I adored Jenny Diski’s book Stranger on a Train. The book won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, and this sums up one of the things I liked about it, which is that it resists genre classification. It’s a travel book, yes, but it’s probably not very much like what you think about when you think about travel books. Diski, who is British, travels around America on Amtrak (and she also travels across the ocean on a freighter), but she sees no sights and goes to no tourist locations. She is on the freighter, on the train, in or nearby a train station, and briefly in the house of some friends, but never does she see anything famous, except for the landscape viewed through the train window.
And the book is autobiography, or perhaps it’s better to call it memoir, and yet its focus is on her travel experiences with only some occasional trips back in time to tell stories from her earlier years.
What I loved about the book is summed up in its subtitle: “Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions.” She does an awful lot of daydreaming and even more smoking; in fact, as she says at one point, smoking, or the quest for a good place to smoke, soon becomes the entire point of the whole journey. Most of the trains she travels on have a room set aside for smokers, and as far as Diski is concerned, the seedier these are the better. Smoking for Diski is a form of rebellion, a highly satisfying fuck you to all the rule-followers around her, and she glories in the badness of it:
It was not simply a matter of physical addiction — nicotine-replacement products work quite well in that respect — which prevented me from giving up (even on a pragmatically temporary basis) when confronted with the difficulties of smoking in the face of North American puritanism, it was the puritanism itself. I didn’t want to do as I was told, I didn’t want to be more comfortable by conforming, giving in, as I saw it, to the pressures of an anti-smoking policy that was reinforced by moral imperatives. Very childish. Yes, exactly. I also didn’t want to become an ex-smoker, not if it meant that I became someone who tsked and sighed whenever I caught a whiff of smoke in the air.
So she hangs out in the dirty smoking rooms with her fellow smokers, talking and sharing stories with them, enjoying their company so much that the non-smokers start to get a little jealous.
The “interruptions” in the subtitle mean a number of things — they are the layovers at various train stations and the visits Diski makes with some friends, but they are also the times Diski gets caught up in the stories and lives of the people around her and loses her detachment and solitude. She struggles –as I would too — with her interest in the stories of the people she meets (which are invariably suprising and bizarre so that she begins to wonder if there is anybody nice and normal and boring out there — which there probably isn’t) and her fatigue with them. It’s exhausting to interact with people all the time, even if you will never see them again.
Mostly, though, what I loved about the book is the voice. I fear that Diski is someone who wouldn’t like me if we were to meet (I’m too much of a rule-follower probably), but I enjoyed her company. She’s a difficult, prickly kind of person, but one who expains herself so well and has such interesting things to say and has such a great degree of self-awareness that she makes a wonderful traveling companion.
She manages to capture something true about America as well, even though (or perhaps because) she doesn’t set out to “see America.” Instead we learn something about Americans — or least Americans who ride the trains, which is its own distinct subset. She captures the voices and the mannerisms and the essence of these people in an open, nonjudgmental way that can marvel at people’s oddities without laughing at or condemning them. I suspect this is because she knows she’s a bit of an oddity herself — and, in fact, she knows that we all are.
I got lucky and found a copy of her book Skating to Antarctica on Book Mooch and am hoping to read all her nonfiction at some point. As much as I love novels and will always read them (Diski has published quite a few novels too), this kind of nonfiction is what I love best — the genre-bending, voice-driven, loose-association-following kind.