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April 15, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

At only 116 pages, you could be forgiven for thinking that Train Dreams is a whisper of a book. However, Denis Johnson’s novella is an intimate, often haunting portrayal of Robert Granier, a labourer in the American West at the beginning of the 20th century. This is a familiar setting; Granier is a man alone, living a rough and isolated existence, removed from the encroachments of civilisation, living deep in Idaho’s Moyea Valley with his wife and daughter. As he travels away to build railways and fell trees, he witnesses immense changes in American society, symbolised by the roaring expansion of the railways across the land.

Granier returns home one day to find a fire has ripped through the valley, devouring his cabin and most probably his wife and child, who have both disappeared. He searches among the ashes, but eventually realises that his effort is useless, so he retreats to the charred remains of the valley where he lives alone and works sporadically.

The novella contains a thick sense of atmosphere, resonating beautifully through Johnson’s sparse writing. Granier’s relationship with the landscape is contradictory: though he appreciates its beauty, it is also used to reflect back his fears. His intense loneliness is revealed in these solitary encounters with nature. Conceptions of his own sadness mostly elude him, only realised at certain points, such as when the quietness of his nights are interrupted by distant wolves, with whom he howls, to “flush out something heavy that collected in his heart”.

Still, in his isolation Granier is awake to the mystery and grace embedded in the natural world. His life could be harsh, or primitive, or sublime. A kind of life which, Johnson laments on the final page, is lost forever, inevitably subsumed by the developments of civilisation, and replaced by a frantic digitalisation of everyday life—an erosion of the solitude idealised here. Vivid, at times tender, but often as stark as the valley Granier inhabits, Train Dreams won’t appeal to everyone—but I for one found Johnson’s work beautifully compelling.

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