Review: Kasumi Borczykon Oliver Mol

The Writer Who No Longer Wrote

In Train Lord, Oliver Mol narrates his experience of a migraine that leaves him unable to read, write or stare at a screen for ten months. This ordeal, along with the spiritual crisis that it occasioned, forms the centre of Mol’s memoir from which all other memories radiate. There are stories from before the migraine of primary school friendship, of a family dog, and of the publication of his first novel; and there are stories from after the migraine of his year-long stint as a train conductor and his volatile relationship with an ex-girlfriend. The migraine almost always interjects because memory of extreme pain, compounded by anxiety about the possibility of its return, becomes its own kind of psychic torture. But Train Lord isn’t actually a story about Oliver Mol’s migraine because, as Elaine Scarry writes, ‘physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.’ Every story about physical pain then, is really a story about what the writer ends up telling us instead. So what does Train Lord have to say?

There is a sub-genre of metafiction that presents to the reader the writer who can no longer write, but who, in the process of writing about his writer’s block, has written the book that you are reading. These are novels that concern themselves with the untenable discomforts of being a writer by toying with a pervert’s paradox: imagine a perversion in which you can only obtain an erection while being emasculated about your inability to do so, such that every approaching possibility for arousal implies its own immediate negation. To take a core-sample of its most compelling practitioners, there is André Gide’s Marshlands, Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel, William Gass’ The Tunnel, Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, and David Markson’s This is not a novel. In Train Lord, Mol embodies his own writer’s block when his physical self disavows his desire to be a writer. In his own words, ‘I became a writer who no longer wrote, and a person who could no longer communicate with the modern world. In literature and in life, I began to disappear.’ The Writer’s Block novel functions as a kind of inverted Künstlerroman — where the protagonist’s sense of self-as-artist is eroded by his own neurotic tendencies. What distinguishes this sub-genre of metafiction from others is that it is rarely concerned with the self-conscious act of writing. Instead, it writes about the self-conscious act of being a writer. In some sense this makes it a unique by-product of an age in which the writer has become increasingly celebretised. 

Oliver Mol was an active member of the alt-lit community. In 2015, he published his first novel Lion Attack after winning the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. Depending on who you ask, and what you mean, alt-lit was either the high or low literary water-mark of the 2010s. As Mol explains:

the scene, like all scenes, like all people, was not good or bad. It was toxic and supportive and elitist and welcoming. It was full of hate and love. The scene was an experiment. We were depressed and excited and scared and motivated. We were anxious.

For the first generation of writers to have grown-up online, alt-lit was characterised by the employment of chat-forums and tweet formats as formal constraints and by references to chronic internet use. At their most successful — as in the work of Scott McClanahan or Blake Butler — alt-lit writers can paint a portrait of millennial alienation by toggling unexpectedly between compulsive earnestness and absurdist detachment.

Mol attempts to distance himself from the ‘so-called alt-lit’ community while recognising the importance of its influence. When reminiscing about his alt-lit days he writes, ‘I smiled because that was the sort of writing I was attracted to then, that stupid sort of writing that meant I was a serious writer — writing that pretended to be something else, a little comedic, before breaking your heart.’ In several passages of Train Lord, Mol balances carefully controlled syntax with an off the cuff levity and jest; here, he is at the height of his powers. This usually occurs when he is either recounting a memory from childhood (in which the naivety feels appropriate) or when he is retelling a story about one of the commuters that he met while working on the trains. But much of Mol’s writing remains mired in the stick-and-poke patois he attempts to repudiate, with its liberal use of parataxis and a flat, affective tone punctuated by moments of adolescent pathos. Take the following cross-section: ‘So I breathed and I breathed and then I began to cry.’ Or, ‘Then Rachel screamed. She screamed like this: AHHHHHH.’ or ‘We dressed in her dresses and put coke and ketamine up our noses and boxed wine and rum and beer down our throats. Baths filled with water and people smoked and laughed and drank. Toby wore lipstick and I cried in the spare room because I wanted to wear lipstick too.’

In 1967, Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares co-authored a piece of short fiction called Esse Es Percipi. In it, the protagonist discovers that the River Plate stadium in Buenos Aires has mysteriously disappeared. He is led to the office of a high-ranking executive who admits that the last soccer match in Buenos Aires took place on 24 June, 1937: 

From that exact moment, soccer, along with the whole gamut of sports, belongs to the genre of the drama, performed by a single man in a booth or by actors in jerseys before the TV cameras.

Confused, the protagonist Domecq presses further. ‘Do you mean to tell me that out there in the world nothing is happening?’ To which the executive replies, ‘Very Little.’ Before ushering Domecq out of his office, he issues a caution: 

Mankind is at home, sitting back with ease, attentive to the screen or the sportscaster, if not the yellow press. What more do you want, Domecq? It’s the great march of time, the rising tide of progress.

Esse Es Percipi crafts a mood of conspiracy in which some aspect of authenticity has been mislaid. If you reroute the story along the lines of a different cultural figure you’ll find that it still rings true. Here’s one I prepared earlier: From that exact moment, fiction, along with the whole gamut of literature, belongs to the genre of drama, performed by a single man in a Paris Review interview or by actors before a Writers’ Festival Panel. In other words, the mannerisms, lifestyle choices, political opinions, daily routines and career trajectories of the Writer are the grist on one side of a publicity machine which expels, on the other, artefacts of public consumption for a digitally connected feedlot of aspiring writers. 

For all its ‘avant-gardism’, alt-lit was also endogenous to the Hipster era: a generation responsible for re-introducing typewriters, lensless glasses, craft beer, the lumberjack aesthetic, Friends reruns, the ‘vinyl revival,’ and Lomography to youth culture. Despite its obsession with countercultural authenticity, the Hipster possessed a retro-manic puritanism possible only at the so-called ‘end of history,’ or a cultural moment where outsider art can no longer be created — not for want of outsiders but for want of an ‘outside’. The Hipster’s identity hinges on habits of consumption where the higher your social capital can climb, the deeper your obscure, up-cycled nostalgia must run. We all know the guy who presents himself as nothing more than a composite facsimile of data about the accoutrements of a writerly lifestyle: of every Manufacturing Intellect clip on YouTube, every Personal Life subsection on Wikipedia, every ‘Donald Barthelme Syllabus’ List on Goodreads, every Joan Didion documentary on Netflix; who compulsively rewatches Charlie Rose interviews to study DFW’s free-styling witwho writes like warmed-over Bolaño, who exclusively reads girthy post-modern tomes with the well-endowed page counts that Carol Maso describes as those ‘thousand-page novels, tens and tens of vollmanns — I mean volumes’, and who, having accidentally farted while receiving a blowjob must ask himself what Bukowski would do before deciding to feign remorselessness. 

That’s not to say that writers no longer exist, or that writers are no longer creating stylistically inventive work, but that every emerging writer experiences the following double-bind: that given how ubiquitous it has become to access information about anything writing-adjacent, we find ourselves more concerned with the attendant anxieties of wanting to be a writer than the anxieties of actually writing. All the while we subject ourselves to the self-flagellatory belief that this purer, more authentic commitment to the craft is no longer accessible to those of us who compulsively over-analyse it. We all know, and resent knowing, that as Mol recalls, ‘the first rule about writing was that you never called yourself a writer’. Mol has every opportunity here to construct a pointed critique of the ways in which institutions prey on aspiring writers by not only promising them the possibility of subcultural fame but by requiring that the majority fail so as to persist as consumers of additionally manufactured solutions; or even of the ways in which emerging writers can come to enjoy the terms of their own exploitation. Instead, Mol averts to these insights only when they function as a conduit for his own redemptive character arc.

Train Lord is a memoir that must incessantly justify its own existence to those who are reading it. Consider the following passage: 

I told you this was a love story.

But this is a trust story.

I’m learning how to trust my body again, to sit, to write.

I’m learning how to trust my mind to believe that the words that exist in my head can exist on the page too.

And this one:

Listen: sometimes I hate writing, but it’s only because I’m scared, because a story told well has the power to break you. 

And another:

I can still see us: our eyes teary, arms around one another, and then Dad’s voice as he stepped back, his smile, his hands on my shoulders: Write the fucking book, Oliver.

So I did.

And just one more:

So why do you do it? Sam asks, after another year goes by and i’m still working on the book. You’ll think it’s sappy, I say. Or worse — stupid. Try me, he says. Because I made prayers to myself all those years ago, and I’m trying to answer them with this book.

In some sense, Train Lord is a useful ethnography. It describes very well a particular species of millennial writer whose subject is invariably always about his second-order obsession with the idea of his own obsessions. There are two separate vulnerabilities that run parallel to each other in Train Lord. There is a surface-level vulnerability, on display in the passages above, that brazenly publicises itself to the reader. Then there is a deeper vulnerability that can only be gleaned interstitially — the insecurity that gnaws away at us about the cosmic unimportance of whatever story we have convinced ourselves is worth telling. The writer who cannot write is nevertheless compelled paradoxically to chronicle his own disappointment while also representing a compulsion that is autochthonous to all writers, that is, the need to self-mythologise, to invest one’s own absurdity with meaning because not only do we tell ourselves stories in order to live but we also tell ourselves stories about our need to tell stories.

Alt-lit often employs self-conscious repetition as a literary technique in ways that call to mind the mechanics of internet virality. Mol repeats how he feverishly wrote his novel on scraps of paper in between stops while driving the train, or repeats how he created puns to announce the arrival of each station like ‘attention, customers… next stop is Ashfield. But for all the singles out there, we call it PASHFIELD.’ In the early days of viral content (as in Charlie bit my finger), home video would circulate online in a kind of organic process of attentional mimesis. Today, viral content possesses a synthetic quality because we, as both consumers and creators, have market-researched how best to imitate our own authenticity. Mol repeatedly asserts that ‘the stories we tell ourselves are the ones that become true;’ that ‘from my writer days, I knew if you repeated something then it would come true’ and that ‘I knew if you could believe in lies, you could believe in anything. I knew if you did it enough then those lies would become true.’ Granted, it reads as though Mol is inducing his own virality by spamming your feed with an origin story of his own making.

Following an eruption of sexual assault allegations in the alt-lit community, Mol writes, recalling the tumult, that:

Facebook feeds and websites filled with anger and support. Dialogues appeared: on consent and respect. For a while, it seemed, we could learn. Then more were accused, and there was only despair. Facebook groups were archived. People left. The scene which had once promised so much, was now, suddenly, publicly, no different from all the others. Or perhaps it had always been this way. I just couldn’t see it.

Meanwhile, its members were criticised for their unabashed solipsism, for revelling in the concerns of the privileged, for asking how many angels can dance on the head of a ketamine spoon. But such accusations actually undersell the intelligence of the alt-lit writers who strive to incorporate every possible critique into their book’s designs. The issue, if any, is that the alt-lit writer is too aware of his own privilege such that he feels the need to create an entire body of work publicly excusing it. Connor Thomas O’Brien correctly diagnoses the alt-lit phenomena as: 

the literature of the over-educated and under-employed (usually white) young person, attempting to reject their privilege. The Gchats and hamsters and vegan muffins, in other words, are ancillary. More specifically, Alt Lit writers tend to position themselves at the very centre of their universe, but employ a flattening of affect and deliberately naive outlook designed to deflect inevitable charges of narcissism by situating their work as akin to Outsider Art.

Train Lord has a tendency to anticipate such rejoinders. Mol wants us to know that he participated in an orgy but also that he felt anxious about his performance and locked himself in the bathroom, but then that he re-emerged and started drinking champagne and kissing and moaning, but then that he crawled to the corner of the bed out of anxiety again, but then ultimately that he rejoined the orgy and ‘fucked our quiet fucks, and we held each other close, and it was like the pain had never happened and there was no one else in the room.’ Anecdotes follow a similar pattern — reacting and counter-reacting to the sentence before it. But rather than wrestling with his own contradictions, it often reads as though Mol is proleptically wrestling with some imagined critique. Even so, there are several moments of intimacy in Train Lord that feel revelatory. For example, there’s the moment Mol visits a “Rolfer” who asks him if he considers himself a “people pleaser” to which he admits that “I guess I care tremendously about what other people think.” And yet Train Lord is a testament to this admission disguised as a refutation of it. 

Even when you have grown to anticipate this moment, it is always weirdly touching to realise that your youth subculture has grown into its own quiet conservatism. Leave Society by Tao Lin and The Novelist by Jordan Castro are two novels contemporaneous to Train Lord by alt-lit expats also writing about their emigration from the drug-induced haze of their twenties. They also deal with an inability to write an imagined manuscript, but do so with a playful, winking collusion between reader and writer: with both an impersonation of their own clichés and a sincere acknowledgement that the only logical conclusion for a literary movement centred on destructive self-reflection is for it to eventually graduate into productive self-improvement. Train Lord also embodies this impulse but instead chooses to adopt an aura of self-help via jarring authorial intrusion: ‘So say this with me now. Say: You’re okay. You’re okay. And maybe it will come true.’

Train Lord has been marketed as an honest memoir, as every memoir is, but the idea of honesty has more than one dimension. First, there is the act of truth-telling: of speaking in proximity to your own experience. Then there is the dimension of honesty that emphasises its causal relationships: the honesty which, in being told, exacts some kind of inter-personal cost. This kind of honesty will always charge you with the toll of its expression. Train Lord reads like an honest depiction of Mol’s experience in the descriptive sense. Even when employing a self-consciously unreliable narrator and a non-linear plot, he writes honestly about his own imagination. That said, no matter how difficult Train Lord must have been to write, it also play-acts a transgressive vulnerability in an age where it actually pays to capitalise on your vulnerability, where every social media platform is actively encouraging you to become a hagiographer of your own experience, and it is upon this commodification of honesty that an entire self-help-cum-memoir-industry has been built.

Published February 23, 2023
Part of Emerging Critics 2022: Essays by the 2022 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Kasumi Borczyk, Megan Cheong, Jenny Fraser, Muhib Nabulsi, Adalya Nash Hussein. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2022 essays →
Kasumi Borczyk

Kasumi Borczyk has been published in Meanjin, The Independent, Damage Mag and The Griffith...

Essays by Kasumi Borczyk →