This writer suffered from an 11-month migraine – so he took a job as a train guard
Writers draw their inspiration from the most mundane works. George Orwell scoured the kitchens of Paris. Stephen King wrote Carrie while working as a school janitor. The Shoe Shine Factory provided Charles Dickens with the ultimate origin story. Now Oliver Mol, as if attaching a carriage to a long literary train, has written a memoir based on his time as an ordinary train guard.
Except he didn’t, quite. In his twenties, Mol was acclaimed in Australia with a first memoir about his expatriate childhood in Texas. But the early success coincided with, or caused, a migraine that crippled him for almost a year. All of a sudden, he discovered that the things that thrilled him – reading, writing – were now triggering a mysterious pain in his head which, despite endless medical consultations, became chronic. Eventually, a chiropractor with necromantic fingers seemed to zap it at the source.
Needing an income while recovering, Mol saw a job ad for a train guard. “The money you could make – at least for me – was amazing,” he enthuses. (Salaries may assume this hallucinatory quality for freelance writers.) Unlike writing, it required no experience.
Train Lord is the product of those two years on Sydney Railways. Another writer might have turned his gaze entirely outward to describe the world he saw from the guard’s little square cabin. Still, what Train Lord isn’t primarily is a book about being a train keeper, which is a pretty boring gig. This is the vacation that suits Mol. “I was there,” he says, “to go around in circles for as long as I needed to figure out my issues and figure out if it was possible to love me again.”
Vignettes of drunken passengers and wizened co-workers are glimpsed as though from the window of a passing train. The only aspect of the job that morbidly fascinates him is the suicides. The numbers climb on Father’s Day and Christmas. On his very first shift, he sees mortal remains removed from the tracks. Solipsism even lurks here because, in a moment of desperation, Mol nearly jumped on himself.
It is primarily a book about the beginning, middle, and gradual end of a migraine that threatened to end his life as a writer. What Mol writes, besides being in pain, is the gradual process of learning to write again; to break down word pictures on remnants that accumulate over six years in this book about writing a book that’s only eponymous with being a train guard. Instead of a talking cure, it’s writing therapy.
In this delicate hall of mirrors, Mol always tells the reader that he is about to tell them things, or not to tell them something which he then tells them. “And then it happened,” he often wrote. “And then something happened.” In the PDF I read “then” appears 671 times at nearly three per page, giving the illusion of a sequence. His other strategy is to sell himself as an unreliable narrator: “So now I’m writing this book and filling it with lies… And if you keep reading, you’re part of the lie too.”
Mol describes his first studies in the Alt Lit movement, whose writers trade in an implacable millennial sincerity. Her ongoing project, her compulsion, is to recount every crying fit, every romantic agony, every session with patient parents who assure her once again that all will be well in the end (which, after a relapse, will be the case). He even feels like sobbing in the middle of a throbbing orgy.
The question Train Lord faces is how much one individual’s story – including riffs about brave grandparents and a neurotic family dog - really matters. Is it prideful folly to claim the right to write about one’s mental health? And if so, how to go about it? Mol’s oversharing would seem unbearably raw if it weren’t for an exhausting, mischievously dismantling meta style. “And I thought this: oh no,” he writes when his head starts to hurt. “And I thought this: not yet. And I thought this: f—.
And I thought this: I’m not sure I care.
Train Lord by Oliver Mol is published by Michael Joseph at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books