When Oliver Mol’s zeitgeisty volume of auto-fiction, Lion Attack!, was released in 2015, he was hailed as one of Australian literature’s bright young things. But in its aftermath he was left with a 10-month migraine that trapped the author in a state of “catatonic panic”.
The pain was so unrelenting, so monstrous, that Mol could no longer read or write. Screens were agony; even texting a friend was excruciating. His new memoir dele, Train Lord, tells the tale of those 10 life-shaking months and their reverberations. “I felt like if I didn’t tell this story, it would rot inside me,” Mol explains over a late-night Skype call. “Like something inside me would die.”
I have been dogged by chronic migraines for 30 years, and it’s an almighty myth that the body forgets pain. Remembering is half the torment, the anticipatory terror. I think about how it feels to be mired in the long middle of an attack, those cruel hours when I ache for oblivion. The boredom of it. The fury. To be stuck in that hell-space indefinitely would be a slow-motion death of the soul. “Two things happened,” Mol writes of his ordeal. “I became a writer who no longer wrote, and a person who could no longer communicate with the modern world. In literature, and life, I began to disappear.”
Train Lord is not a tale of recovery – of pain vanquished and a self triumphantly restored – but a story of tentative repair. The self remade. As Mol emerged from his migraine, alienated from his vocation and his body, he took a job as a train guard. “I had never met a more diverse group of people in my life,” he tells me, “all different nationalities, all different professions. There were doctors, pilots, taxi drivers, fast food attendants. There were people as young as 18 who’d just come out of high school and hoped they could make a buck. And there were people as old as 84. We all came to it for our own reasons.” On his first shift, there was a suicide. The railway, Mol learned, was a place of reckoning as well as refuge. He found both.
It was on the trains that Mol made his way back, ever so slowly, to storytelling. First he started slipping jokes into his passenger announcements (“Next stop is Como, I’d say, named after the Holden Commo-dore”); then he used the two-to three-minute gaps between stations to sketch out fragments on the back of train timetables – just a sentence or two. Those fragments became short monologues that Mol performed in the attic bedroom of his share-house for friends; then a one-man show at the Adelaide fringe festival. Now there’s Train Lord: a memoir in essays. A fragmented whole.
When Mol talks about his book – his hard-won, beautiful book – the analogy he uses isn’t locomotive but planetary. “I kind of imagined that the migraine was like a sun and that each one of my chapters would be a planet, and the planets would all be at different distances and offer different reflections. They’d each reflect back a kind of a truth.” The analogy that occurs to me is bodily – that Train Lord mimics how it feels to be in pain: loops and whorls of thought, ruminations and recursions. The heightened attentiveness and affect of a mind on fire.
With Train Lord, Mol joins a growing fraternity of Aussie writers – including Lech Blaine, Michael Winkler and Michael Mohammed Ahmad – who are rattling the well-soldered cultural cage of manhood. “I would be lying if I said that it was my intention to write about masculinity,” Mol admits. “I just wasn’t. I was trying to understand myself. But, as you work through that, other people’s stories start to become intermingled with yours, and it becomes very apparent very quickly that there’s something abjectly terrible happening.”
He tells me about the men who’d come to see his one-man show – these grizzled old blokes in their 50s and 60s – and how they’d wait for him afterwards so they could quietly share stories they’d never felt they could tell anyone else. And of his own father, and how it took the mighty wrench of the migraine – the forced vulnerability of it – for them to find a language through which to communicate.
As Mol wrote Train Lord he was haunted by an image: “I felt like there was a tiny Oliver, who was not exactly me (but was more or less me), who existed in a storytelling world. I knew that if I wasn’t able to produce this book, then he would be trapped in there forever. And if I abandoned him again, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.”
The memoir is as much about the art, craft and alchemy of storytelling as it is about healing. Or perhaps, his book by him suggests, they’re one and the same thing. “I truly believe,” he tells me, earnestly, “that the stories we tell ourselves are the stories that become true.”
And so he and I swap stories in the dark. We talk about Mol’s literary heroes and mentors – Roberto Bolaño, Alejandro Zambra, Scott McClanahan, Amanda Lohrey – and the wild necessity of hope (“My book wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t a book of hope”). We talk about the fine line that exists between romanticising, patronizing and honoring working-class Australia, and the democratizing linearity of train travel. We talk about the cringing shame Mol feels about his first book by him (“I was extremely young and terribly ambitious”), and the humility he feels about his second by him. And we talk about love.
“This is a love story,” Mol writes in Train Lord. “I fell in love with writing, and then I stopped. I’m trying to figure out if I can fall in love again.”
I ask him if he’s figured it out. If he has been able to move beyond the purgative urgency he felt writing Train Lord to something kinder.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Absolutely.”