Break.up

Joanna Walsh’s short story collections, Vertigo and Worlds from the Word’s End, demonstrated a writer whose use of language delighted in its inventiveness and wit while always seeming at the service of seeing life more clearly. Her first novel, Break.up, exhibits similarly vibrant wordplay and determined truth-seeking, only bigger – though not necessarily better.

Break.up is a love story which begins, against type, at the end: “A love story only comes after the end of love,” Walsh tells us, “whether it ends one way, or the other…” The end itself is obscured – no angry recriminations, no walking out; this is an online love of text and chat and email:

“We were together in Real Life for hardly more days than a working week.”

The feelings involved are similarly undefined, indistinct:

“We never named our connection to each other – it wasn’t friendly, barely even erotic – but nor was it denied.”

What seems clear is that the narrator felt more strongly than the lover she addresses. This inequality is perhaps best demonstrated in a scene where he asks her to undress:

“You moved away, as far as you could to the corner of out little room, where you sat down on its only chair, and looked and, for a while, nothing happened.”

The undressing is not reciprocated, and is simply the most visual example of her lover’s sense of superiority and indifference.

To escape her heartbreak, the narrator travels – from London to Paris, Nice, Milan, Rome, Athens… – though she admits “you-not-being-here accompanies me wherever I go.” Much of the novel is travelogue, her observations as she moves from country to country, accompanied by photographs which are deliberately not tourist photographs (she shares her rules) and look a little like the camera has slipped upwards, as if taken while falling. Travelling is, perhaps, like being in love. “It’s better to travel than to arrive,” she says, and:

“Nowhere is so beautiful as when it’s left.”

Walsh’s writing style involves riffing on a particular phrase or image. For example her lover’s comment that he wasted time with her, leads to the conclusion that:

“I was happiest in these wastes of time; it was the wastes, not the destinations, that I remember.”

Another banal phrase, ‘How long is a piece of string?’, causes her to imagine time being ‘looped’ around the carriage of the tube train she is traveling in, “the spooling spew of an old cassette tape”, an image which Walsh pursues down the page (“If I rode all day, could I wear out the magnetic tape, overwrite you, score out the line?”) until we arrive at:

“Love is not a cassette tape.
Love is not analog, it’s digital.”

The sense that this is a digital affair is central to the novel, the cover suggesting that Break.up is as much about a loss of signal as the end of the relationship. (The full stop, literally breaking up the word, is a wonderful touch). At one point she writes:

“And your telepresence is fragmenting: when I type its first few letters into the menu bar, my computer no longer turns up your name like an unlucky card.”

Walsh also interrupts the text with quotations from books the narrator has taken with her on her journey. This certainly breaks up the flow of the novel, forcing the reader to make choices about what is read when, and suggesting that the thoughts and experiences of others, while relevant, cannot be seamlessly absorbed. What is more difficult to know is whether it is intended to satirise the intellectual milieu of the narrator, or to be taken at face value. In either case, the cleverness of this, and the cleverness of the prose in general, becomes wearing after a while: what is thrilling in the short form is exhausting over a longer space, like a three minute song stretched over hours. Tonally, the novel barely changes. “Sometimes I‘m bored with my own dreary story,” the narrator tells us; we understand.

Walsh is a wonderful writer, but any talent can also be a handicap. Not only does she seem compelled to make every page feel written, but she cannot keep writing out of it:

“Everything comes down to the words.”

Towards the end, the narrator will tell us, “All these words, and I still don’t know how to make art of love,” a confession which applies to the relationship as much as the novel. Every page is worth reading but, as a whole, it does not convince.

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8 Responses to “Break.up”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    Oh my. Your review confirms some anxieties I’ve had about this book. Not that I won’t necessarily read it but its priority on my wishlist is not as high as other titles.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    A very interesting review. For some reason, I couldn’t help but think of Dorthe Nors as I was reading your commentary on Joanna’s prose style (and its relative strengths and limitations). Maybe it’s because her work seems particularly suited to short fiction as opposed to longer forms?

    • 1streading Says:

      I enjoyed Nors’ (admittedly much shorter) novel. This sets out to be much more self-consciously intellectual but is instead rather dull. I think the shorter form seems to play to her strengths, though, which is probably true of Nors as well.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting. I like Walsh, but I like her as a short story writer (hardly surprising since that’s what she’s been to date). I hadn’t realised she had a novel out but I would have wondered how her style would adapt to the longer form and it sounds like perhaps so far it hasn’t yet quite done so.

  4. Caroline Says:

    Too bad. This doesnt seem to work. I’ve got her. Vertigo here and am looking forward to it but this might not be for me.

    • 1streading Says:

      I loved Vertigo – it had such a fresh voice. This shares some of what makes her short fiction great, but, lacking variety, I found it rather dull.

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