With its excruciating heroine, bleak mood and unconvincing plot, Muriel Spark’s unlovable The Driver’s Seat could struggle to win the author new fans

Muriel Spark was once commonly mentioned in the same breath as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene – thanks in part to her Romantic Catholicism (as she termed it), but mainly due to her precocious talent. Recently, however, her star has waned. When Martin Stannard released his biography of the writer last year, it was widely mooted that she was due a revival. But not much seems to have happened since then – and while at first glance it might seem that the arrival of The Driver’s Seat on the Lost Booker prize shortlist should help the cause, the book isn’t likely to win her any new fans. It isn’t one to love.

Spark starts as she means to go on with a terse, quick scene demonstrating the extravagant madness of a 36-year-old woman called Lise. She storms out of a shop announcing “I won’t be insulted” after being told that the dress she has been trying on is stain-resistant. One page later, she is laughing hysterically and then in floods of tears after her immediate superior at work suggests she takes the afternoon off to do some packing for the holiday she is about to go on. Then she goes to another shop and selects a red and white coat and an orange, mauve and blue dress. When the salesgirl suggests she might not be able to wear them together, Lise declares: “People here in the north know nothing about colour.”

Being in Lise’s presence is frequently excruciating. We are encouraged to laugh at her – but constantly reminded that to do so is awful. Especially when Lise herself mirrors that laughter with her own mad hilarity: “‘Dressed for a carnival’ says a woman looking grossly at Lise as she passes, and laughing as she goes her way, laughing without a possibility of restraint, like a stream bound to descend whatever slope lies before it.”

Other characters aren’t much easier. On the plane, Lise encounters a man called Bill who claims to be an Enlightenment Leader, a believer in the benefits of macrobiotic food and the principle that everybody should have one orgasm a day. Today, he is determined that Lise will help him have his – but she has other ideas. She elects instead upon landing to go on a shopping trip with Mrs Fiedke, a garrulous old woman, given to flashes of comical wisdom (“I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife”).

This bleak comedy, written throughout in a pressing, immediate present tense, takes on an even darker hue because early on we are told that Lise: “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 book is a march to death. There’s no question of whether Lise will be murdered – just when and how.

The answers, like much else in The Driver’s Seat, are unconvincing: in very few words Lise persuades another man she meets in the lobby of a hotel to take her away and strangle her. Like much else, too, this climax is heel-in-the-face nasty. “I don’t want any sex,” Lise shouts. “You can have it afterwards.” Yet, all the same, before he stabs her, “he plunges into her”.

There’s no doubt that all that makes bracing reading. It’s a book of singular cruelty and shocking misanthropy. It’s sharpened too by a few fleeting moments of compassion, like this brief description of a toilet attendant caught up in the murder investigation: “trembling upon the event which has touched upon her life without the asking”.

Even so, and even though it’s barely 100 large-print pages long, the book outstays its welcome. Fiction – as the name implies – has no obligation to be real. But this novel is so distant and cold and unlikely that it’s impossible to give any credence to it. The characters are sketches at best and absurd caricatures at worst. Lise’s immediate reaction after avoiding a rape, for instance, is to sing: “Inky-pinky-winky-wong / How do you like your potatoes done”.

She’s just too daft. Events, meanwhile, generally seem like the caprice of a cruel God-like narrator rather anything that makes sense – even within the warped logic of the novel. Spark doesn’t just have her subjects writhing on a petri dish, she’s flicking them about for the hell of it. That has its own abominable fascination – but it doesn’t really seem worth following them.

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