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I Could Ride All Day In My Cool Blue Train, by Peter Hobbs
Take your pills and forget your dreams
Sunday 05 February 2006
Keeping that train in the right lane is the unifying pre-occupation of I Could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train, a punchy and vividly imagined collection of discrete short stories which loop through common themes of anxiety and dislocation, mental instability and the slippery aspects of reality. Seven of the tales are dreams, numbered as though from a journal; they swell from a lush male fantasy of courting success to an impassioned lament for the beautiful dream world that has been suppressed by behaviour-controlling medication. This angry ex-dreamer rails against the "underlying powerlessness with respect to my life", which reverberates between many of Hobbs's other narrators.
Once-eminent thinker James Molloy finds himself boxed in by his work, and then his disintegrating memory, and then his physical environment, in the disquieting "Molloy Dies". "Fit" documents its narrator's escalating seizures when he is threatened with being discharged from the security of his sheltering institution. The story begins: "and I woke up... and I had no clue what had happened or where I was," which alarm Hobbs re-uses with Mr Henry's more surreal bewildering in "New Orleans Blues"- he goes to sleep in Oxford but frequently wakes up in a New Orleans hotel.
At its best, Hobbs's prose reminds me of David Mitchell's capacious imagination and willingness to re-arrange the furniture in a psychological landscape. Hobbs sustains the underlying impulse shared by his characters, many of them physically or mentally isolated and often medicated, to escape their uneasy or nightmarish environments. "I immerse myself in routines which occupy my concentration, anything to stave off reality," blusters a Sisyphean figure in "Dead Ancients Trilogy". This effectively invokes the recitative of the cool blue train which Hobbs has crafted as the sort of mental rhythm that can be deployed to blot out mental anguish, from ennui to extreme terror.
The naïve narrator of "Waterproof" has practised routines to defuse panic attacks stemming from his nebulous "fear of the future (or for it)". This sense of looming distress permeated Hobbs's powerful début novel, The Short Day Dying, a compelling monologue which explored its apprentice churchman's distress at the decline of his own faith and the godlessness settling over the country. I Could Ride... is a worthy successor, exploring concerted attacks on mental equilibrium in an inventive range of surreal, sinister or distressing environments.
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