by Carlo Santos,

Train Man

The Novel

Train Man: the Novel
When a self-confessed geek saves a young woman from being harassed by a drunk on the commuter train, little does he know that he's about to turn his life around. He relates his story to the people he knows best—anonymous users on the 2ch online bulletin board—and mentions that she sent him a set of teacups as a thank-you gift. But they're not just any teacups—they're the high-priced Hermes brand, and anyone who can afford those means business! Suddenly "Train Man" finds himself courting "Miss Hermes" and stepping beyond the world he knows: picking out nice clothes, going on dates, eating fine food. With an entire online community cheering him on, can this perennial loser win the heart of a high-class woman?

Aside from going online and actually reading the logs, the Train Man novel is as close as you're going to get to experiencing the ups and downs of this modern-day romance. No cutesy-fancy cartoon character drawings, no TV and movie actors, just text and ASCII art and the giddy sensation of having stumbled upon—to use the parlance—an "epic thread." From a storytelling perspective, it may seem more of a romantic vignette than anything epic, but as a reflection of the Internet age, it says a lot about the people of that place and time. It does lose something in the translation from colloquial online Japanese to colloquial online English, and the deadness of paper can't match the real-time vibrancy of the Net, but the essence remains: a man who dared to change himself, and in doing so, also changed the lives of those around him.

Now, hearing about some up-to-the-minute online love story might trigger thoughts of a postmodern, avant-garde tale stretching the limits of technology and the imagination, but that's just not true. Behind the contemporary façade of Train Man is a surprisingly traditional story, one where the underdog guy proves himself worthy of the unattainable girl. Despite the modern twist, this is hardly a gripping or innovative plot, and even someone who's only heard of the premise can tell how it ends. What is fresh about the novel, however, is its format; seeing the story told through online messages creates a unique rhythm that can't be achieved through prose, and for those who spend most of their leisure time on the computer, this kind of reading may even be more natural than prose.

The novel's unique format also excels in one other field: bringing out the characters in depth. In the TV series, the film, and various manga versions, Train and Hermes are ultimately "other people"—the reader or viewer is watching another couple get together. But in this book, one can get into Train's head, understanding his personality as he pours out his heart through his posts. By the end, he's clearly not the same man he once was, and his growth follows a more flowing arc than in other retellings of the story. Seen from a first-person viewpoint, it's a true character transformation, not just a superficial geek makeover. Sure, he gets fashionable clothes and a haircut and all, but the most important part is seeing Train gain self-confidence and friendship.

The virtual support group in the story also shines in this format—who would have thought that hundreds of "Anonymous" characters could be so much fun, with their over-the-top expressions, military metaphors and wacky ASCII art? One particularly telling moment is when someone discovers the infamous Subservient Chicken website, and the banter ("Have you tried telling it to kill itself?") continues for a couple of pages before Train finally stops by. It's a cute snapshot of the random nature of Internet chatter, and one that works best in a text medium. This little episode, among many others, captures the bristling energy of people coming together in a virtual world—an energy that propels the book for 400 pages.

As an old-media representation of a new-media phenomenon, however, the novel still has its failings. Printed text can only go so far in capturing the feel of online interaction, despite 2ch being highly text-driven—you can't just click on a link in the story, for example, and the tactile sensation of scrolling down a thread is replaced by the more sedate act of page-turning. More importantly, the real-time effect is all but gone: there's no sense of "this is actually happening," because the events are now long past and crystallized on paper; instead it's more like "well, in hindsight, things that you hear on the Internet may or may not be true." Reading a novel doesn't have the immediacy of stumbling upon an epic thread on the Web, yet it's a closer approximation than a screenplay or comic that inevitably forces the story into third-person.

The other pitfall of this PC-to-paper conversion is the clunky translation: Japanese Internet users have a unique language, and English-speaking Internet users have a unique language, and rarely the twain shall meet. There are plenty of colloquialisms that don't have a direct dictionary correspondence, and that's understandable. But here's the killer: the translation is written in British English! For some reason, the translation was handled by Del Rey's UK branch, and then ported over. Just because it's in "English," however, doesn't mean it's the English understood by the reader market. With so much slang used in the story, there really should have been an American rewrite before being sold in the States. Instead, what we get is a jarring account of Japanese people typing in stilted (well, to an American) English with expressions like "car park," "ah yeah," "supa," and prices listed in pounds (£). Incidentally, did you know that "anorak" is the British word for "otaku"?

Despite this cross-cultural gaffe, and the inherent differences between a printed page and a computer screen, the Train Man novel is still a worthy interpretation of this modern folktale. While other retellings celebrate otaku culture or pure love or whatever it is you can put into visual format, this one celebrates personal triumph, using the written word to chart a young man's journey from self-deprecation to self-confidence. More than that, it also celebrates the Internet at its best, when people behind a screen forget about putdowns and flamewars for a second and reach out to help a stranger. So get ready to laugh and gasp and cheer along with Train and friends. Pretend you've got a mouse and keyboard, and it's almost like being there.

Overall : B-

+ A character-driven love story as engrossing and entertaining as any "epic thread" on the Internet.
On paper, and translated from another language, it loses the immediacy and spark of the original phenomenon.

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