‘In the place of creation there was only fear’: Oliver Mol rides to recovery in his memoir Train Lord

·10-min read
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Oliver Mol’s Train Lord is a sequence of personal essays journeying around and into a ten-month episode of intense physical and psychic pain. Yet from the opening page of this compelling work, we are carried along by a humour and vitality that reads as courage.

Review: Train Lord – Oliver Mol (Michael Joseph)

The premise is immediately arresting, carrying echoes of those stories of gifted athletes struck down by devastating illnesses and injuries.

In 2015, Oliver Mol emerged from the online alt-lit scene, releasing his first book, Lion Attack!. Publication turned into a crisis, removing purpose, bringing exposure. Its aftermath was traumatic. Mol developed an extreme – literal, physical – sensitivity to the written word. During that ten-month period,

the pain never went away, not really. At certain hours of the day, and on a certain amount of drugs, it would dip, but the tension, the grinding, the electricity, the dulling, like a skull cut open, pierced or injected with lead was constant.

Now and then he chances it, tries to focus on something, to read even the price of food in the supermarket, but the pain is delivering a message:

the pain would return and hammer with such ferocity that I would hold my breath until I couldn’t breathe, alternating between fury and apology, promising that I would not try again, that I knew my place, that if the pain would just go away I would not try for all those things I had done before.

A simpler existence

For Mol, writing had been everything. He studied it at university, worked at it for eight hours a day (a punishing schedule, mentally and physically), and threw himself into an international community of writers trying to connect with audiences in new ways.

But he receives the message of the pain and, when it recedes, he gives away the writing life to become a guard on Sydney Trains. To take a simple job, stepping away from constant self-scrutiny and uncertainty – this is a shared fantasy among many writers. There is a persistent appeal in the prospect of regular pay, regular people, a clear and unequivocal usefulness.

The job, of course, is anything but simple. During five months of train school, Mol gains an enormous amount of technical knowledge, including how to drive the train in an emergency. He is warned about assaults on guards, fights, and suicides – advice that does not avert this horrible drama occurring on his first shift.

Perhaps most importantly, Mol learns how to “slow down, to not think, or to think only about what we had learned”. He remembers “how to breathe”.

Riding the trains is not a step away from stories, but a step into a life. Stories flicker continually. Sometimes these are just moments, grabs of character and speech – a guy with a rat’s tail, a tracksuit, and a stolen bike yelling “Hurry up, c—s! Move it along! Daddy’s got somewhere to be!”

Such moments are a continual gleaming thread through these stories; they spark an affection for the mind that records and treasures them. There are also quiet interludes that encourage Mol to remember his own stories. He picks through the events of his childhood towards the catastrophe that brought him here. In the guard’s compartment, fragments of the past return:

I would sit and sketch scenes from those years I’d tried to remember – the words, until then, had been impossible, but I thought if I could just visualize, then witness those outlines I could, at the very least, give them titles and label whatever was inside me before throwing it, dramatically, in the bin.

A person riding the trains while his mind works over his personal stories, gathering the scraps, is a powerful image for what happens when we write. Mol is working through layers of resistance, the push and pull of his imagination, his language and his fear.

In her book Writing as a Way of Healing, memoirist and Virginia Woolf scholar Louise DeSalvo wrote that “creativity is a basic human response to trauma and a natural emergency defense system”. But it is a particularly fraught response for Mol, for whom the means of creativity appears to be the cause of his pain.

Read more: How to write about broken trust in a memoir? Janine Mikosza’s Homesickness maps trauma in bold new ways

‘None of this happened’

Several of the essays that eventually emerge from Mol’s tentative starts are negotiations with childhood experiences and their key figures: a girlfriend he lost, an older boy who brought him face-to-face with the difficulties of growing up. At the traumatic epicentre of the months of physical pain is an ex-girlfriend, who is herself suffering acutely.

In telling these stories, Mol layers experience and fiction. Stories are told one way then returned to, discarded, reworked, with some nugget of the experience persisting through these attempts to get at the truth.

Mol is an admirer of the writer Tim O’Brien, who blends truth and fiction in his stories of war and its effects. O'Brien often revisits the same events from different angles, working towards complex revelations. Perhaps Mol has O'Brien in mind when he writes:

Here’s the truth: none of this happened, or some of it did, but not like that.

We are told this, disconcertingly, after long, immersive sequences relating childhood experiences with deep pathos. There is a sense in which disavowing the stories in this way sits uneasily alongside the apparent straight-telling of the central facts of the memoir: publication, pain, the trains.

This unease is perhaps an effect of approaching the memoir with the expectation that it will be a continuous narrative, only to find you are reading a collection of pieces. These essays belong together; they loop around the event of the pain, implicitly and explicitly looking for sources. But they have different approaches to relaying the facts.

Adjustments in reading methods are required. Circling around the truth, layering and re-layering of experience and imagination to reach something psychologically and emotionally real, the tricky negotiations around the exposure of the lives of others; these techniques say something meaningful about the processes of working through experience. There is a consciousness of the process of translating of experience onto the page.

Read more: True writing is a convulsive act: inside the mind of Elena Ferrante

Reading the pain of others

A reader might be tempted to look for some early trauma, based in family life, that settles the issue of cause and effect. The narrative evidence points away from such determinism.

Mol’s parents are delightful: funny, real and hugely loving. His mum, as his pain recedes, walks him gently into the library and guides him through little tests of his reading capacity, a kind of exposure therapy to the activity that will restore him to himself.

His dad, who is fond of the word “arseholes” for others generally and for the possums that plague his dog in particular, speaks with deep kindness to his suffering son. He sends Mol a Tintin book with a note recalling how they read these books together and how perhaps they could help him now, hoping it will “bring out the little boy in you again”.

The story recalls another account of reading Tintin through difficult times: an essay titled Herge and me by Luke Davies. In both these recollections, Tintin connects a father and a son, and a boy with his former self across time. It is a delightful reminder, amid the pain, of the bonds that stories and reading can forge.

Reading a memoir requires a delicate negotiation between writer and reader, especially when the work deals with such a difficult experience. In her memoir The Writing Life, Annie Dillard asks:

How many gifts do we open from which the writer neglected to remove the price tag? Is it pertinent, is it courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer personally?

The very subject of Train Lord is the cost of writing it. It is a fascinating subject, but it requires the reader to visit some disburbing places. There are methods, when relating such experiences, that might allow the reader a certain distance – a coolness of style, perhaps, or a critical or reflexive remove on the part of an older narrator.

Mol’s writing is skilfully orchestrated, but can tend towards an intense affective pitch. It is characterised by dramatic repetitions, the use of “and” rather than commas when listing, and a habit of directly addressing the reader: “Know this”, “Here’s the truth”, “Let me be clear”. This can create readerly resistance.

Mol tells his father:

I want people to read this book and know that whatever they’re going through they can get through it too – because I would have given anything to have a book, a story like –

The words break off. His father responds that he reads to be entertained, not to feel, but that when he read Mol’s first book, “You made me feel okay”.

In my reading lately, I have become more conscious, and happily, that although a book like Train Lord may have a clear value – entertaining, moving and vivid, fascinating on the subject of what writing is for – it is not actually written for me. At the centre of Train Lord is a writer speaking effusively, with open-hearted sincerity, to others in ongoing pain. He is speaking to some version of his old self, perhaps: “I would have given anything…”

Literature has always had the power to expand the world to which the reader has direct access. But one of its powers, one that is burgeoning of late, is the sense that the true addressee is an ally in experience. Others are welcome, but they may need to take a step towards the experience and the means of expressing it, rather than the other way around.

Lord of the trains

Mol, in explaining what happened to him, writes:

The mechanisms through which I created – blindly, playfully – had broken and in the place of creation there was only fear.

What charms in Train Lord is that its playfulness is irrepressible. It glimmers in every recorded instant of raw vernacular and in Mol’s jokes with his friends. It bubbles up even in the darkest times. The moment at which the title finds its resonance is when Mol begins teasing the passengers, warmly, lovingly, over the intercom.

Next stop is Ashfield. But for all you singles out there, we call it PASHFIELD.

There is power, personal agency, in play. It is the best of being alive. This urge to play is sometimes why we make unnecessary things, like books. In the middle of the pain Mol is lost in his own narrative; it has no end. By the final pages of Train Lord there are jokes on the intercom, beauty in the city, the instinctive generosity of strangers, and a resolve to try.

Lives are not stories, and yet for a reader encountering this one, a happy ending beyond these pages seems to suggest itself. Mol has of late published several complex appreciations of books and admired authors. Joy, humour and pain glimmer within these interviews and essays. In them, it is clear that, for Oliver Mol, embracing reading and writing is the only way to live fully. The fact he is able to do so is a fine ending to a story its author once feared he could not escape.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Belinda Castles, University of Sydney.

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Belinda Castles does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.