Train Man is a love story set in Japan and told through threads on the chat forum 2-Channel. One day, a geek is riding the train when he notices a drunken old man harassing some women. In a rare display of courage, he steps in and defends the women. Not to say that he performs some heroic feat; he just tells the guy off rather than pretending that nothing is happening (which would be the more typical response). The old man tries to pick a fight, and at that point another passenger steps in to help. At the next station, the pervert is arrested and the women on the train thank him for defending them. One of them happens to be young and rather attractive; she was the person sitting next to him before the commotion started. The geek relates this story to his friends on 2-Channel, and is dubbed Train Man from here on out.
After the incident, the young woman who had been sitting next to Train Man sends him a thank you gift. It’s a pair of teacups made by Hermes, which is significant in that it is an upscale brand. The geeks on 2-Channel decide that it’s not just an ordinary thank you gift, and encourage Train Man to contact the woman, who they now refer to as Hermes or Lady Hermes. The rest of the story follows Train Man as he struggles through his own fear and inexperience in order to establish a relationship with Hermes.
The format of the book is interesting in that it is just a long series of posts by various anonymous users and Train Man himself, occasionally punctuated by commentary from Nakano Hitori, the person who compiled Train Man’s story into a thread. According to a note on the book cover, “Nakano Hitori” translates to “one of us”. Train Man is relating his interactions with Hermes to the others on the forum, and they’re responding with commentary and advice. This means that a considerable portion of what’s on the page isn’t actually advancing the narrative. Train Man gives a fairly detailed description of a small portion of one interaction with Hermes, and then you get maybe a page of reactions and recommendations from the anonymous readers of the thread. There are also chunks of the page taken up by ASCII art. If you compressed the book down to only Train Man’s entries, it would be a great deal shorter. It’s already a pretty fast read, though, so I’m not meaning to complain about the length.
The book cover would have you believe that this is a true story, and that what you read are actual posts “lifted directly from Japan’s 2-Channel chat forum”. I have some difficulty believing this. It reads like something written by a single person. The writing style is the same from post to post; all of the anonymous users sound the same. Maybe this is partly because it was translated into English from Japanese; I guess that if the translator weren’t careful, all of the posts could end up taking on one tone. But given that this is a major bestseller within Japan and has sparked all kinds of adaptations (movie, TV series, manga, etc.) I really doubt they would’ve hired a translator that careless for the English edition. Another thing that makes me suspicious is how well the comments are written. The anonymous comments are all on topic and flow nicely from one into the next. And Train Man recounts his episodes with Hermes very precisely. He sounds like an author, not a 20-something computer geek finally having his first experiences with a woman. Even if all of the posts were hand selected by Nakano Hitori and reordered in the most logical fashion, they wouldn’t fit together so well. So I’d have to assume that if this really came off of a chat forum, it must’ve been very heavily edited by the person who compiled it.
If we’re looking at it as a work of fiction, I wouldn’t say that it’s a great book. The story is beyond predictable, and there’s not much in the way of conflict or tension. You go into it not knowing for sure whether Train Man and Hermes will end up together, but their relationship progresses so smoothly that there is hardly any reason to think they might not. I liked Train Man as a character and I was rooting for him all the way. His anxieties were very easy to relate to. He’s several kinds of nerdy, he doesn’t have any experience with women, and he doesn’t have much confidence in himself. But for all that, it seemed to me that he did a little too well in his conversations and eventual dates with Hermes. By my standards (which may be somewhat low, I have to admit), he didn’t do anything cringe-worthy. And you’d think that a guy with as few social skills as he had would certainly make at least ONE significant gaffe. What’s more, Hermes seemed to be consistently sending positive signals, and her actions were pretty easy to interpret. There wasn’t much she said or did that made me doubt how she felt about Train Man. So the whole thing was rather anticlimactic. Of course, I may have been missing subtle signals that would’ve been more significant to a Japanese reader. Maybe Train Man was being all kinds of awkward and inappropriate, but in a way that wouldn’t come across to an American.
The pace of the book was fairly consistent, though I felt the end dragged on longer than necessary. By my reckoning, the story ends about 44 pages before the book does. Actually, it sounds pretty awful when I put it that way. I have to admit, as I got further into the book, I skimmed through the anonymous posts and only paid much attention to what Train Man said. After a while, the things the anonymous users say become fairly repetitive and don’t add much to the story. At the beginning they offer advice which does play a part in the actual plot, but once Train Man gets some momentum going, their comments become less and less relevant. There are plenty of entries that just amount to, “I wonder when Train Man will tell us what happens next! I’m so nervous!”. It gets old. However, the anonymous users occasionally said things that startled me or made me laugh, such as, “Shit man shit, I’m so jealous I’m gonna go masturbate to a chicken” (pp 145). There is some context behind that statement, but I think it’s more fun if I don’t explain it.
To summarize, Train Man probably isn’t an especially good book, but it was still reasonably enjoyable. Though it’s 403 pages, it’s an extremely fast read. If you’ve got high standards for your reading I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you’re a lonely geek still hoping to find love someday, it might be worth it.