The first two words of the third chapter of Muriel Spark’s scant little book The Driver’s Seat should be an all-caps “SPOILER ALERT.” After all, this is how she begins the chapter, just 25 pages into the narrative: “She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is traveling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.”
It’s the first of many times in which Spark stops the reader in his or her tracks, causing whatever the literary equivalent of a record scratch might be. After 24 unsettling pages, and followed by another 75, it’s the first moment in which it’s clear that The Driver’s Seat‘s protagonist, an unsettled woman known only as Lise, will meet an untimely end by the book’s closing pages. And that she does in a surprise twist, in a manner that comes out of nowhere. But plot isn’t Spark’s main interest, it seems. Rather, Spark excels at delivering 107 of the most stressful, uncomfortable pages in modern literature.
The little we know about Lise is that she’s an average-looking woman with an unimposing appearance. “She might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six,” Spark tells us. The most particular trait one sees in Lise is her absolutely manic personality. We’re introduced to her through the perspective of a shopgirl who helps Lise pick out a dress in the first chapter. When the unnamed clerk casually mentions that the dress on which Lise has her eye has the bonus feature of being made from a stain-resistant material, Lise absolutely flips out, taking it as a suggestion that she’d need a stain-resistant dress. (We learn later, naturally, that she does.) It’s a powerful introduction to an unstable character, one who will exhaustingly carry the plot for the next hundred pages.
Lise is on a journey, one that slowly unfolds without clear explanations or locations. She boards a flight from her northern European country, heading toward a southern destination. She is on a quest, scouting her surroundings for her “boyfriend,” a specific stranger who will be “her type.” It’s uncertain who she’s looking for, and why, but she comes into contact with several people along her way: a skittish young man who is so distressed by her presence that he frantically moves seats on the plane to avoid her, a macrobiotic-diet enthusiast who is hoping to become a cultish guru, an older, frail woman who becomes entranced by Lise’s vague search for her boyfriend and her manic personality.
As Lise regularly puts those she encounters ill at ease, Spark likewise twists the knife into the reader’s brain, forcing one to tear through the suspenseful novella with a tense eagerness. It’s nearly impossible to write about its graces without giving away the entire thing, but I can say that it’s one of the most unsettling pieces of literature I’ve ever encountered, and its anxious brevity is unparalleled.