Beware the woman who buys an ugly dress: she probably means to kill herself. As propositions (and fashion judgements) go, it’s fairly extreme – yet it’s an idea on which Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat appears to hang.
At the novel’s opening, the protagonist – we only ever know her as ‘Lise’ – is trying on a gaudy dress. After initially being delighted with her find, once Lise learns the dress is made of stain-resistant fabric she becomes almost hysterical:
The customer, a young woman, is suddenly tearing at the fastener at the neck, pulling at the zip of the dress. She is saying, ‘Get this thing off me. Off me, at once.’ (7)
By the end of the novel, Lise’s reaction to the stain-resistant fabric remains as ludicrous as her fashion sense – yet, with hindsight, comes the suggestion of some kind of macabre rationale. Lise, it would seem, means all along to have herself killed. Her journey throughout involves a search for ‘Mr Right’ – not for a man with whom she can settle down, but to whom she can entrust her death, and the dress is to be both peacock plumage and a prop. With such an aim in mind, a stain-resistant dress would be a dead-end, something to negate the pleasure of the planning: it would be a waste.
Taken on such terms, The Driver’s Seat presents a perverted idea of female agency. Against a textual backdrop of sexual liberation and protests for equality, here’s a woman who turns freedom into a means to stage-manage her death. Is this the ultimate in women’s lib, or a dangerous misreading? In a narrative so riddled with inconsistencies, the key to this novel may not be the dress at all, but the plurality of voices that relate its events. The text, like the title, clamours to answer the question: just who’s driving this thing?
What we learn about Lise is marked by confusing contradiction and inconsistency. In the opening scene, she is described as a young woman. Later we receive a contradictory and rather clinical description, almost as if lifted from the police report, or from someone who barely knows her:
Lise is thin. Her height is about five-foot-six. Her hair is pale brown, probably tinted … she might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six. (18)
She appears inappropriately coquettish when talking to the airline clerk, greedy and ignorant in conversation with Bill, irresponsible and unhinged with Mrs Fiedke and, when dealing with the man who will murder her, frightening and controlling. She is presented variously as an office worker, a teacher from “Iowa, New Jersey”, a seasoned traveller, a widow and an intellectual. She laughs too long and too loudly, even when no joke has been made. She cries readily and has a knack for stealing cars. The sum of the details is that Lise comes across as a mad creature, full of pretence and artifice, first one thing then another as suits her audience. It’s easy to believe her to be not only a willing victim, but the more dangerous for it: a victim who lures her abuser to act against his will.
When Lise creates a somewhat odd impression at the airline check-in desk, we’re told “it is almost as if, satisfied that she has successfully registered the fact of her presence at the airport”. There are enough red herrings in this subverted whodunnit to make this seem plausible, as though her actions are deliberate and ritualised, and all pointing the way to a death fetish. The difficulty in pulling together the many lies and textual inconsistencies, however, serves to shine an altogether different light on her apparent motivations.
There are no substantial details about Lise in The Driver’s Seat because this is not her tale. One of the story’s many subversions is that, despite often being related in present tense, Lise is already dead – she is already ‘missing’ from the narrative.
Instead, events are pieced together from a slew of witness accounts, from the salesgirl to office colleagues, to passengers on an air plane and tourists in hotel lobbies; from those who try to take advantage of her, right down to the man who kills her. Each has their own agenda and, through the prism of perception, each casts Lise in a slightly different light.
It is this that makes The Driver’s Seat so compelling and disturbing, because it presents Lise is the ‘madwoman in the attic’ brought down into the open. Her actions make no sense or, even when they appear to have reason (that is, her death wish), they remain morbid and unhinged. At the same time, her madness is a construct: it’s the sum of all her parts blown open by a number of voices trying to take control of the story. Lise is passed from person to person, each encounter seeking to overwrite the one which has gone before. She exits the tale as soon as it begins because she doesn’t, in fact, exist. What remains is a dubious reconstruction: a disturbing photo-fit that can never hope to present a seamless or attractive face.
As a result, The Driver’s Seat is composed of two narratives. In one, Lise’s character and motivations are dissected a stream of witnesses: Lise is mad. She’s a liar. She makes no sense. She’s suicidal. Sex in her hands is entirely destructive. The other option is far more tragic: Lise, a lonely woman looking for love, is senselessly murdered. The former makes the murderer the victim. The latter redirects the senselessness from Lise’s actions and places it on the circumstances of her death. This is what the question of the title comes down to: who’s responsible for Lise’s death? Is it murder, or suicide? Design, or accident? Who, exactly, is in the driving seat?
At the novel’s opening, we’re invited to eavesdrop on a shop’s changing room:
’And the material doesn’t stain,’ the salesgirl says. […] ‘If you spill like a bit of ice-cream or a drop of coffee, like, down the front of this dress, it won’t hold the stain.’
The customer, a young woman, is suddenly tearing at the fastener … (p7)
This memory – its tense, wording and even ingredients – is revised just moments later, almost as if under questioning or examination:
‘And it doesn’t stain,’ the salesgirl had said […]
The customer had flung the dress aside.
The salesgirl shouts, as if to assist her explanation. ‘Specially treated fabric … If you spill like a drop of sherry you just wipe it off.’ (8, emphasis mine)
Events which take place on the plane are similarly twice-presented. First there’s a description of the businessman inexplicably vacating his seat to move away from Lise and Bill. Almost immediately there follows a cut to the following evening, in which the businessman fleshes out the details under police questioning: “I moved my seat. I was afraid.”
Towards the novel’s conclusion is another cut scene which teases us with the details of Bill’s police custody. He reveals the protagonist’s name: “‘Lise, he says. ‘I don’t know her other name. We met on the plane.’” It’s for this reason – as a narrative composed of eye-witness accounts – that there’s no last name for Lise: there is no omniscient narrator to provide it. The author-narrator who strings together these accounts admits as much: “Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?” (50).
The many voices who tell this tale (none of them entirely reliable) account for some of the narrative’s many inconsistencies. The construct draws attention to not just who is responsible for Lise’s death, but why the question is important at all.
On first reading, the story unfolds like this:
Lise is going on holiday. It’s important to her to find a remarkable dress – the gaudier, the better. Her colleagues have been supportive of her vacation, with some suggestion of an illness that results in them treating her sympathetically. Lise lives an arid, untouched life: she’s a loner. She’s somewhat unhinged, laughing alone and talking on the phone even after the other person has hung up. She goes to the airport and seeks to be noticed through inappropriate action and dress; she’s laying clues. We get a shocking glimpse of how she dies. Lies flies to a country that she’s been to before. She’s on the lookout for a man that she claims she will know only when she meets him. Her desires are thwarted several times, however, as the men she wants seem frightened of her – as though they can guess she’s up to no good. She goes to a hotel but is too skittish to unpack. She identifies the place she wants to die on a local map and draws an X on the spot. She goes shopping, and buys further props for her death, including a scarf and the knife that will kill her. She meets men who try to take advantage of her, but she’s not interested in sex alone – she has her eyes on a darker prize. Eventually she is reunited with the man she has identified as up to the job. He has a history of sexual crimes, but has attempted to go straight. Lise won’t be put off: she forces him to take her to her chosen location – she wants to get ‘laid’, in the most final and fetishised way. The murderer merely follows instructions.
Re-reading the book as a police report inferred from several eye-witness accounts, the implications fall somewhat differently:
Lise has been killed, and the events described are a possible reconstruction of the events leading up to her death. The timeline begins as Lise prepares to go on holiday. She finds a dress and coat which she thinks look good together. She lives alone, but has a few supportive friends and colleagues. She packs carefully for her trip, and plans to return some car keys to a friend. Lise covers up the embarrassment of travelling alone by trying to seem more cultured and better travelled than she is, but only succeeds in annoying the check-in clerk. She fusses on the plane to appear more cultivated, but bungles her attempts to talk about macrobiotics. She is noticed by a convicted sex maniac, who feels frightened by the return of his desires and quickly moves seats. Lise attempts to flirt clumsily with Bill, and later tries to forge an acquaintance with an old man and his family, but they refuse her offer to share a car. At the hotel she falls in with Mrs Fiedke, an older woman with bad eyesight and prone to passing out. Lise helps her with her shopping, stopping along the way to pick up presents for family and friends, for Papa and Olga. She buys a collection of scarves and ties for them, and a blender for herself. She tells Mrs Fiedke that she’s looking for a boyfriend. The two women are separated during a riot. Lise is frightened and lies to protect herself – when a mechanic offers her a lift, she refuses to disclose her real hotel. Her instincts are right, and he attacks her. She manages to escape but, when she bumps into Bill, finds herself in the same predicament. She tries to tell Bill she’s not interested in sex – she wants more than that from a man. Passers-by intervene, and she escapes, but on arriving at her hotel, comes face-to-face with a convicted sex maniac. He lures Lise to the park, rapes and kills her, and fabricates details in order to weight reconstructed events against her.
To accept the narrative as the sum of many voices throws doubt on its reliability. Why should we accept their portrayal of Lise, coloured as they are by their own agendas? What if Lise’s questionable actions don’t lead towards a fatal S&M fantasy (which actually belongs to the murderer, whose recollection closes the novel), and are by turns innocent or merely accidental? The biggest consequence is to unbuckle Lise from the driver’s seat altogether: rather than being some Machiavellian femme fatale, perhaps after all she’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That the first character seems so plausible – and damning – is down to how the novel subverts appearances, clichés and norms.
Lise’s dress factors largely in this, as a (multicoloured) red herring: it becomes a calling card, a means of being recognised and remembered. For a middle-aged woman living an invisible and lonely life, the dress becomes a means to being seen – albeit to cruel ends. When the concierge spies Lise’s get-up, she “throws back her head, looking down through half-closed lids at Lise’s clothes, and gives out a high, hacking cough-like ancestral laugh of the streets.” (17) At the hotel, we learn more about the assumptions being made about Lise’s clothes:
Just as, in former times, when prostitutes could be discerned by the brevity of their skirts compared with the normal standard, so Lise in her knee-covering clothes at this moment looks curiously of the street-prostitute class beside the mini-skirted girls and their mothers whose knees at least can be seen. (51)
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Lise may dress exactly unlike a street walker, yet she receives the shame and opprobrium nonetheless. In The Driver’s Seat, the gaudy dress becomes a talisman of a logic usually doled out to victims of sex crime: she was asking for it. In fact, we’re led to believe that Lise is, throughout, ‘asking for it’ – she craves death and destruction in a highly fetishised way. This is just one is a series of subversions that the novel toys with – and unpicking the chain gives further reason to question this damning indictment of Lise.
As with any detective yarn, The Driver’s Seat sets up the thrills by masking the identity of the killer. Spark does this firstly by throwing Lise in the path of a number of men whom we assume must be bad news, based on appearance, cliché, and action.
We write the true killer off as a respectable businessman, “a rosy-faced, sturdy young man of about thirty; he is dressed in a dark business suit and carries a black briefcase.” We see Lise try and fail to make his acquaintance, and feel frightened for her as Bill (with his overtones of Red Riding Hood’s wolf) latches on to her instead. There’s no doubt we are to be wary of Bill, who has villainy written on him as clearly as any Fagin:
Meanwhile, closely behind Lise, almost at her side, walks a man who in turn seems anxious to be close to her … He is bespectacled, half-smiling, young, dark, long-nosed and stooping. (25)
Bill, for all his talk of pure nutrition, is a randy cad – as is mechanic Carlo. Both men attack Lise; both times, she escapes. Masked by the responses of these opportunistic men to a vulnerable and lone[ly] woman, businessman Richard is shown to be not only well dressed and very proper, but also the one who flees from her. How could we suspect such a man of wrongdoing?
Thus Spark subverts the romantic adventure, in which boy must pursue girl and win her round through persistence. Having turned this on its head, Lise – as portrayed in the reconstructions of Bill, her killer and the unreliable Mrs Fiedke (who doesn’t even bat an eyelid when Lise leaves her passport in a taxi for ‘safe keeping’) – becomes the predator, thrilling in the pursuit (“‘The torment of it,’ Lisa says. ‘Not knowing exactly where and when he’s going to turn up.’”).
When Lise finally finagles her man, it is she who supposedly dictates how the relationship is to be consummated:
‘I’m going to lie down here. Then you tie my hands with my scarf; I’ll put one wrist over the other, it’s the proper way … Then you strike.’ She points first to her throat. ‘First here,’ she says. Then, pointing to a place beneath each breast, she says, ‘Then here and here. Then anywhere you like.’ (105-6)
If this doesn’t make it plain enough to the police later, the words are placed in Lise’s mouth:
‘A lot of women get killed in the park,’ he says, leaning back; he is calmer now.
‘Yes, of course. It’s because they want to be.’ (104)
Arguably it’s Richard who puts these words in Lise’s mouth: it’s his recollection which reconstructs the novel’s end. With Lise finally despatched, it is with him and his rehearsal of his story that the reader is left with:
He runs to the car, taking his chance and knowing that he will at last be taken, and seeing already as he drives from the Pavilion and away, the sad little office where the police clank in and out and the typewriter ticks out his unnerving statement: ‘She told me to kill her and I killed her. She spoke in many languages but she was telling me to kill her all the time.” (107)
Lise is killed, and her killer will ask our sympathy for the two lives destroyed: “She told me precisely what to do. I was hoping to start a new life.” The businessman claims to have unmasked the murderer and, shockingly, it is Lise herself.
So, everything is upside down in this book: where we place our sympathies (or opprobrium). Appearance and reality. Present tense (for past events) and immediacy when Lise no longer exists. The search for Mr Right. A constant and reliable narrator. All of these play into the biggest swap of all: victim and abuser.
Perhaps, though, the events of The Driver’s Seat are entirely as presented. Lise – mad or otherwise – longs for ritualised, dangerous sex. While she denies her need for sex, she admits its because she’s frightened of what comes after:
‘You’re afraid of sex,’ he says almost joyfully, as if sensing an opportunity to gain control.
‘Only of afterwards,’ she says. ‘But that doesn’t matter any more.’ (105)
The sex-death Lise envisions is, apparently, a suitable compromise. It’s a compromise for the romance, intimacy or full-blown eroticism which eludes her. It’s a compromise on the loneliness that follows sexual union. It’s even a compromise on suicide, if that’s what drives her, as she can’t kill herself; she can’t even die alone – it must be at the hands of another and, in fact, in his very arms.
This is the joke at Lise’s expense. She is not in ‘the driver’s seat’: she delegates the moment of her death (or orgasm – popularised by Freud as “the little death”) to a man. Even then, her instructions aren’t followed as expressed: “I don’t want any sex,’ she shouts … All the same, he plunges into her, with the knife poised high.” (106) However you slice it, this joke underpins the implied question of the title.
The events related in The Driver’s Seat conspire to suggest that victims and abusers seek each other out. Lise, in her recreated words, actions and clothing, speaks plainly that women who die at night in parks want it that way. Following the subversions of the story to its end, however, doesn’t necessarily mean this is the punchline, or the only outcome.
To view the novel as subverted as Lise’s apparent sexual desires leads to questions that may close the circle. What if the story isn’t a seamless presentation of facts, but the piecing together of unreliable accounts? What if Lise hadn’t planned to die, but merely to go on holiday? What about all those other men and women who die at the hands of others – what if they really did conspire with their abusers; what would that look like? How would a woman go about ‘asking for it’? How would she plan it, and how would it appear to by-standers? What, afterwards, would the remnants of her life be worth?
This is the novel’s final twisted subversion: there is no clear answer to who is the driving seat but, in weighing up the last moment’s of a life, the proportioning of blame and excuse is compelling and unavoidable.
Spark, Muriel. The Driver’s Seat. Penguin Books, 2006
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