‘The Driver’s Seat’ by Muriel Spark: a spiralling ‘whydunnit’

Artwork: Brett Weston, Broken Car Window, California, 1937 (later print)

by Fred Baxter

My favourite books have all been discovered in charity shops: purchases where I had never heard of the author but picked them up, intrigued, usually by the cover. My first copy of Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat had an image of a woman with a glaring striped skirt on the cover, clutching a passport into her lap. Her knees are brought modestly together. Her hands awkwardly feel for each other, half-relaxed. It could easily be the cover of a holiday romance; the pictured young woman could just be on her way to an simple meet-up with a boyfriend, or perhaps she’s embarking on an innocent girls’ holiday to find one. Lulled into false comfort, the novella’s structure begins to spiral us to a shattering end less than twenty pages in, when it is disclosed the protagonist will be found ‘tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie’.

The novella, which at just over a hundred pages can be read in an afternoon, begins frenetically as Lise, a 34-year-old secretary to an accountant, violently rips off a dress she is trying on in a shop. She has been told its synthetic fabric is completely stain resistant by a sales assistant. Mortified, she cries ‘I’ve never been so insulted … Do you think I spill things on my clothes?’. Instantly ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is layered with surfaces, hidden meanings and corruptible identities, all which can only be understood upon re-reading. This intricacy relates the work to American and Irish Modernism and the type of dense spacial form associated with Joyce, Woolf and T. S. Eliot. Nevertheless Spark is true to postmodernism, and the ironic play between high and low symbols, unreliable narration, and intertextuality are all hallmarks. Like most of Muriel Spark’s writing, there is no omniscient narrator; the reader works their way through the narrative like a detective, building up meaning from its blank prose from seemingly throwaway signs and clues. I have read The Driver’s Seat countless times, and upon every re-reading I am dazzled by its extraordinary and original intelligence. Spark has a razor-sharp understanding of human nature, and coupled with an inimitably shrewd wit always leaves for gripping and thought-provoking reading.

The essential premise that is revealed only at the very close is that Lise is searching for her murderer. She has decided to commit suicide, perhaps due to the flippantly revealed ‘months of [mental] illness’, and has come to an unnamed city in Southern Europe with this ‘absolute purpose’, echoing Lady Macbeth’s ‘fell purpose’. The reader is initially clueless to this motive; when Lise is obsessively looking for the perfect man who will carry it out, it is assumed she is looking for an elusive boyfriend. We are never allowed to delve into Lise’s mind, even for a second; ‘Who knows her thoughts?’ As her behaviour becomes increasingly strange and erratic, the sense of foreboding, that not is all as it seems, turns into pounding, anxious dread of what is to come. 

We follow Lise in the airport, where she deliberately wears lurid colours to make future witnesses ‘take notice of her’. On the plane she sits in between two men, one who is inexplicably terrified of her, the other a macrobiologist obsessed with Eastern philosophy. He says to be properly fulfilled he must have one orgasm every day. At the hotel, she walks around with a book emblazoned with naked figures on the cover. These clues that make up the gaudy trail she is laying run alongside an opposite narrative centred in the police station investigating her murder. Clues become jumbled; red herrings are scattered everywhere. She meets the elderly Catholic Mrs Fiedke, whose nephew ‘may well be the man you’re looking for’. At a department store, she seeks out the murder weapons; repulsed by the idea of a knife as such, she buys scarves and ties instead. We now know why she was so horrified by the idea of a stainless dress. Mrs Fiedke’s nephew turns out to be one of the fellow passengers sitting next to Lisen on the plane, so afraid of her he asks to move seats, in one of many intricate moments of precognition only understood on a second reading. The plot continues to spiral with a kind of paranoiac nausea; the reader understands this is Lise’s last day, and craves a quick resolution out of the unending inaction. Lise is unchanged, it seems; her actions suggest (for we have no way of knowing her thoughts) she is as steely when faced with the same proposition as the infamous Meursault in Camus’ The Outsider. Lise eventually takes Mrs Fiedke’s weak nephew, who is a recovering sex addict, to the Pavilion, where he rapes and murders her. Lise has finally found her ‘type’, and the bizarre actions of the beginning take hauntingly bleak meaning.

In ‘The Driver’s Seat’ the reader’s quest for meaning is run alongside its mercurial lead’s inevitably futile quest for autonomy. Dissatisfied with decisions being made for her, she longs to take ‘dominance of the situation’, to take complete control of her own narrative: to be in the driver’s seat. This is, of course, a huge irony that relates the work to Spark’s first novel The Comforters, in which the lead character is plagued by the terrifying notion she is a character in a novel. Spark spirals higher and higher with her Daedalian magic to transcend the boundaries of what it means to be a novel, a narrative, a character. Battling against the unforgiving linear structure in which she is contained, Lise could very much be read as an emblem of the dissociation that some women felt amid the changing attitudes toward gender in the 1960s. Lise is blankly dehumanised, stripped of organic values; she doesn’t ‘want any sex’, and any advances made towards her are firmly avoided. She has only one goal. Spark, a converted catholic, plays a cruel God, interposing any agency Lise exerts with another, all-powerful command over an empty universe. Her quest for agency is useless; the plan has already been worked out for her, determined for all of us. No one is truly in the driver’s seat; Lise is frenzied Lady Macbeth, trapped within a cage of her own creation. In such a short book, I was astonished that Spark manages to weave in such a decent chunk of the human experience.

The interrupted, proleptic structure of the novella is a masterful ploy that intertwines two narratives that have the same end-point: to find out who murdered/will murder its protagonist. They run in contrary motion, chronicling the same journey from opposing directions, exposing bitterly humorous dramatic irony; Lise plans to have ‘the time of my life’. ‘You have your whole life in front of you’, Mrs Fiedke remarks. This also reflects the role-reversal of the traditional detective story; surely Lise, planning her showy suicide, is not the victim? Like a good whodunnit, the murderer was there all along, but the reader is desperate not to find out ‘who’ but ‘why’. ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is a ‘whydunnit’ spiralling to a final shattering end.

The reader learns early on not to trust Lise. Her multiple identities are always changing, she lies to hide her fragile self, leaves her passport in the taxi. Even everything in her flat is ‘contrived to fold away’; a desk transforms into a dining table, everything duplicitous and illusory. Ian Rankin called Lise’s apartment ‘Spark’s house of fiction’. Not only does her multifunctional furniture represent Lise’s many-faced identity, but Spark’s deftly layered, enigmatic prose that only reveals itself on closer inspection. For me, ‘The Driver’s Seat’ always evokes the work of French conceptual artist Sophie Calle (b.1953), whose 1979 work Suite Venitienne documented her journey following a man only described as ‘Henri B’ through Venice. The insidious, but always glamorous voyeurism seems to fill the visual gap between the page and my mind. In both Calle and Spark there is always a tension between private and public and between surfaces and interiors; particularly in the novella are the motifs of synthetic materials against natural matter, and organic instincts against determinism.

Perhaps Spark also explores the surface and materialism of a Postmodern age. In the airport bookshop, for instance, there is a woman choosing books not for their interior content, but ‘to match’ with the colour schemes of her spare rooms. Genetically engineered crops, obsessive description of television and airplane snacks, these are the dull exteriors Spark belittles. Just like the disparity between surfaces full of objects and empty personalities in J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, the symbols of a material-obsessed world in ‘The Driver’s Seat’ are contrasted against its alienated, barring narration, and Lise’s subsequent stark apathy. Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963) similarly references issues of female quarantine and material body image obsession; only those who have ‘slender means’ can eventually be saved from a fire through a window. In true Sparkian tradition, its ending is divulged early on in the book, leaving the reader with a tapestry of displaced voices and unhinged narrative surfaces.

For a book I have read many times, ‘The Driver’s Seat’ loses none of its shocking bleakness upon re-reading; I am always amazed by its meticulous craft and thought-provoking understanding of human nature. The beauty of all of Spark’s writing is in its layered intricacy, with its clues and symbols rippling to the surface every time with new and exciting meaning. But of all her books, ‘The Driver’s Seat’ packs the biggest punch.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s