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Every Book I Write is a Failed Book (22/12/09)
It isn't good ideas that keep Jenny Diski writing but how to transform them into something new, she tells Rosemary Goring.

A writer's life: Jenny Diski (19/04/2004)
The solitary and uncompromisingly clever novelist tells Helen Brown she is trying to re-trieve the Bible from stupidity.

Making a solo voyage Jenny Diski has used her life on the edges of insanity to great and frightening effect in her novels.
Ajay Close finds her only need now is for a good degree of solitude.

Puffing her way around a continent (01/09/2002)
Mark Sanderson reviews Stranger On A Train by Jenny Diski

Critical perspective
British Council comtemporary writers review

Puffing her way around a continent (Filed: 01/09/2002)

Mark Sanderson reviews Stranger On A Train by Jenny Diski

Mark Sanderson reviews Stranger On A Train by Jenny Diski

In 1960, when Jenny Diski, the novelist, was a troubled 13-year-old, she spent her holidays riding round the Circle Line on the London Underground. A difficult home life prompted her to follow the yellow-track road - a warm, dry train compartment was one of the few places she could read in peace (if she ignored the odd flasher) - but it was an illusory escape route because, instead of leading to the Emerald City, it always brought her back to where she had started. Her new work reveals that, even at the age of 50, Diski is still going round in circles.

Stranger On A Train, as its title suggests, is no ordinary travel book. Although it recounts two eventful journeys round the perimeter of the United States - from Savannah, Georgia to Phoenix, Arizona and a complete, anticlockwise, round-trip to and from New York - it also describes "a sentimental, celluloid journey" through American movies and a trip into the interior of Diski's mind. The result is more like a memoir than a travelogue: a magical history tour.

Diski confesses that her "ideal method of writing a travel book" would be "to stay at home with the phone off the hook, the doorbell disconnected and the blinds drawn". A sleeping compart-ment on a train is a pretty good compromise. The home-from-home allows the writer to venture out in search of colourful material safe in the knowledge that she can always return to her bolt-hole. She usually finds what she is looking for in the smoking carriage where the oddballs seem to congregate and are only too keen to tell their "tedious, stunning, cliched, sentimental, heart-rending, banal" life-stories.Amtrak, the national train company, generally ensures the smoking car is a squalid "sin bin". And in the one on the Sunset Limited, for example, Diski encounters an Irish drunk discoursing on the difference between pixies and leprechauns, a 15-year-old Mexican who begs to listen to the heart in every female chest and two black transvestites who pick up an unwitting white boy. Diski, for her part, is chatted up, accused of being a Commie and dubbed a sexist by a trio of vitamin-pill-selling lesbians.

Most Americans prefer to fly. They believe Amtrak trains are "dangerous, dirty and full of dreadful people". The precedence given to profit-making freight trains means that those carrying passengers are often hours behind schedule. However, when the Sunset Limited smashes into a car in Mississippi, the dead and injured only delay the train for 45 minutes. Diski, shocked, stares out of the window and smokes. The scenery is more interesting on a train even when there is "nothing" to see. The vast prairies of the Midwest, for instance, display "endless variations on the theme of orange, ochre, yellow and gold".

Diski's childhood memories of the movies - westerns (High Noon), musicals (Oklahoma!) and Hitchcock thrillers (Strangers on a Train) - are played out on the flickering screen of the win-dow. The flashbacks, though, are often unhappy. Diski writes just as vividly about the times when she was "expelled from school, alienated from her parents and in the loony bin". She felt she "had always been in the wrong place, with the wrong people", a feeling that has never en-tirely left her. Even so, her desire to connect prompts her to step off the train.A five-day stay in Albuquerque with Bet - whom she meets on her first trip - her Viet-vet hus-band Jim and brain-damaged son Mikey, an ex-cop, turns into a disaster when she fears that, as in the film Misery, they plan secretly to keep their writer guest for ever. Even after she has made her escape, it overshadows the rest of the trip and makes her impatient to fly back to England.