Review: Adam Rivetton Joanna Walsh

Paradoxes, Postcards and Porn: Vertigo, Hotel & Grow a Pair by Joanna Walsh

In the scattered and incoherent set of margin notes that constitutes a critic’s initial response to a text, a certain word can appear often enough to force a method of interpretation. The first ‘paradox’ I scribbled on Joanna Walsh’s short story collection Vertigo appeared on its second page. A second note – this time modified to ‘paradox (again)’ – appeared soon after, in the margins of the second story. Numerous others followed. By the time I’d moved on to the second of three books published by Walsh in 2015, Hotel, I was merely gathering evidence in a case already decided, happy to have in my possession the kind of guiding concept that can provide the uncertain critic with an opening paragraph to their book review.

Yet paradox was, paradoxically, not always quite the right word. At times what occurred was simple contradiction; at another, a kind of ironized doubling; at another point, perhaps a simple negation. There was finally no single clear term for the reversals and revolutions Walsh delights in: what she seeks is the undoing of certainty, the instigation of instability. In her world nothing holds, and often nothing was really there to begin with. Consider the opening to her story ‘The Big Black Snake’:

We saw it under the road, in a ditch beneath the road that stretched under the road from one side to the other. The road was not really a road; it was more of a path. The path was so narrow that it was more of a bridge. The ditch under the bridge was so shallow that perhaps it was only a hollow. The snake was in the hollow, thick and black as a bicycle tire. We could not see its beginning, we could not see its end.

Who’s seeing what now? As a reader you barely start before you’re stopping, qualifying, clarifying. But these clarifications only bring more confusion. We know they’re not final but rather stopgap measures on the way to further confusion. And it ends at some midpoint: a still unresolved, all hesitant middle. What happened? Can you describe it? What’s the right word? How many were you? The story exists only to reach a kind of détente about its own existence. Work such as this emphasizes its own fictionality, not with games and winks, a no-stakes experience, but with a genuine sense of danger and chance, like a house being restumped with people still inside.

A snake with no visible beginning or end is an apt description of Walsh’s approach in many of these stories: Vertigo is a slim but deadly volume. Many of the narratives operate in compressed timeframes without comforting introductions or satisfying resolutions. All that’s offered is an afternoon, an angle, a mood. Some of the collection’s best moments, like ‘Relativity’ and ‘Young Mothers’, come and go in two or three pages, but what defines all of them is loss, terror, uncertainty. There is always at each story’s centre an isolated figure unable to see themselves anywhere for long, and who thus occupies a position that’s almost nowhere. This is the vertigo the stories dramatise: a kind of bodiless wandering, a mind unable to make a choice or occupy a clear position. ‘Always you wish to be in two places at the same time, always you want to be connected’ – (from ‘Half the World Over’, a compelling look at a writer on tour, and the collection’s funniest story). The figures here aren’t casually stalled by their wandering minds before being hurried back into dramatic action for the sake of frantic comedy. This is consciousness that’s come to a dead stop and begun to fracture, to see its choices fractally. Again, from ‘Half the World Over’:

I came to this café because it is not the café across the street. This is not the café I would normally come to. The café across the street is better but there are advantages here. From this café I can see the beautiful people in the café across the street: sitting at that café, I could only be among them.

The nameless women in the collection appear as tourists, shoppers, lovers, wives, mothers. What binds and distinguishes the strongest stories is voice – not the simple repetitions and callbacks of perspectival certainty and vocabulary (Vertigo has been called, by many critics, a story cycle) but a far more mysterious, unsettling bond. They are connected by their fragility, by a shared suffering. Walsh often presents an apparently knowable narrator in a roughly lucid first person voice, then works to estrange and distance the reader as the story progresses. The more overtly experimental stories in the collection, such as ‘Claustrophobia’ and ‘The Children’s Ward’, toy with perspective and time and by comparison, they are among the least effective. Nonetheless, they too yield lines and paragraphs of great beauty and curiosity:

My mother says, ‘We can have dinner for lunch, or dinner for dinner. What would you like?’ If I eat dinner now, I won’t have to eat it later. (‘Claustrophobia’)

Paradoxes can, of course, be a dead end – the elegant distractions of sophists who long ago lost the path to real thought. Yet with Walsh, they serve a vision – these aren’t merely inward spirals passing time, but scenes from a world that long ago stopped making sense.

From the first story, ‘Fin De Collection’, a quietly devastating portrait of depressed window shopping, Walsh’s mode is one of refusal and separateness.  Three assertions from the story tells a reader just how comfortable in their skin the standard Walsh narrator is: ‘I am not the right teller’; ‘I do not look like these women’; ‘I am too old’. And from a later story, ‘And After…’: ‘Let me be single: no children, no family. Let me not fit in.’ Whether subtly rejected or ruling herself out in advance, the loneliness and pain in these voices is undeniable.

Walsh insists upon the human here, again and again – and the human in this world is a nervous body and an uncertain brain. What saves Walsh from morbidity or self-pity is, at almost every turn, a wryness or dark humour. From ‘New Year’s Day’: ‘Everyone at the party was so lovely. Everyone was so happy. Everyone’s websites were now in color with hand-drawn lettering.’ The bonds between mother and daughter are frayed not by kitchen sink drama but by sustained casual disappointment. ‘I’d always hoped to end up in one of these places where no-one has ever been old’ ponders the narrator of ‘Relativity’, who at 45 continues to embarrass her mother by taking the bus to see her.

The presence of men in the book is equally intriguing and opaque. Put simply, they’re not there. Sure, there’s the odd husband or ex-lover, but they’re invariably distant sketches who never gain flesh. Yet there’s no casual triumph or power granted to the female narrators in these power struggles, or even an implied dismissal in Walsh’s portraiture. As the collection’s title hints, there’s a Hitchcockian impulse at play. If Hitchcock’s Vertigo was haunted by women, yet absent of any true female characters beyond male projections, Walsh’s women are similarly alone, and sometimes marked or haunted by their past relationships. As Hitchcock knew, ghosts leave their mark upon the bereaved.

‘In another country my husband may be sleeping with another woman’. This line, from ‘Vagues’, makes the divide clear enough – geographical, sexual. Yet these gulfs in understanding just as often in Walsh’s work occur between two people sharing a kitchen or lounge room. In ‘Online’, what at first seems a familiar and almost hackneyed premise – the breakdown of a marriage over an infidelity conducted via the internet – is quickly reimagined into something far more subtle and less comforting. Walsh presents lives that have reached a place where the standard power dynamics no longer operate, and where the easy expectations of gender and marriage – the very essence of trust and promised virtue – no longer applies.

There’s one last paradox that haunts the book, or perhaps merely this reader.

Shall I tell you what it is like to drown?

So opens the collection’s final story, ‘Drowning’.

Once, many years ago as an undergraduate, I sat in a small room and listened to Helen Garner read and field a few questions. The questions, from memory all loud and impertinent, are in their specifics lost to me now. One answer from Garner I do remember, though. Discussing Monkey Grip, she dismissed the idea that she’d invented much, as novelists were usually presumed to do. The distance between invention and transcription now seemed irrelevant to her.

The book, she admitted, was essentially a diary transformed. If that admission was once controversial, this is a much more familiar argument today. We live in an age of non-fiction. Fiction, sensing itself a swimmer lapped, struggles to keep up. Awash in confession, perhaps something approximating a greater intimacy is required to knock fiction from its occasionally limiting form. Think of ‘Drowning’ as a diary transformed.

Obviously Joanna Walsh hasn’t drowned. Might’ve come close, to the knowledge of no-one but her closest loved ones, but what the reader of Vertigo senses in this story, having already gained a curious proximity to the nameless but echoing chorus of women across the book, is a now terrifying intimacy, something impossible to escape. The narrator of ‘Drowning’ forgoes a name. Let’s call her, for now, Joanna Walsh, and do it without embarrassment or fear of being considered naïve or gauche. This Joanna Walsh convincingly describes the last breath, the long distance from the shore. The paradoxes and inversions of the earlier tales fall away. Instead, a voice speaks with something approaching clarity and terror-laced immediacy, as if all the other stories were a warm-up, a test, a sleight of hand, to prepare the reader for the gun’s single straight shot. Not the inattentive husband; not the playing children; not the distracted and whooping tourists in speedboats who pass but don’t pass close enough; nothing arrives to save her.

In Vertigo, one marvels at times not at the craft nor the prose nor even the book’s intellection – though all are present in quantities rare for the often feverishly anti-intellectual bent of much contemporary fiction – but the voice. Voice. Something that unnerves. Something – a presence – that if too much time is granted it will only unsettles us further. It’s this. It’s Walsh. We can make that jump. What permits us to do this? A leap across texts. A move to Hotel.

Hold Vertigo and Hotel back cover to front cover, side by side, as if tucked away on a bookshelf and pressed tight by the pressure of a stacked row surrounding them. For a moment they are a single book. Think of the opening chapter of Hotel as Vertigo’s final story, now added in a reprint. It’s called ‘Hotel Haunting’, and it meshes perfectly with the stories that come before it. The voice, the melancholy, the misdirection: it’s all there. It opens like this:

There was a time in my life when I lived in hotels.

Around this time, the time I did not spend in hotels was time I did not live.

Hotel, Walsh’s second book of 2015, is part of a new series from Bloomsbury. Each is a book-length study on single objects from the everyday and concrete (remote control, golf ball) to the overwhelming and abstract (silence, waste). Walsh’s book sits somewhere in the middle of these approaches, in both concept and execution. There are failing marriages and Freud; Heidegger and Harpo Marx; a little interior design, a little overheard lobby bookchat, and some significant emotional baggage. This is the kind of book people love to claim mixes high and low, the personal and the academic, and for the most part those people are right. It’s the consistency that’s in question.

Hotel’s opening chapter is its best, and most personal. It feels like something you want to endlessly quote: sharp, knowing, casually erudite.

Is a hotel a language system? It’s a system of some kind: a series of set elements in different combinations. All hotels invite decoding and every hotel is a ‘concept hotel’. I love to read about hotels I have never seen or stayed in, hotels that once stood for something to a reader at one remove in place or time. Joan Didion’s hotel writing induces the ecstatic vertigo of an entirely self-referential lexicon. Hotel Barbizon, fictionalized by Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar as Hotel Amazon, is a double signifier for which I have no referent. Names to conjure with! Who cares if these hotels exist and, if they do, whether I will ever exist? The glamour of the entirely unknown is the ultimate in name-dropping.

It’s the Vertigo voice: curious abstraction – but put to analytic use (‘Who cares if these hotels exist and, if they do, whether I will ever exist?’). The use of the first person is not an invitation to a false intimacy. No, Walsh insists on distance: an acceptance of both falsity and truth, simulation and reality. Which is to say: it’s a theory book, of a kind.

For the first twenty or so pages of Hotel, Walsh remains a brilliant and individual writer. But once ‘Hotel Haunting’ ends, we enter a different book, and a long section catch-all section: ‘Fragments From A Hysterical Suitcase’. Chapter Two, ‘Hotel Freud’, introduces us to a new world entirely, one grounded in regular allusions to Freud’s infamous Dora case study, here laid out as a stage play (a cast of characters opens each new chapter) and used as a repeated parallel to Walsh’s marital woes and other traumas. For the rest of the book, her own writing, often a few standalone lines or paragraphs, will be regularly interrupted with a quote from Freud, or Heidegger, or Raoul Vaneigem. At times, the book feels like a brilliant essay padding itself out to a pre-determined page count.. (How many poems did Ponge write about soap anyway?) Even the quotes Walsh chooses keep curious company with her elegant prose. Take for example this quote from Foucault (from a much longer quote given in full in the text) which opens Chapter Five:

a local pleasure is merely the ideal juxtaposition of its historical elements (delicious, luxurious, soft, thick) without their network of reciprocal determinations or their temporal intersection being involved

This is relatively benign by Foucault’s standards, but still ungainly by Walsh’s. Why are such harsh juxtapositions forced upon the book? This is the curse of homage and respect – the discordant prose of the endlessly quoting writer.

Amongst Walsh’s other methods of digression is that academic favourite, linguistic derivation. In small measures this works perfectly well (‘Anguish comes from the Latin angustia, “tensity, tightness” and angor, “choking, clogging” and from the ancient Greek ankho “strangle”’) but there are other moments that feel thematically consistent but overburdened. At one point, for example, an entire page is given over to roots of the word ‘dwell’ (random sample: Old High German twellen ‘to hinder, delay; Danish dvale ‘trance, stupor’) in pursuit of a point that recedes slowly from view.

To Walsh’s credit, there’s often a comic self-awareness that some of these digressions and intellectual wormholes aren’t particularly fruitful, and that she’s operating in a world without much time for it anyway. There’s also a very real pain, felt by any writer, when she reflects upon how little protection the heart is offered by the mind’s work:

I am trying to wind back time to find a moment we had a home we could dwell in but – dwell, sojourn – these are old-fashioned words. Who uses them anymore? I google Xenia but get photos of bikini’d models. Even on, she’s a pretty student, not a concept. Perhaps I expected too much of home.

The last line returns the book to a note it sounds fleetingly. At Hotel’s heart is real pain: the end of a marriage. Walsh’s private life is teased, but not revealed. Whether this half-confession works is questionable (and no-one wants to be the yahoo yelling for more disclosure and less Sigmund) but the book’s intellectual tangents often feel like movements away from what might make it truly interesting. In one sense it’s a curious book to consider – it often provides its own notes, endlessly circling around its borrowings. A critic in turn circling Hotel and seeking to further annotate its annotations might check in for the night and get some sleep.

Still, there is power and an affecting gravitas in what Walsh does detail. The actual operates in the book as lonely gesture, deprived of the clammy self-revelation that a lesser writer might emphasise in a desperate bid to hold the reader’s attention. Instead, we sift the fragments through other fragments: as sharp as her riffs on Freud and Heidegger are (and she’s calmly mocking and irreverent at times too, which helps) what a reader truly returns to is a more open, personal writing:

I have lived in relation to desires, often other people’s. It is easy to slot desire in. There is a hole in my side into which someone else’s desires fit. It’s only a matter of finding the right key, a key to the code, which is made of words. I must not want the key always to be a man.

As in Vertigo, Walsh deftly deploys paradox to summarize the series of endless binds she finds herself negotiating:

I don’t like the way everything is at home here, the unhomely inside the homely. Home contains everything after all, even its opposite, Hotel.

There is, of course, a limit to this kind of writing – saying something and having it mean both things (and sometimes nothing) simultaneously can be a little tiresome, and there are times when Walsh’s endless reversals seem like a tic that fails to generate meaning (‘The switchboard is the link between the hotel and the not-hotel. But it is also the barrier.’) Effects perfectly mobilized in the fiction here sometimes bring an idea out of focus, instead of sharpening it. Still, these are perhaps overly harsh criticisms of a writer who can on any given page – as she does here on Mae West – bring any given topic to life:

Her jokes all sound like something you’ve heard before, something she’s told six nights a week and twice on Saturdays. They sound like an acknowledgement of a joke, a repetition, an imitation. And that’s what makes her wonderful. If her jokes had been funny, West would have been lame.

If every riff and loose idea in Hotel had tied neatly together, perhaps it would have proved too orderly for a book with such a broken heart. Defiantly, in Hotel Walsh decides not to gather herself, and comes to no great conclusion or statement. It’s a formal victory, an accurate rendering of a scattered emotional state, but a readerly disappointment all the same. Such is the fate of form mirroring content; unless you’re a Nabokov, a hotel is not a home. What Hotel rejects is what paradox resists: finality.

Plot is good in books but bad in life. Plot is like angst: the fear that something bad is about to happen – is already happening. Why not go backward? There is no plot in a hotel so nothing very bad can happen here. […] I am struggling toward ending. I have left you but the ending is still not arriving. Endings do not arrive in hotels.

Instead of that ending we get, mirroring Godard’s Les Carabiniers, transmissions from a temporary home: a series of postcards. Godard’s soldiers mocked their own smallness, and the meaningless parade of their tour of duty, by returning the knowable world in cardboard rectangles: Travel! Industry! Culture! Walsh’s postcards, instead, send news home from nowhere special, affect now undone: ‘The skirting board was chipped. The bathwater wouldn’t run warm. I am tired of hotels now.’

What Hotel barely touches on is the one thing those rented rooms are often solely used for: sex. There’s too much loss in the book, too much absence, to do anything but gesture towards the deed. In this unclaimed erotic space sits Walsh’s third book of 2015, Grow A Pair, a short collection of erotic fiction published by Berlin-based micro-press Readux Books. It’s the porno that plays in the hotel room as time edges closer to midnight and loneliness sours what’s left of the day. The title suggests a throwaway lark, and for a while, there’s fun to be had. Inevitably, though, nausea and sadness work their way into the room.

Walsh regularly toys with two conflicting states – release and anxiety, joy and misery – within the space of a single story. For example, the collection’s opener, ‘The Girl and the Penis-Bush’, fuses two rarely communicative strains of writing: blue collar minimalism with the sexually phantasmagoric. Treating both transexuality and marital discord in a playful fashion, Walsh takes that most familiar of short story endings – the Carveresque meaning-laden moment left unresolved – and overhauls it wholly, renovating clichés and genre.

Walsh doesn’t lean as heavily on paradox and distance here. Her tone and approach is likely to change from piece to piece as the story demands it, from the declarative simplicity of fairy tale prose to the oily promise of spam e-mail. What begins in the book as comic and amusing – the second story, titled ‘The Three Big Dicks’, features, among its memorable sentences, ‘The three dicks lived together in a little wooden house, and they were always looking for pussy’ –descends into the cruel and modern.

The book’s often frivolous tone disarms, all the better to quietly seed its morality and pessimism away from view. This doesn’t equate to moralism or judgment per se – this is a game, but, crucially, a game with consequences. People get what they want – or, more crucially, what they think they want – but also often pay with their lives. The ‘World’s Greatest Lover’ is, of course, a murderer. Polyamorous fuckfests abound, but no-one seems very happy. By the book’s end we seem in full retreat from the fabled forest, and renouncing earlier adventures of style and approach :

And after the orgy was over, some people went home happy and other caught diseases, some of which killed them, and still others were thrown out by their parents because, you know, life isn’t a fairy tale.

Pornography promises – that’s all it does, that’s all it ever can do. For all its transformative claims, it’s at best momentarily diverting. Location is, of course, crucial. As Clive James put it in Cultural Amnesia, ‘If the effect of watching pornography is to leave a man who is alone in a hotel room feeling even lonelier, he can expect to feel as lonely as The Man In The Iron Mask.’

The masks donned or imposed in Grow A Pair aren’t of Dumas duration. Like a hotel room, they can be used and left behind without leaving much of a mark. But in the adoption of certain ruses and modes, it perhaps points the way forward for Walsh. It’s a modern book in its attitude and occasional nihilism, but also built (no matter what Walsh might have claimed earlier) from the usable remains of the fairytale, full of escape hatches and fantastical resolutions. In the collection’s epilogue, ‘Afterword:…Into Fox’, we revisit a woman we’d last seen being tossed off a cliff, now mid-fall and in a crucial moment of transformation:

About three quarters of the way down, her body split and she became a large number of small, furry creatures, each no bigger than a teacup that, because of their inferior weight, did not reach a high enough terminal velocity to smash into the beach, but, when they landed, picked themselves up, shook the sand and pebbles out of their coats, and trotted off in a hundred different directions.

Consider Walsh the Fox, now testing out the validity of all those alternate paths. Standard critical procedure would be to treat a book like this – short, imbued with the spirit of the throwaway – as a minor affair. In a year where it stood alone, perhaps. But following Vertigo and Hotel, perhaps not. In its masks and borrowed cocks, its Simple Hans and frenzied hands, there’s an invention here – fizzing, liberated – that traces a path back home (once lost at sea, now on foot via a detour to the Penis-Bush). This short book contains the only useful message a good writer and engaged reader need to hear: there are more stories to come.