Archive for the ‘Joanna Walsh’ Category

Break.up

June 3, 2018

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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Vertigo

October 31, 2015

vertigo

The stories in Joanna Walsh’s new collection Vertigo often give the impression of being borrowed from her own life. This is not only because of the ordinary moments they describe, but because Walsh avoids the troublesome details which would create the impression of multiplicity. Anonymity is the order of the day: each story is voiced by a nameless narrator who refers to those she knows by relationship (daughter, husband) or pronoun, and has a tendency to generic groupings when describing strangers. This is not a criticism; quite the reverse – it is this ‘voice’ which carves into the everyday and elicits deeper truths with its observations.

Take, for example, this description of a visit to a tourist attraction from the title story, one of a number which takes place when the narrator is on holiday:

“At the ruin, the light-coloured people do different things from the dark-coloured people. The light-coloured people sit in the debris of the ruin. They look, from there, at other buildings in the ruin. I cannot tell whether they are happy or not…
“The dark-coloured people sit on plastic picnic chairs between the ruin and the hut. They do not enter the ruin; they do not look at the ruin. They work there.”

From the vague and disparaging “ruin” onwards, the narrative voice draws back from the narrator’s experience as a tourist to pinpoint the slightly unreal atmosphere of tourism, an in-between existence that is partly our life and partly another. It is this ‘step back’ approach, likened here to vertigo, which reoccurs throughout the book. The satiric intent and the sense of alienation is echoed using the same approach in ‘New Year’s Day’:

“Everyone at the party was so lovely. Everyone was so happy. Everyone’s websites were now in colour with hand-drawn lettering. Everyone didn’t see why they shouldn’t like – shoes! Everyone had taken pictures of themselves or had pictures of themselves taken in thrift-store clothing.”

This distancing from others is a common thread throughout the stories, but one that enhances rather than inhibits Walsh’s exploration of relationships. In ‘Vagues’ she waits with a man (not her husband, it is revealed) she is considering sleeping with; much of her impression of his character is displayed using a simple typographical trick:

“He says,
‘They do not have enough staff.’

“He says,
‘They have too many tables.’”

Even better are stories that focus on the narrator’s relationship with her children (‘Vertigo’, ‘The Children’s Ward’) and her parents (‘Claustrophobia’). In ‘The Children’s Ward’ she is waiting on news of her son; her helplessness is revealed as she imagines a scenario in which an intruder enters her home:

“When this person leaves my kitchen and arrives, armed with my fantasies, at the very door of my room, which of my children would I save first: the venerable youngest or the one able to run?”

In ‘Claustrophobia’ the narrator remembers her relationship with her mother using a structure which counts down towards her death (Minus 5 Years, Minus 4 Years) though not in order. Her father’s death comes first, the comic imagery of his coffin suggesting family gatherings over the years:

“But here’s my father wheeled in on some kind of catering trolley! He is in a box surrounded by something piped, perhaps cream, or duchesse potatoes, though it could be carnations.”

It seems appropriate that the narrator’s relationship with her mother is later described using a cake:

“There’s no bottom to it. I’m digging through the kind of soil that supports rhododendrons: it’s that dark.”

There’s a beautiful balance in Walsh’s writing: it’s not showy but has a quiet style; it often raises a smile but one accompanied by melancholy eyes; it’s built from the quotidian material of unremarkable life, but insists we pause and look a little closer. I was tempted to quote the wonderful final paragraph from the final story, ‘Drowning’, but instead I would suggest you read it as intended, as the last words in this eloquent volume.