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Train Dreams
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2013 Book Discussions > Train Dreams - General Comments, Spoilers Allowed (June 2013)

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Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Anthony Doerr writes:

In an 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Twice Told Tales,” Edgar Allan Poe said that apart from poetry, the form most advantageous for the exertion of “highest genius” was the “short prose narrative,” whose length he defined as taking “from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal.” Novels, Poe argued, were objectionable because they required a reader to take breaks.

“Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal,” he wrote, “modify, annul or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book.” Because you have to stop reading novels every now and then — to shower, to eat, to check your Twitter feed — their power weakens.

Short stories and novellas on the other hand offer writers a chance to affect readers more deeply because a reader can be held in thrall for the entirety of the experience. They offer writers, in Poe’s phrasing, “the immense force derivable from totality.”


What makes this book so good? Is it its brevity?


message 2: by Julie (last edited Jun 01, 2013 07:01AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Julie (readerjules) | 196 comments I read this book and I have to admit that I struggled very much to stay awake. I felt like I was reading a bunch of random pieces of a random person's plain life and I didn't care.


Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments Train Dreams struck me as seeming like a character study, cut out from a larger novel. Something the writer might have written on the side to get a handle on this Robert Grainier character who walked on stage, did a few things, and walked off.


Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
@Julie: I think you have to be in the right mood to read this book. It seemed to me to be the literary equivalent of what in music would be called a "tone poem."


Julie (readerjules) | 196 comments I was wondering if I just wasn't in the mood at first. I read half, read another short book for a few days, and then read the other half. Didn't help.


Matthew | 154 comments The review quoted refers to the "unified experience" of reading the book. I didn't find it a unifying experience at all. He's an orphan. He's an old bachelor. He's a family man. He's a hermit. He's an attempted murderer. He takes an airplane ride. He meets an Indian who can't hold his liquor (stereotype!) He meets a wolf creature.

It may be a bunch of tones, but I don't see it adding up to a tone poem.


message 7: by Krystal (new) - added it

Krystal (KrystalAnn1216) | 10 comments In my opinion it seems to be a very layered read with a lot of parts to be analyzed to get the full meaning of the book. Which may explain why it seems to be a bunch of pieces put together as Julie put it. And in which I agree that it does come off as pieces of a lonely man's life put together and it makes it hard to keep my attention. I had to 're-read it to fully grasp some parts. In the end, had it been a longer read I probably would have struggled through it.


Terry Pearce I wanted to love the book. In the end, I liked it. I thought some of the themes around loss and reflection on one's own life were powerful. But for me the brevity didn't really help; in fact, it perhaps made the whole thing seem less substantial. The language seemed very much of the time the book was set; of writing of that time. It reminded me of Jack London. While that was impressive thematically, the language didn't inspire me as much as I wanted. I felt a beauty in what the sentences spoke to me about, but not so much in the sentences themselves.


Deirdre I think I'll be disagreeing with most people on this one. I'm finding the language quite inspiring. I think the author has an incredible ability to bring imagery to life on the page. I don't want to give examples in case I ruin it for anyone else, but the colours, harshness, simplicity and precariousness of life are so vivid to me. It's been a while since I've read a book where I felt I was in the very scenery the author is describing. I have to say my heart and soul leapt at some passages! I think it's a book very much about man's relationship with the world around him. There's a constant reminder of the brevity of life, the mortality of every living thing. There's a lot of mystery here and, for such a short book, a lot to think about.


message 10: by Casceil (last edited Jun 02, 2013 11:46AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
I find it hard to discuss this book in little pieces. Sophia, could we please have a thread for "whole book, spoilers allowed"? There are themes that run through the book that I would like to discuss, e.g. wolves, howling,trains (obviously) and train noises, and "tall tale" aspects.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Casceil wrote: "It seemed to me to be the literary equivalent of what in music would be called a "tone poem."

I agree. It benefits from being read again - and again, because every time you find something else...


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Julie wrote: "I was wondering if I just wasn't in the mood at first. I read half, read another short book for a few days, and then read the other half. Didn't help."

I can well imagine. Try reading it again - in one sitting (!)


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Deirdre wrote: "I'm finding the language quite inspiring... There's a constant reminder of the brevity of life, the mortality of every living thing"

I'm inspired by the language too. I consider it - and the story it tells - to be starkly beautiful.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Casceil wrote: "I find it hard to discuss this book in little pieces. Sophia, could we please have a thread for "whole book, spoilers allowed"? "

Of course; but I think it pays to linger over each chapter, as well. My feeling is that each chapter can almost - but not quite - stand alone.


message 15: by Julie (new) - rated it 1 star

Julie (readerjules) | 196 comments I am beginning to notice a pattern with group reads. Whenever people start talking about beautiful language, it's a book I did not like. I guess I am a plot and character person.


Tiffany I really appreciated the brevity of this novella. I am not generally a fan of Westerns or Historical books, but I enjoyed this one because of the aforementioned beautiful prose. That being said, had the book been significantly longer, the lovely language might not have balanced out the Western qualities in my mind.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Julie wrote: "I am beginning to notice a pattern with group reads. Whenever people start talking about beautiful language, it's a book I did not like. I guess I am a plot and character person."

But this surely has a plot and a character? Or is that you prefer more straightforward linear plots?


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Tiffany wrote: "I really appreciated the brevity of this novella. I am not generally a fan of Westerns or Historical books, but I enjoyed this one because of the aforementioned beautiful prose. "

I know just what you mean. What happens is almost - but not quite (!) - irrelevant, because the themes are universal. I can but echo Sean O'Hagan's thoughts.

"Johnson's [is a]rare gift for understated drama, and for evoking, through the detailed observation of small gestures, the kind of world Grainier inhabits, a world where death is so ever-present as to be an accepted fact of life."


message 19: by Julie (new) - rated it 1 star

Julie (readerjules) | 196 comments Like I said earlier, it seemed like a bunch of random snippets from this guy's life. Not what I would call a plot. It just didn't do anything for me.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I quite understand that it didn't do it for you.


Lacewing After several readings, I concluded that because Robert Grainier lived a small life, his story necessitated a small book. And yet the story looms large, as if especially deserving of the few bold strokes Denis Johnson presents us with.

I admire the heck out of this, even though on more than one reading I too had trouble staying awake. But I'd not be surprised to learn the author planned for such readings.


message 22: by Sophia (last edited Jun 11, 2013 06:32AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Do you think an ability to read a book in one sitting makes a difference to how we gauge it? (I'm assuming that most novels take a little more time!)


Daniel I'm mildly chuckling at the original question, because it took me two weeks to read this book. Not because it's difficult or uninteresting, but because my schedule has been so demanding lately that I've only been able to squeeze in short burts of reading.

For me, having "dreams" in the title was a good indicator of the content. Dreams aren't logical or linear. They flare vividly at certain points only to fade into an incoherent muttering. It's something that worked for me, although the appeal could never be universal.

Also, taken as a series of dream chapters, this worked quite well stretched over time. Perhaps I'll have the opportunity to read in again in one sitting before too long to see if that makes such a difference.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Oh, how insightful Daniel. Yes, this is about dreams... I see it now.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments So, no literary merit at all?


message 26: by Carl (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carl | 287 comments I'm not sure what the literary merit is with this book. Normally, I don't like this type of narrative, the simplicity of style, the intentional avoidance of depth, but in this case, the author pulled it off quite well.

I was engaged because I felt as though the main character did not understand the emotional and spiritual quality of the events in his life, but I was longing for appreciation of the emotions. It seemed as though it was a portrait of how life passes by very quickly, like dreams, and there are many things that we might miss if we don't explore it with a sense of spirituality.

I'm not sure why I liked it, but I did. 4 stars, not 5, but I liked it.


Terry Pearce I identify a lot with Daniel's comment. From the dream he had of the Chinaman, to the encounters with his daughter, to stumbling through the aftermath of the fire... parts of it bleed into each other in a very dreamlike way. That's probably the aspect of it that I most liked.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments What's the aspect you least liked?


Terry Pearce It's hard to say. I think maybe it's plainness combined with its brevity. I think maybe I feel that if something is so brief, I want to be more wowed by the actual language, by the prose. The spareness and sparseness of it would have been fine if I felt I got more story, perhaps, if it told more, felt like more of a journey. I'm not really explaining this very well... it's hard to put my finger on. I guess at the end I just felt a little 'is that it?'. I didn't dislike it, but I definitely wanted more from it.


Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Terry, I think you expressed it pretty well. I enjoyed reading the book while I was reading it, but it did seem somehow unsatisfying. At the end the wolves and the train noises seemed to coming together into something, but then it just . . . ended.


Daniel Terry wrote: "I think maybe I feel that if something is so brief, I want to be more wowed by the actual language, by the prose."

I think this explains it rather well.


Deirdre I'm really surprised that more readers weren't inspired by Johnson's use of language. Yes, it's sparse - but to me that's not necessarily a negative. I would go so far as to say that I found this book had many depths and a pared-back poetic style that I found quite startling. Johnson's writing seemed effortless to me, which usually means that there is not one throwaway phrase.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I enjoyed his use of language, too. Can you highlight one of the best sections in this book?


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Carl wrote: "I was engaged because I felt as though the main character did not understand the emotional and spiritual quality of the events in his life"

Indeed. He did seem naive and out of touch with his feelings - as if nothing more than a palimpsest. Did he ever rise up and take the initiative, or did he just passively sit back and absorb whatever fell into his lap? Do you think he was mentally defective, in some way? Was he ill?


message 35: by Carl (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carl | 287 comments I'm not sure, Sophia. My impression was that he was "normal," indicated somewhat by his survival. I wondered if it was more a cultural critique, especially of American men.


Deirdre Sophia wrote: "I enjoyed his use of language, too. Can you highlight one of the best sections in this book?"
There are many passages I really loved. I think his return to the valley after the fire - the stark comparison between the 'woundrous sky' and 'the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.'

There's also a short piece where he observes some cattle crossing the frozen Kootenai River: 'They moved onto the blank white surface and churned up a snowy fog that first lost them in itself, then took in all the world north of the riverbank, and finall rose high enough to hide the sun and sky.' That's just perfect!


Terry Pearce Deirdre, you pick out two passages that do stand out in my memory. Both of those are extremely good visually.


message 38: by Carl (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carl | 287 comments Here are a couple more:

"He liked the grand size of things in the woods, the feeling of being lost and far away, and the sense he had that with so many trees as wardens, no danger could find him."

"The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him."

"But often, thereafter, when Grainier heard the wolves at dusk, he laid his head back and howled for all he was worth, because it did him good. It flushed out something heavy that tended to collect in his heart, and after an evening’s program with his choir of British Columbian wolves he felt warm and buoyant."


message 39: by Lily (last edited Jun 17, 2013 09:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments I find it stunning that some readers feel the book lacked emotional insight into Granier. For me it was embedded in his actions, in the words, sometimes fiercely despicable p 5, "I've got the bastard, and I'm your man," then the haunting rethinking on the way home after detouring two miles to get Hood's root beer for Gladys: "Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere,..." p 7 till after the fire when his superstition leads him to ask, did I bring the loss of Gladys and Kate on myself by pursuing this man with whom I really had no trek?

Then there is the repetition/contrast of the words about Kate on p9: "In the dark he felt his daughter's eyes turned on him like a cornered brute's." Then, p103: "She lay there asleep with the life driven half out of her. He watched her a long time....What was it about her face that seemed so wolflike, so animal, even as she slept?..."

This part of the plot absolutely made my heart ache -- that this man, despite the love he had known, somehow didn't have the resources to reach out and pay the price loving again would have cost him. But,... when one considers his childhood.... Johnson made his character comprehensible and capable of eliciting empathy.

This is a story of both its time and place and of all times. Not an easy story. (And as a general rule, I'm not particularly fond of short stories, although recently I've been learning more and more about their potential.)


message 40: by Lily (last edited Jun 18, 2013 12:26PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments The author and character, although a very different one, with which I found myself contrasting this read is Jack Schaefer's Monte Walsh. One of the members of my f2f book club has a penchant for Western novels and she started our periodic reading of them with Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose . Although Stegner has been criticized for his handling of credits for this story, I have always considered it a good one to introduce us to the possibilities of the genre. A more recent one that was a selection for its First Look by Barnes and Noble: The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart.

At least several of them through the years have had the characteristic that emotions and feelings, while intense, are revealed far more by actions, or lack thereof, than by words. Such reticence about voicing emotions and feelings, while widely perceived as associated with certain types of men, can also be an ethnic predilection. (The book that made me particularly aware thereof is Ethnicity and Family Therapy with its sometimes startling insights on the possibilities and the limitations of stereotypes.)


message 41: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Was this book originally published here: The Paris Review Book of People with Problems?

http://books.google.com/books?id=BRVL...


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Lily wrote: "This is a story of both its time and place and of all times.

And it's more: the collapse of the rational world for a decent man.But, I notice that you - like me - only gave it four stars. So, what was missing, for you?


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Lily wrote: "Was this book originally published here: The Paris Review Book of People with Problems?

It was first published in The Paris Review in 2002. http://www.theparisreview.org/back-is...

Oh, am I tempted to subscribe to this publication!


Portia Sophia, I subscribe. Yet another source of guilty reading pleasure, IMHO, especially the interviews.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments So, you recommend it. Goodness, how much more money can I spend on literature? My poor bank account.


Portia I hear you. I'll wager everyone else in this group does, too ;-)


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Hahahahaha!


message 48: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Sophia wrote: "And it's more: the collapse of the rational world for a decent man. But, I notice that you - like me - only gave it four stars. So, what was missing, for you? ..."

I don't know that there was particularly anything missing. First, I give stars based on whether I "like" a book. There is more than one absolutely great book that has only one star among my ratings, sometimes because I strongly disagree with significant parts of its message (e.g., Paradise Lost). Second, I try to assign stars on sort of a bell shaped distribution, although few get only one star -- at that point, usually I'd have abandoned the book. Three stars rates a very acceptable book in my personal scheme. Only a handful, and ironically a fair handful of those are from my childhood, have been marked with five stars. Subjective in the extreme -- and not particularly for others to use to decide whether to read a book. (For the few I do on Amazon, the stars I'll assign may be very different.)


message 49: by Lacewing (last edited Jun 22, 2013 06:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lacewing Whew! Got my connection back; I was missing this group.

As I see it, the false promises, limitations and easy rationalizing of Reason are the dreams. I can even stretch an interpretation of the title to mean something like, dreams of training ourselves to be reasonable. Grainier is not so much innocent or ignorant as primitive, and the setting is very deliberately primeval. The most telling line for me, therefore, is from Kootenai Bob when he says "There's not a wolf alive that can't tame a man" (pg 54); this goes directly to the ending image. Also, I don't think Johnson killed him off with drink thoughtlessly, but because modern excess works symbolically. Whatever is stereotypical about it comes through because he's inhabiting the (mostly white, controlling, manifest destiny-related) mores of the time.

There's an effect studied by psychologists that reveals how easy it is for people to come to despise those they have harmed. There is research (esp by Antonio Damasio) showing that emotion is absolutely necessary for us to function rationally. And notice that because he tried to kill the Chinaman, Grainier feels he deserves to be cursed, and because the curse might hurt his family, he can't help but foresee his daughter cursing him in her turn. Another (allegedly) irrational bit is how he relates to dogs. Notice the deliberate parallel structuring of "dog-pup" and "man-child" (pg 9).

Overall, I think Johnson's working premise is that although logically cause precedes effect, emotionally and more truthfully, memory and meaning seem not to be attached very firmly to the clock by which we run our modern lives.

As to how it ends, well, I just happened to re-read Teach Yourself Post-Modernism in between re-readings of this book. That reading may have influenced a conclusion about the ending: some say the making of our lives into stories is not realistic, not rationally defensible. That it's only a dream we make of it all.

So. I think this book is wonderful, partly because I particularly crave primitive settings. DeLillo's Cosmopolis, though set in contemporary NYC, reaches me in the same way, by peeling away layers of civilization to remind me of what's underneath.


Lacewing No; wait. The title is meant to float over this long, narrative/epic prose poem to question our contemporary default ways of understanding ourselves.

It's probably stretching it to think that the author might be thinking of formal reasoning and the machinations of our current civilization as a "training wheels" stage. I'm not sure, but it's interesting to think about.


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