Necropolitan Press / June 2009
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
“Lots of stuff happens without us knowing or hearing about it,” one character says to another at the beginning of The Harlequin & the Train. “And the worst part is sometimes it happens because of us and we don’t even realize it.” So begins Paul G. Tremblay’s surrealistic exploration of choice versus chance in this breathtaking new novella, an expansion of his 2003 short story of the same name that first appeared in Of Flesh and Blood magazine. With emotional shades of last year’s masterful Miranda by Stoker Award-winner John R. Little, The Harlequin & the Train plays out on the page like a Final Destination film directed by David Lynch.
When a crowded commuter train en route from the Massachusetts suburbs to Boston strikes what at first glance appears to be a person standing on the tracks (or a “jumper” as one of the veteran conductors earlier refers to the suicidal who choose railway as their means of self-annihilation), rookie engineer Rudy is cast into a surreal nightmare. The person turns out not to be a person at all, but rather a harlequin clown stuffed with meat and set upon the tracks by a group of seemingly ordinary people who appear to be laying in wait for the accident at track’s edge. Why they’re there and their subsequent shocking and inexplicable actions are at the root of Rudy’s nightmarish descent into a bizarre subculture in which the line between activity and passivity is thinner than one might think. In the process, Tremblay takes the reader on a metaphorical train ride of their own through his increasingly dreamlike landscape, each successive page adding momentum and propelling the narrative forward like an unflinching literary locomotive that plows through anything standing in its way. It’s an uncomfortable ride at times, and by trip’s end, the reader won’t even be sure they’ve arrived at their destination. But, then again, Tremblay’s clearly all about what’s unearthed along the journey, not the destination.
The Harlequin & the Train plays on our public fascination with tragedy and society’s collective vulture-like picking at the unfortunate carcasses we’re witness to on the evening news. Tremblay takes the idea of slowing down to gawk at an accident scene to an entirely new level, transforming our involvement from merely voyeuristic to participatory – here in the form of a yellow highlighter. Indeed, Tremblay has positioned himself as something of a virtuoso when it comes to the intricate, interactive narrative format – as also evidenced by last year’s sublime “The Blog at the End of the World” (winner of DSM’s Black Quill Award for short fiction).
Thematic complexity and interactivity aside, The Harlequin & the Train is notable for Tremblay’s superb prose, which is somehow both economical and lush at the same time. His sentences are like the finest cut of meat, trimmed by a master chef with the sharpest of knives so as to excise every bit of fat without losing an ounce of the succulent meat. There’s not a wasted word to be found here, each giving the impression that it has been handpicked, held up to the light and examined, and placed in precisely the right spot by the author. Even his descriptions of mundane routine – in this example, a character’s daily commute to work – crackle to life with energy and precision of detail:
There’s a full house of commuters on the train. The passenger car is filled with folding and unfolding newspapers, iPods and headphones, and the tangy smell of the collected cologne and perfume of the passengers.
The conductor yells, “All aboard.”
The fat businessman doesn’t think about the quaint phrase, or how he used to wait for it like an expectant kid on Christmas morning when he first commuted to Boston almost twenty-five years ago. It used to mean something to him, a magic command, a manifest destiny call to railway travelers that hasn’t changed in over one hundred and fifty years. But for the businessman, such romantic notions are now as dead and forgotten as the laborers upon whose backs the railway system was built.
The businessman walks sideways up the aisle, squeezing past people until he finds a seat near the very front of the car. He sits heavily and checks his watch. The train blows its whistle and eases into a slow roll. Momentum is sometimes hard to achieve.
The businessman offers to no one in particular a quick but triumphant smirk as he joins his fellow commuters in the ritual opening of his newspaper.
Tremblay has been establishing himself over the past several years as one of an up-and-coming crop of genre writers bringing the literary back into dark genre literature, one of whom challenges readers without losing entertainment value and one who entertains without dumbing the challenge down. The Harlequin & the Train is a heady trip down a surrealistic railway, making station stops at terror, paranoia, heartbreak, and – ultimately – truth.
Purchase The Harlequin & the Train by Paul G. Tremblay.