answered, and Spark doesn’t seem willing to accept responsibility for having to answer anything for us.

Categories: BLaME, Fiction

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