The afterwords of the Baccano! novels are always a delight. With what I now recognise as his trademark mix of self-deprecation and sincerity, Ryohgo Narita writes of his own books:
“It’s a pointless, dumb story… But it’s fun.” If [readers] said that, I think it would be the best compliment ever.
Which case, I have the best compliment ever to give these books. Apart from the “pointless” part, as I don’t think any story is pointless. But they sure are fun and dumb, with the madcap action, larger-than-life characters, and general ludicrousness continuing full bore into the third instalment in the light novel series. Instead of picking up where volume two left off, volume three—The Grand Punk Railroad: Express—loops back and covers the same events but from different perspectives. Whereas last time the reader was tugged along at breakneck pace following the stories of the criminal factions trying to take over the train, this time we sharpen our vision and sneak after the individuals who slipped through the cracks.
I, personally, liked this better—the sense of chaos is still prevalent, but the narrowed focus to singular characters rather than big groups lessened the headache that volume two left me with. There’s Czes, one of the original immortals, who is hundreds of years old and stuck in a child’s body; Rachel, a gofer working for an information broker who has snuck onto the train; the mysterious stranger so far only described as “the gray magician” who turns out to actually just be a doctor; and The Rail Tracer himself, otherwise known as the assassin Vino, otherwise known as some guy named Claire.
So he’s another charismatic murder machine with a warped worldview… and yet, a totally different kind of one to Ladd. Truly, the ensemble cast provides variety. It feels utterly weird to say I prefer one bloodthirsty killer over another, but here we are. While I prefer the sense of justice and reasoning (however oddball it may be) that drives Vino over the Pure Absolute Chaos that drives Ladd, I’m willing to admit that I admire the effort Narita’s put in to making a truly diverse platter of villainous personalities. In the standoff between the two, you’re left genuinely wondering who will win, since neither are within the safe clutches of any sort of “the good guys will succeed” rule, since they are both horrifically terrible. The traintop sparring match between Ladd and The Rail Tracer would have been the greatest scene in the novel, were it not for the very annoying fact that it completely took the thunder away from Chané and reduced her to a spectator and… love interest..?
More on that in a moment. First I have to talk about the actual greatest scene in the novel, which is a run-in between Vino and Rachel. Vino is the train’s conductor as a day job, you see, and Rachel is a ride-stealer as part of an ideological revenge plot against the corruption of the railway lines. Thus, the train-jumper and The Rail Tracer find themselves sharing space under the carriage when Rachel is hiding and Vino is in the process of brutally murdering a guy. They make eye contact for a moment; Rachel is uneasy but not ready to run just yet, and Vino makes an internal switch from “assassin mode” to “conductor mode”—and chooses that moment to ask to see her ticket. It’s that that makes Rachel scream and hightail out of there, not the fact that she saw a murderous cryptid. It’s such a wonderfully bizarre little moment, possibly the best use of tension in the book for that frightening few moments where the two characters lock eyes. Something as innocuous as “May I see your ticket?” breaking the silence and causing Rachel to flee is both menacing and hilarious in a way I haven’t really experienced before.
These books are a series of great little Moments peppered throughout a sea of general chaos. The prose style absolutely does not work for me, with its lack of description and sparse, matter-of-fact interior monologues (and the maddening way it switches without rhyme or reason to first person for certain characters), so what keeps me going is the interactions between the characters. And again, the strength of the ensemble cast is that it is so large and so varied that if one set infuriates you, you can rest assured you don’t have to spend too long with them before perspective switches to someone else.
It also, as I said above, gives you a great range of characters and some very strange and wonderful scenes where their clashing personalities bump into one another, whether that’s Czes’ immortal cynicism running headlong into the immortal optimism of Isaac and Miria, or brutal “unstoppable force meets immovable object” standoffs like that between Vino and Ladd. And Chané, in theory, but alas and alack, the hopes I had for her last volume weren’t really answered. Even when she’s given internal monologue, it’s so sparse and minimalist that she doesn’t really seem to have a voice—and hey, we have media like The Shape of Water out there to prove that just because a character physically cannot speak, doesn’t mean they can’t have a narrative voice. She’s essentially sidelined and sapped of her power, and ends the book as a romantic interest for Vino (albeit in the most eccentric, Baccano!-esque way possible).
It pains me to say it, but this series does That Thing where it peppers badass and potentially interesting women throughout its cast, but ties their motivations to (often more prominent) male characters, be they lovers, fathers, or employers, and has all their interactions be with these male characters rather than with the other women. You have sweet standout moments like Miria’s friendship with Ennis, but it’s merely a passing detail that fades quickly into the background. While I admire the diverse range of personalities and ideologies in the ensemble, unfortunately it also remains true that said diverse ensemble is an ocean of dudes (this is not something that really bothered me when I first watched the anime, but it’s something I’m hyper-aware of and exhausted with nowadays).
What can I say? I have my problems with the content and the writing style doesn’t click with me in the slightest (though it sheds new light on why light novels are often picked for anime adaptation; in many ways the prose style is closer to a screenplay than to a novel), but it’s fun, it’s dumb, and it was good to be along for the ride. And whether man or monster, The Rail Tracer makes for one hell of a ghost story. I’m glad I was reading this on my sofa and not on a train commute…