if it is too late that I register, to my dismay, that the hummous snack being passed toward me is “Sweet Roasted Red Pepper” flavour (god, how I detest roasted red pepper flavoured things. not enough to refuse or even to be unable to enjoy them, when deprived of other options, but sufficiently that I am incapable of either desiring them or withholding from them my scorn.), my natural pessimism is quickly softened by the humorous mediocrity of what I have paid for – four soda crackers (“All Natural Squares – Baked in Vermont”) and a 56.7g puck of hummous paste – and the pleasant realization that Sam Adams is a perfectly adequate beer for the combined purposes of:
a) gilding with alcohol the swiftly passing scenery that intersperses lake and wood with the picturesque dilapidation of rural upstate New York, and suddenly reminds me that this is the first full blush of spring I have witnessed. only two days ago did I remark upon the very beginning of buds nosing from the grey trees branches that line my street, promising something satisfyingly verdant upon my return home,
b) toasting the political victory, if not the popular spirit of celebratory vengeance engendered by it, of Obama’s icing of Osama Bin Laden, and
c) laying to rest my somewhat contrived sense of gloomy disappointment that the Conservatives just won a majority government. Not that it is not an event worth bemoaning, but in the (rapidly waning) sobering light of day, my temporary excitement about the possibility or probability of “change” via electoral politics became pretty visibly shopworn and, well, fraudulent.
pretend that I know whatever slogan is Sam Adams’, and that I am using it now, to slightly ironic effect.
* * *
a somewhat hurried breakfast this morning, despite, or perhaps directly resulting from my optimistic conviction that 1 hour is all that would be required for me to dress, eat, conduct a rapid mental and spatial revision of all that i had intended to or that had not previously occurred to me to bring (i forgot my scarf, which already the aggressive air-conditioning of the train [I AM ON A TRAIN] has given me cause to lament), and decide what coat and shoes I could submit to wearing for the duration of my trip. my meal consisted of a reheating of the previous night’s dinner (farfalle w/ tuna, olives, chicory, and cherry peppers), followed by the hastily consumed components of an abandoned plan for a pack lunch – fried egg on a piece of toast (I opt to bring a similarly hastily cobbled together snack of a heel of bread partly hollowed and stuffed with rough-hewn bits of butter, apple, and cheddar cheese, to which I hours later will regret not adding either or both honey and harissa).
later, in the dining car to which I have removed myself to escape the conversation of the people seated behind me (a commercial lawyer in a cowboy hat from D.C., a young Minneapolitan theatre student, and a lesbian painter, perfect strangers of just the type to be inexplicably brought together by the now rather hard to capture liminality of the train, and the just shy of prohibitively priced Dewar’s from the bar car. their conversation is mostly unobjectionable, but like a baby’s cry, impossible to filter out), I chat with a dark-haired mustachioed man whom I mistake for a man whom I habitually mistake for another dark-haired mustachioed man in Montréal. he turns out to be a law student, and we spend several hours discussing the madness of academia and the alluring dynamic tension of the law that demands both codification and flexibility over chocolate covered almonds and tea which he shares.
“This is straight from Harrod’s,” he says, “I have a friend who just came back from London.”
“Thank you, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a good cup of tea,” I manage to fudge out. it is a vague sort of lie that I can deliver with an air of languid appreciative conviction; lit in part by its being fundamentally true, but ultimately obscured by my suspicion that I am not adequately equipped to discern good tea from bad.
at some point, amid the tea and almonds and reciprocal cheer fostered by the knowledge that conversation makes swift work of the hours, I think to myself “This is good. Things are going well. An auspicious beginning to a hardly-deserved vacation.” perhaps it is that I find in my companion an easy sympathy with my half-embarrassed disappointment that the café car (it seems to be common practice on the train to refer to the single dingy lunch counter as whatever kind of car one intends to use it for. bar, dining, café. observation, I would venture) is not equipped with an espresso machine. I do not know why it is on this particular trip that I have chosen to expect Amtrak to be decked out and so provisioned as the Orient Express, but I expect that the heavy weighting of my recreational literature toward the turn of the (19th) century may be partly responsible.
* * *
is it only the presence of a man with a cowboy hat that makes my thoughts, my only other train-specific thoughts, turn to the chaotic nearly-botched first murder of Ripley’s Game? it is an unlikely connection, as it is only in Wim Wenders’ adaptation (The American Friend) that Ripley is endowed with a cowboy hat, let alone the temperament to accommodate it (while i like Dennis Hopper, he is far from the Tom Ripley that Highsmith has accustomed us to), and i do not even recall how the train scene plays out in that version. nonetheless, there is something strangely comforting about thinking that somewhere the train is stalked by a bizarre amalgam of Matt Damon, John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper, the most sympathetic of charming sociopaths.
it dawns on me now, or double-dawns, if such a thing can be said to exist? there must be a word. when one has a sudden realization, a flash of insight, that is slowly followed by the further realization that one’s initial epiphany was actually quite banal and obvious? anyway, it dawns on me that travel figures quite prominently in Patricia Highsmith’s writing (as her writing has in my travel): Ripley’s flight to and through Europe, the protagonist’s travel abroad in the wake of his wife’s suicide in Those Who Walk Away, Ingham’s prolongued sojourn in Tunisia in The Tremor of Forgery, the compromising “vacation” of the despised wife in A Suspension of Mercy, the lovers’ lam ostensibly prefiguring Lolita in The Price of Salt, and of course the awkward chance conversation that returns to haunt and entangle in Strangers On A Train, among others. almost as quickly the thought flashes out its lustre is dulled: of course the places and displacements of travel, those conventions suspended, are integral to the feeling of imbalance, of uncertainty, of the familiar made strange, upon which the suspense and sense of apprehension that is Highsmith’s art depends. her work so often draws its sinister quality not so much from the alienness of the characters’ surroundings, but from how readily they adapt themselves to these surroundings, becoming in the process alien to themselves.
i mean, not all the time, but i think you could say its a theme. going over this provides fitting contrast to the book that i am currently reading, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Gentleman In The Parlour, pictured above with its scandalous and scandalously misleading cover. i can’t imagine the colossal disappointment of the person who picks up this book on the strength of the heaving bosom on the cover, to discover within only the meandering impressions and reflections of a proper, fifty-six-year-old Englishman as he travels through Asia in the 1920s. Maugham moves from Haiphong to Rangoon not as a precarious subject tripping in the shadowlands or morality – there is no danger to his soul or selfhood – but as an Englishman upon whose empire the sun has not yet begun to set. in this way, there are no liminal spaces, even in the deepest jungles or thronged marketplaces of the inscrutable and infantilized Orient. this may sound a little heavy-handed, but it is a perfectly charming book, and gives one the opportunity, as it did to Maugham himself, to enjoy the clean, conscientious lines of his prose and his acute sense of humour without being tethered to the greater demands (artistic or temporal) of The Novel. it is, to flatter myself egregiously, ‘travel writing’ in the same spirit that my own is ‘food writing,’ which is to say frivolous, vigorously non-utilitarian, and heavily adorned by the very selective attentions and idiosyncracies of the author.
yeah, that’s right. i’m basically Somerset Maugham.