(A review of 'The Driver's seat'
a novel by Muriel Spark
First written on August 16, 2018)
A kind of novella that spends more time in your mind than on the page. Spark does it brilliantly by working under-the-hood. It is no spoiler that it is all about Lise executing her plan to kill herself. And so it is "it’s a whydunnit in q-sharp major and it has a message: never talk to the sort of girls that you wouldn’t leave lying about in your drawing-room for the servants to pick up." - the lines Lise used to describe the last book she read. But the why never gets answered clearly.
By the end, we get clear clues that she must have suffered some psychological problems. And mental illness can describe her problems and one can easily dismiss it at that, but from Shakespeare to Plath to Gogol to Grass to Han Kang, writers have long held habit of putting methods in madness. I will forward two theories, not mutually exclusive.
Suicides, especially those who have been planning to kill themselves for a long time, tend to be dramatic (think '13 reasons why'), knowing you are going to die soon, must mean that you want to leave some impact on the world. Is that why Lise works hard to leave a trail behind? Refuse to take unstainable dress so that her blood would show on her dress exciting 'pity and fear' (the last words of a novella)?
The second theory is that her eccentric actions arise out of a wish to avenge sexism she must have faced all her life. In the first chapter, there is the first reference to the 'glass ceiling' I have found in literature when Lise is described as having 'five girls under her and two men. Over her are two women and five men.'. The title itself points to a male-ruled world. She is a spinster, and her suddenly turning extremely girly - all point to a suppressed sexual instincts (at one point, she says it is the 'after the sex part' which bothers her.) This can be compared to the male character who tells her that a daily orgasm or two is necessary for digesting food. Lise seems to have decided to be in the driver's seat for a change. Throughout the novel, she seems to provoke men to believe to believe that they can expect favors from her only to deny them afterward. Again, she makes use of a man to kill herself too.