Monday, December 29, 2008
Ticket To Ride by Dennis Potter
I've been interested in Dennis Potter since I saw the theatrical version of Mr Potter's TV serial, The Singing Detective. While I have yet to watch the TV serial (which I own on DVD), I have read his teleplay for Christabel, and one of his novels, Ticket To Ride.
The novel opens up with a regular English man in a dining car on train, who apparently has amnesia. He can't remember who he is, where he's going, why and what has happened. He asks the gentlemen at his table if he is, by any chance, with them. Once the train arrives at London, the mysterious man names himself John Buck, as opposed to the corpse's name of John Doe, and he attempts to sort out his life, while all the time being strangely drawn to a girl named Penny who may or may not be a prostitute. At the same time, Helen, the wife of John, suffers from the sickening dread of a missing husband and the shame of her own mysterious past.
The novel seems so straight forward at the beginning, but the journey turns out to be a winding spiraling one, the narrative going back upon itself numerous times. Normally, I don't much care for cerebral novels about amnesia or long descriptions of what seems like acid trips, but the sheer quality of Potter's prose is indomitable.
Winding and confusing, this is sort of like Potter's other works, in terms of themes and structure. Memory, fantasy, dream and the present all co-mingle to create a tapestry of character, which is always paramount.
Identity is a theme that goes hand-in-hand with the device of amnesia. Who am I? Who knows my name? It's interesting that in this novel, the nameless protagonist chooses a seemingly random name, and it's his actual name, like he was meant to do it anyway.
The amnesia angle gives the first part of the book some drive and some suspense, but once the flashbacks and scenes with Helen come into play, Potter wisely begins to lessen the degree of amnesia descriptions. Far more interesting than John's wild journey is Helen's life with John and without.
It's Helen's mysterious past, that's professionally and perfectly revealed in slow tantalizing tastes that make the second half of the book. Once the pieces are confusingly put into place for the first of two climaxes, Potter gives us a game-changing twist.
John is not amnesiac at all, nor is Helen a former prostitute named Penny. It's all a sexual game, roleplaying done to a hideous degree. John's self-loathing and despair and sexual guilt, all from being raised by a pulpit-pounding priest, come to a head as he abuses Helen emotionally and treats her like the dirt that grows the bland hedgerows, the recurring motif.
A common theme in Potter's work is sexuality and dysfunction. There's a intriguing conversation between Angela, the couple's friend (a slut and a common "the other woman") and Helen, in which it is revealed that John is filled with revulsion post-coital, revulsion at the act itself. On the surface, and before the reveal, this feels like vital information in understanding why John might have amnesia and why he's left. In reality, it's all part of the game, which doesn't come to light until after the reveal.
This is all very interesting if it wasn't for the slight streak of misogyny running through John and the story. John's self-loathing and pathetic state is manifested in disgust at the female form, and his obsession with prostitutes, obsession like the relationship between observers and car crashes. He can't stay away from them, and he continually treats them like an English gentleman and like a oaf. He consistently tries to be a white knight but ends up succumbing to his own selfish desires and lust, in turn creating more guilt and self-hatred.
Ticket To Ride is a portrait of a broken, disgusting little man with little to provide society. But this doesn't come until you've read most of the book. Potter's playing a mean trick on the reader, and unless you're willing to go along with him in the filthy roads of the English mind, then you're going to feel cheated and conned.
I really enjoyed this novel as an engineering feat, rather than as a work of narrative art. The story left me cold and pondering what made Potter want to write this, but the sheer elegance of his prose and the structure made me appreciate Ticket To Ride. I would recommend this to those who are already familiar with Potter's work. To go in blind would be disastrous.
Apparently, this novel has reached cult status thanks to the freaky looking Robert Pattison or whatever. He mentioned the novel in an interview while promoting the tripe called Twilight. I have to say this because I'm that shallow: I did not read this because of its recent popularity. I've been a fan of Potter for awhile. My disgust for that film and book is equal to the embarrassment I have if anyone mistakes my motives for reading Ticket To Ride. Also, this book is fetching hundreds of dollars on eBay because of this tenuous and fatuous connection. How sad are we.