Joanna Walsh handles the seismic events of life--a child in intensive care, a pregnancy morphing the body--with a sort of alien bluntness and mania for category that forces her language into bizarre, thrilling new shapes.
Joanna Walsh, Hotel, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
During the breakdown of an unhappy marriage, writer Joanna Walsh got a job as a hotel reviewer, and began to gravitate towards places designed as alternatives to home. Luxury, sex, power, anonymity, privacy…hotels are where our desires go on holiday, but also places where our desires are shaped by the hard realities of the marketplace. Part memoir and part meditation, this book visits a series of rooms, suites, hallways, and lobbies-the spaces and things that make up these modern sites of gathering and alienation, hotels.
Walsh's (Vertigo) tangled, evocative book, the latest in Bloombury's Object Lessons series, juxtaposes her present time writing hotel reviews against her former time in a collapsing marriage. "Home," as representative of her earlier marriage, is described as a cuckoo clock where "one is in when the other is out." In contrast, her current, roving time in hotels defines these places as being without time ("Endings do not arrive in hotels") or consequence ("Everyone goes on and on repeating just what they did before"). Walsh's "hotel" is depicted as an emotional waypoint between the unhappiness of her marriage and a future that's not clear yet. Much of the book is spent breaking down films and literature, including Grand Hotel and the Marx Brothers' Room Service, as well as Katherine Mansfield's In a German Pension and Freud's relationship with his patient Dora. Behind Walsh's penetrating, nearly clinical analysis, the reader senses a nervous, searching need to understand where she's been and where she's ended up. Walsh is less interested in the anecdotal (readers get little more than snatches of hotel and marriage description) and more interested in the representational (etymology of the word "dwell"; what does Grand Hotel's denouement mean, really?). Occasionally she gets ahead of her readers and goes too far into the weeds, but sometimes the writing and feeling behind it perfectly align—a fragment about looking through her husband's pockets is particularly memorable ("Whatever I found there, it never told me anything about you"). Walsh's strange, probing book is all the more affecting for eschewing easy resolution. - Publishers Weekly
In 1957 the French critic and semiotician Roland Barthes published Mythologies, a groundbreaking series of essays in which he analysed the popular culture of his day, from laundry detergent to the face of Greta Garbo, professional wrestling to the Citroën DS. This series of short books, “Object Lessons”, continues the tradition; subjects already covered include the remote control, driver’s licence, shipping container and drone, with more to come.
And so to writer, editor, illustrator and critic Joanna Walsh’s densely patterned, deeply personal contribution to the series, Hotel. During the collapse of her marriage she took a job as a hotel reviewer: “If I planned carefully, I could live in hotels for weeks at a time,” she tells us. As refracted in the fragments, insights and meditations that make up Hotel, it was a period of both literal and metaphorical dislocation and estrangement.
Walsh’s writing has intellectual rigour and bags of formal bravery — one thinks also of Rachel Cusk and Deborah Levy — and she uses the idea of the hotel as a jumping-off point for something unique, marshalling a cast of characters from Freud, his patient Dora and Martin Heidegger to Garbo and Groucho Marx for a series of skits, cameos and noises off. These throw light on her subject matter and create a hall-of-mirrors effect that’s both dazzling and aptly claustrophobic. Barthes is there in the semiotics and the word-games, which range from playfully illuminating and darkly humorous to occasionally overworked; what he would have made of the element of divorce memoir is anyone’s guess. Yet to discuss our modern mythmaking about the hotel — a sort of enhanced simulacrum of home, but at the same time, home’s opposite — would be impossible without considering what “home” means, and how better to do so than at the very point of its dissolution?
Home is an art . . . The art of most people is home,” she writes. “Because we both had other arts, it was difficult to pursue the art of home. For most people it is difficult to pursue two difficult things. Usually it is enough for one partner to pursue home. This is usually the woman. The other person, usually the man, can look on approvingly, seeing home is being made, though not by him. This is home work.” Yet in hotels none of this work is necessary, and Walsh finds herself freed from the labour of home-making — but to what end? Instead, she finds herself with other, more obscure duties and difficulties: those of being a guest. Her exploration of the real nature of the exchange that takes place in hotels is both funny and clear-sighted; its counterpart, embodied in the marital home, is troubling.
“I’m here to try on someone else’s version, not of my life, but of an ideal life, cut to my budget,” Walsh writes, on arriving at her first hotel. “Like the towelling robe in the bathroom, it feels good but it doesn’t really fit. Nevertheless I’ll put it on.” She wrestles with tipping, with what is and isn’t free, and what is allowed; she bleeds on the sheets in one hotel, then washes them and dries them with the hotel hairdryer. The question is how to be a good guest, how to discern, and supply, what is required; she finds herself putting on lipstick to go down for breakfast. “We must live up to our hotels. We’re on display; we’re what’s being sold,” she writes. “Hotels are for those who understand performance: ghosts, actors, women.”
Eventually she falls ill and returns home to recuperate. She finds it “a place where what was expected of me was less formalised, if more rigorous. There, if anyone gave me anything, something would be expected in exchange, though there was never any tariff fixed to the back of the bedroom door, along with instructions for escape.”
Hotel is a boldly intellectual work that repays careful reading. Its semiotic wordplay, circling prose and experimental form may prove a refined taste, but in its deft delineation of a complex modern phenomenon — and, perhaps, a modern malaise — it’s a great success. - Melissa Harrison
I recently encountered a new nonfiction term: “the constructed I.” A quick consideration of any classic nonfiction text — one by Joan Didion, say — yields that the “I” in essays, journalism and memoirs is usually a partial invention. A nonfiction writer artfully sculptures an “I” narrator, similar to the way fiction writers sculpture their narrators. But what happens when a narrator is too constructed? When does artfulness ossify into artifice?
“Hotel,” however, is not in the business of delivering a conventional autobiographical narrative. Instead Walsh approaches her material in a manner that is fragmented, citational and formally varied, thereby assuming, superficially at least, the innovative style of writers like Maggie Nelson and Wayne Koestenbaum. Some chapters begin with deadpan and whimsical dramatis personae (Wilde as a playwright; Groucho Marx as an entrepreneur). Others, such as “Marriage Postcards,” are structured as a series of written communiqués (“This postcard shows the hotel dining room: No one is eating in there”). Quotations appear, from Foucault, Heidegger and Mae West, as do summaries of Freud’s Dora case and an etymological explanation of unheimlich. Part 1, “Hotel Haunting,” is an essay about hotels from Walsh’s particular vantage point as a hotel reviewer and disconsolate, soon-to-be divorcée.
My description possibly makes “Hotel” seem, on the surface at least, voracious and playful. At its heart, however, it is neither. Walsh’s “constructed I” is corseted, pretentious and opaque. Rather than probe or illuminate, this narrator delivers riddlelike observations about, for example, a hotel bar. “A place to see and be seen, which is difficult,” she says. “It is almost impossible to do something, and, at the same time, see yourself doing it.”
Midway through “Hotel,” Walsh’s formally restless approach begins to seem less an inventive way to convey her story (and her mind) and more a fashionable evasion tactic — one that is intimidating and disorienting, so that common desires for sense, order or the accrual of meaning are deemed moot, even foolish. I often felt like a guest at a luxurious but inscrutably defiant resort; when I complained to the concierge that my room was missing its bed, the concierge replied, “Instead of a bed, our customers prefer a strobe light.”
This is also true of “Hotel.” The erudition and formal diversity on display prove, in the final accounting, to be “just so”: inert building blocks yet to be activated by a sweeping artistic vision.
The stories in “Vertigo,” by contrast, fixate directly on bad marriages and cheating husbands and the sexual threat of other women. Walsh’s fictional narrators are, like her nonfictional one, armored and affected, but her stories reveal a psychological landscape lightly spooked by loneliness, jealousy and alienation. Walsh likes negative space and wordplay and repetition. Lydia Davis’s methods come to mind, but Davis’s narrators use logic as a means to hazard emotional connection; Walsh uses logic in a more expected manner, to keep emotion at bay. Of her mother, one character says what might be said of these stories as well: “She looks formal, arranged, neat. She cannot shake it.”
Walsh can occasionally deliver frankness — “If I’d had any courage I’d have been a fat woman for longer” — but as with “Hotel,” there’s a prevailing and often infuriating caginess to many of the stories. They do not cut downward or inward; instead they move laterally until the energy simply dissipates. Her sentences are like a series of rocks expertly skipped across a body of water that maintains its surface tension, refusing to allow objects to sink in. Only the collection’s last story — “Drowning” — threatens Walsh’s emotional laws. Here eddying logic and wordplay yield to the despair of a woman on a beach, watching her estranged husband caring for their children. Pretensions are dropped; in their place is the resigned desolation of a narrator considering suicide: “I go back into the sea because there is nothing else to do. Or, there is, but I do not do it.”
In “Hotel,” Walsh tells of keeping a box of treasured possessions under her bed in case of a fire, but “because I was always ready for escape, the fire in my house never happened.” The final story in “Vertigo” suggests that Walsh might be ready to not be ready. She might be willing, in her next book, to let the fire happen. -
“Joanna Walsh is fast becoming one of our most important writers.” —Deborah Levy
Once upon a time, three big dicks lived in a house in the forest… Meanwhile, in a city where no one has genitals, residents get creative with their desires… A woman discovers that she can cause people to have orgasms by pressing a special key on her keyboard… Joanna Walsh’s interlinked fairytales take place in a realm of erotic possibility, where desire is the driving energy and shame seems to be an unheard-of substance. In these funny, absurd, sometimes dark tales, everything is imbued with the magic of sex.
You’d assume a short story collection about sex might focus on the act(s) itself but whilst Walsh’s stories do include a number of sex acts – penetration, masturbation, orgies, remote sex – Grow a Pair concerns itself mostly with transformations.
A girl passed a penis-bush growing in someone else’s garden, and picked a ripe dick because she couldn’t resist it. It came off easily in her hand. She took it home and tried it on right away, knowing that, like the peas in her icebox (‘from field to fresh in under one hour!’) it would be better fresh.
From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas.
These changes are explored from the point-of-view of the person transformed and occasionally in terms of their affect on others. The girl who discovers the penis-bush ‘wondered if she was in the right bathroom but when she tried the men’s she left, overcome by a similar unsettling feeling’. ‘Just because I have a dick now, doesn’t mean I am a man’, she tells her girlfriend who shies away from the penis, inviting her friends over to take a look at it instead. They remain unimpressed.
Of all the characters, these women are the only ones to spend little time thinking about sex. For others, it seems to preoccupy them. This is particularly true of the virgin princess and the three big dicks, the only two stories in the collection that are direct transformations of well-known fairy stories.
The princess in ‘The Princess and the Penis’ has ‘never met a cock IRL’, she’s only seen photographs sent by acquaintances:
She was waiting for her one true cock, but none of the cocks in the photos seemed to fit. She wanted one that would fit like a glove, or rather like the finger of a glove which she used on herself while waiting for the proper cock to arrive.
She invites men to the palace, guillotines their penis and places each one in turn under a stack of mattresses, waiting for the one.
Similarly, the three big dicks are searching for pussy. They procure different materials with which to build their own pussy and I’m sure you can see where this is going. The problem, however, like any big dick is that when one of them goes for a walk:
No sooner had he stepped from its shade into a wide green meadow than he met a cunt, which he failed to recognise, never having encountered one before.
Walsh’s stories are filled with touches of humour. One of the many penises in the book turns out to be a speaking cock.
I don’t know what it said to her – I wasn’t there – but it was something dickish …The cock shouted something even more prickish…
As well as the intertextuality of fairy stories and fairy tale convention, in ‘The Minutes of a Meeting Between Mrs Darsie Hurlbutt, Hortense Shakely, Raymond Maths and Doctor Maxman, Including a Skype Call from Mrs Gustie Slovak’ the characters’ speech is taken verbatim from spam emails:
Hortense Shakley (who is a man) said, Wanna get laid tonight?
Doctor Maxman said, Make her shiver in ecstasy and desire more!
Raymond Maths said, S..A..F_E_-&_F-A..S..T..—P_E N I S___-E N..L-A R-G E M-E N_T-
Again, this alludes to the amount of time and to the extent which sex penetrates (pun intended) our days. As in real life, the characters in these fairytales are divided into those who go hunting for sexual organs and those who stumble across them.
It would be easy to dismiss Grow a Pair as a bit of fun, transforming fairytales from moralistic stories designed to keep women and children in their place to titillating narratives about sexual experimentation but to do so would undermine the ideas they explore. Walsh considers whether we’re defined by our genitalia, whether our sexual organs make us male or female. Her women aren’t sexually passive, they have control of their own sexuality and aren’t afraid to seek out whatever fulfilment they desire. It’s a confident collection, satisfying in terms of its links between stories as characters’ paths cross at different points. It’s also highly entertaining as well as being smart and thoughtful.
There’s an interesting moment at the end of ‘Simple Hans’ when, after amputating part of a woman’s body, he says:
I’m trying to tell you what it was – to cut into this thing that should be sacred, the thing we can’t question, to make it a thing just like any other – which is what it becomes when you cut into it, when you cut it off.
By cutting into sex, female desire, genitalia and gender identity, hopefully Grow a Pair will contribute to the conversation that takes sexual behaviour out of a prescribed patriarchal/hetero/cis fairytale world and into one where sex is ‘a thing just like any other’. - thewritesofwoman.wordpress.com/
Joanna Walsh, Vertigo. Dorothy Project, 2015.
Read a story from Vertigo at Electric Literature’s “Recommended Reading,” here. Read a wide-ranging interview with Joanna at The Paris Review, and one specifically about Vertigo at Electric Literature.
Wry, alien, and intimate, the linked stories in Vertigo take us—with lucid precision—into the negative space of the everyday . . .
“Reading Vertigo has opened even wider my conceptions of what’s possible in fiction—how a book can be like a series of photographs, like cinema. These stories appear as much as they engage with narrative, saturated with a calm yet rich color. I’ve not read anything like it and feel it is quietly subverting the hell out of the form.” - Amina Cain
“Joanna Walsh’s haunting and unforgettable stories enact a literal vertigo—the feeling that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space—by probing the spaces between things. Waiting for news in a children’s hospital, pondering her husband’s multiple online flirtations or observing the tourists and locals at a third-world archeological site, her narrator approaches the suppressed state of panic coursing beneath things that are normally tamed by our blunted perceptions of ordinary life. Vertigo is an original and breathtaking book.” - Chris Kraus
"Joanna Walsh's haunting and unforgettable stories enact a literal vertigo the feeling that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space by probing the spaces between things. Waiting for news in a children's hospital, pondering her husband's multiple online flirtations or observing the tourists and locals at a third-world archeological site, her narrator approaches the suppressed state of panic coursing beneath things that are normally tamed by our blunted perceptions of ordinary life. VERTIGO is an original and breathtaking book." Chris Kraus "With wry humor and profound sensitivity, Walsh takes what is mundane and transforms it into something otherworldly with sentences that can make your heart stop. A feat of language." Kirkus, starred review "Walsh's penetrating short story collection evokes the titular feeling of dizziness... these stories offer a compelling pitch into the inner life." - Publishers Weekly
Stunning short, sharp shocks with insight that reminds me of the very personal work of Clarice Lispector. Forthcoming–don’t miss it. Packs a wallop into a very small space. I suspect this will get some year-end kudos. - jeff vandermeer
Fans of Clarice Lispector, Lydia Davis, and experimental fiction of all stripes, you need to check out Joanna Walsh. The stories in Vertigo are linked by speaker and can be read like a novel, but each stands alone as an example of just how many boundaries the short form can push in a few pages. Walsh handles the seismic events of life--a child in intensive care, a pregnancy morphing the body--with a sort of alien bluntness and mania for category that forces her language into bizarre, thrilling new shapes. A mind-blowing must-read. - Kea
Less a collection of linked short stories—though it is that, too—than a cinematic montage, a collection of photographs, or a series of sketches, Walsh's book would be dreamlike if it weren’t so deliciously sharp.
At an oyster restaurant looking over the French sea, a women contemplates the likelihood that her husband is currently having an affair. “Where my husband is, it is not lunchtime yet,” she says. “If my husband sleeps with the woman he will do so in the evening. As he has not yet done so, as he has not yet even begun to travel to the city where she lives, to which he is obliged to travel for work whether he sleeps with her or no, and as I am here in the oyster restaurant at lunchtime in another country, there is nothing I can do to prevent this.” This is Walsh at her best, towing the line between an equation and a poem. The rest of the stories are equally precise. “Vertigo” is a snapshot of the family's holiday among ruins (“predicated on spending as little as possible”). In “In the Children’s Ward,” the woman waits for news from a nurse with kissing kittens printed on her apron. For the woman—for women in general, perhaps—Walsh’s vision of domestic life requires an identity in constant flux. With the witty and unsettling “Young Mothers,” Walsh presents motherhood as a kind of regression: “Pregnant, we already wore dresses for massive 2 year olds.” In “Online,” the woman finds her husband’s digital affairs and tries on his lovers' personas. “What do you like for breakfast?” she asks him, not untheatrically—the difference between her and the lovers is that she already knows the answer. (“That is where the women online have the advantage,” she observes.)
With wry humor and profound sensitivity, Walsh (Fractals, 2013) takes what is mundane and transforms it into something otherworldly with sentences that can make your heart stop. A feat of language. - Kirkus Reviews
“New Year’s Day on the sofa. I folded my life in on itself, seven times. The last few folds only bent. I was surprised it was so bulky.”The cover of the book is simple. Pale yellow lettering across the horizon that separates a gray sky from the gray waters below. Vertigo. Joanna Walsh. Inside fourteen stories, elemental evocations of a woman’s existence, from the gently dissected vantage point of early mid-life, rolling out, reflecting back on one another, like waves lapping up against the shore. Emerging from the waters as the book draws to close, it is difficult to find words to encapsulate the experience of encountering this work.
Throughout this spare collection, Walsh demonstrates a stunning ability to pinpoint the imperceptible, bring it to the surface and spin a story around it. Her narrators, who may or may not all be the same woman, perseverate, observe, double check and doubt themselves. They are acutely aware of their bodies: bodies that are aging. They are aware of their clothes, of how their clothes fit, how they arrange their legs, if the man at the next table has noticed their legs. They turn their focus inward to the very act of breathing – in, out, or barely breathing at all. They are mothers, they are wives, they are ex-wives, they are daughters. Perspectives shift, sometimes even within the frame of the same story.
“I say ‘you’. Of course I mean ‘me’.”
The title story, “Vertigo”, is the account of a family vacation. The narrator, her husband and children have travelled to an unnamed country to spend as little money as possible, time is the currency of the holiday. Vertigo, she tells us, is “the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space.” The drive up the mountain to their guesthouse with a drop off to one side of the road is the worst. During the day the family visits a tourist site, ruins where the temptation arises to remove a stone or even a piece of the rubble from the original structure. This stirs anxieties the woman recognizes as echoes of her mother rising through her and creating conflict with her own role now as mother to her children. Meditative, her thoughts roam with the sun drenched unanchored processing that we often fall into when removed from the routine of ordinary life. It feels as if Walsh has simply opened her hands to capture her character’s reflections and spilled them gently across the page. It is almost impossible to pinpoint how it works, but it does.
The minute attention to the inner moment, pared down to its most essential, is the quality that sets these stories apart. The conscious detachment of the self from the body of the mother waiting in the hospital while her son undergoes surgery in “The Children’s Ward” is especially poignant and will ring true for any parent who has placed their emotions on hold, not daring to think too much about possibilities, waiting, just waiting, distracting oneself with mind games when the brain will often not even distract itself with a book or magazine. Waiting for Charlotte (whoever Charlotte is, she does not know) to update her, the mother wonders:
“If Charlotte comes with her words comes to tell me it all went wrong how would my body know it? How long before the parts of my body realized, independently, that something was wrong and arrived, severally, at panic? Panic is still a thing. I have felt it before: each limb nerve organ coming into extreme alert unrelated to any other, ready for action, but who knows what action, as there is no action that could help here.”
Many pieces are very short, prose pieces rather than stories perhaps, each finely honed. The voices are wryly observant, tuned in to an inner monologue that mediates between the self and the self in the world. One becomes ensnared in the mesh of words, even in the simplest of stories. In “Relativity” a woman is traveling by bus to see her mother. She compares herself to her teenage daughter beside her and to the other women on the bus:
“Among other middle-aged women I don’t look too neat, and this pleases me.
I am dressed for, what? For anything that might happen to me: keep it coming! I’ve learned that it does. I am dressed for things that are not. I am not too sexy, not too casual, not too unassumingly unassuming. I do not look like I have made an effort, but I do look like I might have made an effort to look like I have not made an effort, which is only polite. And I will not fall over if required to run in my shoes.”
I don’t want to say too much about the individual stories here. They are best encountered on their own terms. This is a book that invites a slow reading. It is not long, or difficult. But you want to savour each piece. This is fiction infused with fine imagery, charged with an electric current, shockingly alive to new possibilities of rendering the mundane exquisite. If you are not watchful it could leave you with a sense of vertigo.
Or maybe that is the goal. - roughghosts.wordpress.com/
“How long does a thought take to form?” asks a woman in Vertigo, a collection of linked stories by British writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh. “Years sometimes. But how long to think it? And once thought it’s impossible to go back. How long does it take to cross an hour?” Sometimes it takes hours to finish a sentence, a lifetime to find a city from which it becomes possible to begin. Time in Vertigo doesn’t so much slow down as it does short-circuit; the present moment is suspended, each instant expanded. Stories pass by like slow motion film; long stretches of thought are torqued by the white noise of the ordinary. This is a liminal space that eludes situation, an amplified present that expands the possibilities of genre.
What unfolds is a story cycle structured by repetition: a woman walks alone in Paris, eats oysters at a restaurant or a croque monsieur at a café. She watches her children play, leaves her husband or doesn’t, speaks to her mother, rides the bus with her daughter. She drinks and then she is drunk, to interrupt the boredom, “so the scum of things rises to the surface.” This isn’t—and is—the same woman. Events are repeated with small variations: a disintegrating marriage, a love affair gone awry, solitary walks through Paris, travel with family. Though each story begins with a different set of circumstances, experiences overlap as moments replay themselves with a nameless set of husbands, lovers, daughters, and mothers. The female narrators share similar thoughts as they experience the world from a shared subject position, which is always a gendered and political position. Their voices bleed into—without becoming—each other: mothers are also daughters and sometimes wives, or ex-wives. They come into articulation through accretion, constructing a feedback loop in which each voice becomes augmented, clarified, and entangled. A feeling of homelessness and a struggle to locate the edges of the self thread these stories together, alluding to the larger, gendered forces that structure our day-to-day experiences.Walsh’s prose is simple but stunning in its precision. Her stories examine the minutiae of women’s experience, the experiences language often passes over too quickly, too dismissively. Female narrators observe, collate, and asses—they are acutely aware of the world around them, which they study fastidiously. They report what they see, diligently. Though they seek to tell the story in clear and straightforward prose, there is too much that eludes reasoned explanation, and plot is always secondary to feeling, to consciousness. In “Vagues,” a woman is preoccupied with mapping out the possible arrangements of tables and diners in an oyster restaurant while her husband is in another country, maybe sleeping with another woman. Dining with a man who is not her husband, she tries to assess her position with detached practicality:
As I know my husband is unlikely to tell me the truth about whether he sleeps with the woman or not—though he may choose either to tell me that he has, when he has not, or that he has not, when he has—I have taken the precaution of being here in the oyster restaurant with this man who may wish to sleep with me. As my husband knows that I know he is unlikely to tell me the truth about the woman with whom he will or will not have slept, so that, even if he tells me the truth, I will be unable to recognize whether or not he is being truthful, he must believe that if he sleeps with the woman, he will sleep with her entirely for his own pleasure. I, if I sleep with the man who is sitting opposite me at the restaurant, though I will not lie about whether I have slept with this man or not, will be unable to tell my husband anything he will accept as truthful, so must also, by consequence, make sure that, if I sleep with this man, it must be entirely for my own pleasure too.
Walsh’s writing frequently draws comparisons to that of Lydia Davis—both write stories that are difficult to classify because they refuse the dramatic action of narrative. Like Davis, Walsh depicts female narrators who dissect the quotidian with obsessive precision, their insights punctured with sensitivity and humor. But Davis’s narrators remain socially grounded—as writers, translators, intellectuals—whereas the women in Vertigo lack this anchorage: in work, function, and identity. And while Walsh’s prose shares much stylistically with Davis’s, her depictions of women’s inner lives are closer to cinema. Vertigo summons the relentless long takes and domestic claustrophobia of Jeanne Dielman; the black-and-white minimalism and protracted flânerie of Cleo; the haunting silence at the center of Barbara Loden’s Wanda.
To break down experience in this way is to subvert the forward propulsion of narrative, and, in doing so, to inhabit a strange and estranged time that lays burrowed in the recesses of the ordinary. If logical reasoning promises resolution, that resolution is revealed here to be a fantasy. Methodical thought unravels more than it resolves as diligence crosses over into the realm of the obsessive. Labyrinthine sentences pile up and qualifying clauses threaten to trip over one another. The woman in the oyster restaurant concludes that if she decides to sleep with the man who is not her husband it must be for her own pleasure, but her desires remain as obscure to us as they do to her.
How long does it take to get over something? The female narrators have a hard time moving forward, past the sense of loss that permeates their stories. To dwell in the hugely elastic present of Vertigo is to get stuck by one’s own vulnerability. There are some things you can’t get over, no matter how much you struggle to reason your way through them. And so it becomes difficult to get the story right, impossible to find its center. In Paris, a woman searches for a red dress because she is leaving her husband, as if the right garment will bring everything into its proper place: “The right teller can make any tale. The right dresser can make any dress. Listen to me carefully: I am not the right teller.” This is the disavowal, the dislocation, which Vertigo circles. She insists that she cannot weave a tale, that she cannot make her words into something other than what they are. It’s hard to tell the story when there’s so much that overflows form. The failure here is twofold: the failure to tell the right kind of story is also the failure to appear in the right dress. There are some days when nothing fits; sometimes this is every day. You can be the wrong woman if you leave your husband, but you can still be the wrong woman if your husband leaves you. To insist that you cannot speak is to know that everything you say will be held against you.
“Elegance is a function of failure,” says a woman in “Summer Story,” who leaves a party quietly after a man she has slept with ignores her, then pulls her aside to tell her he is seeing someone else. “The elegant always know what it is to have failed. There is no need for elegance in success: success itself is enough. But elegance in failure is essential.” Walsh does not glamorize this failure, but experiments with elegance as style, as a way to keep one’s self guarded under the hyper-exposure of the social. “Elegance is refusal,” says the woman of “Fin de Collection,” the first story in the collection. She does not find a red dress: “To leave empty-handed is a triumph.” If women are always hyper-visible in public, then this attempt to recede into the background is a tactic of survival. To leave quietly, without saying goodbye; to leave without making a fuss, without making a scene; to leave so that no one notices: this is elegance that depends on withdrawal, on sneaking away, on trying to become as inconspicuous as possible. To refuse to call attention to one’s failure is also to make an attempt, however preliminary, at giving up an attachment to success that is drawn around markedly gendered parameters.
“There are no red dresses in Le Bon Marché,” concludes the woman in “Fin de Collection.” “It isn’t the dress: it’s the woman beneath the dress”—but what happens when you don’t know who is beneath the dress? Vertigo doesn’t so much answer this question as it does pass through it. “I know a woman is not her clothes: she’s the body under the dress, or what someone could imagine her body to be,” says another woman in “Claustrophobia,” visiting her childhood home during the dissolution of her marriage. “I have learned that even underneath I am replaceable. You could employ someone to be me and get just the same thing, maybe even better, if you had the money.” If money is the universal equivalent and the young girl is living currency, then the woman discarded is what, exactly? Several of the narrators in these stories struggle to reorient themselves after the breakdown of a relationship. Outside these roles—as mothers, lovers, wives—they are socially illegible. A man walking alone around Paris is a flanêur, but a woman walking alone around Paris is lost.
Moving in and out of these social roles, women become interchangeable and exchangeable. They are the sum of their social value, which is tied to their function as mothers, lovers, or wives. Shifting in and out of pre-defined roles, their parts are multiple. In “Online,” a woman discovers her husband has met some women on the internet:
His women are the sum of their qualities, not several but complete, massive, many-breasted, many-legged, multi-faceted, and I participate in these women. Some of his women have been chosen because they are a bit like me, some because they are unlike. He likes them. And he likes me. He likes me for being both unlike but like them. He likes them for being both like and unlike me.
The body beneath the dress is as stitched together as the dress itself: beneath the surface is more surface. The women in “Online” are assemblages of parts, rather than complete individuals. There is no authentic subject in these stories—the female subject is, at every moment, fractured, stitched together, determined by social circumstances, constituted and undone by her relationships. In “Young Mothers,” the collective narrators describe how their children have given birth to their function: “Colors were bright, so our children did not lose us, so we could not lose each other, or ourselves, no matter how hard we tried.” The narrator in “Claustrophobia” remembers: “When you made partner, mother said to me, you must be proud. How could I be proud of something that was not my achievement but its inverse? Unless I am such a secondary part of you that when you eat, I taste it; when you urinate, I am empty.” There is no sovereign self, no essential interiority, regardless of how many layers you strip away. The ties that constitute us are also the ties that constrict us. Vertigo enacts the emptying out and questioning of the self the accompanies the loss these attachments, revealing that the self has always been partial, always incomplete, always a conceit of language. This is “I”-driven literature that simultaneously seeks out and destroys its “I.”
Within these parameters, solitude becomes a feminist act of rebellion: to extract and safeguard a private pleasure is a way of attaching to yourself again, even if you’re not quite sure what or where that self really is, what or where that self could or should be. Sometimes it takes abandoning every former attachment before you can become recognizable to yourself. “The first effect of abroad is strangeness,” says the woman walking around Paris, turning into Le Bon Marché. “It makes me strange to myself. I experience a transfer, a transparency. I do not look like these women. I want to project these women’s looks onto mine and with them all the history that has made these women look like themselves and not like me.” If the flanêur is always in possession of himself, here, the flanêuse is absorbed by her surroundings, losing herself in them. Suffused with the white noise of context, she possesses and dispossess a sense of self so porous it threatens, at every moment, to fall right out. This strangeness is at once liberating and damning, opening up new possibilities for the “I” at the same time as it makes the “I” socially illegible.
But losing oneself can be a way of coming back to oneself, or coming into a new self. “There is nothing to do with this time but put some alcohol into it,” says a woman killing time in a café. On her way to a party, another woman exposes herself “to the point between work and social in which nothing can happen.” Walsh resurrects this dead time. Very little happens, but the women in these stories pay attention anyway. After a lifetime of being bound by social function, this pure expenditure of time becomes in itself a radically feminist act, a way of looking at the world that that refuses the programmatic. The point is to imagine a different texture to an everyday, one removed from an economy of use. Killing time is a way of getting it back. - Anna Zalokostas
Remember how John Freeman pegged Elena Ferrante’s novels: “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry”? Remember how the cover of a great Clarice Lispector novel touts her as “the premier Latin American woman prose writer of this century?” (Should they have italicized “woman” there to emphasize that there are still a lot of men who are way better?)
If anyone in the course of reviewing Vertigo refers to Joanna Walsh as a “woman writer” or says the book is about women, relationships, or mothering, I will send an avenging batibat to infiltrate his dreams because that would be like saying Waiting for Godot is about a bromance.
No, this book is about how embarrassing it is to be alive, how each of us is continually barred from our self. Think of the Alice Fulton’s poem “By Her Own Hand,” whose speaker has killed herself and yet is still so in thrall to her husband that even her own suicide does not give her sole possession of her self. Unable to meet her own desires, and perhaps wary of others reading that disappointment in her dead eyes, she laments, “I wanted to be self-reliant. /I wanted to reach up and shut/ my own eyes just before I died.”
That power and wariness is all over Vertigo. In the collection’s final story, a woman, while drowning, says to herself, “if you reach the beach, walk back across it like everything is fine, toward your family who would not like to see the abyss you have just swum over.”
Death will not deliver you back your self from others, but grammar, syntax, and excruciating semantic precision will. Vertigo is a writer’s coup, an overthrow of everyday language. Walsh splendidly manhandles prepositions and upends sanctified words: “Mother is where we put things we don’t like.” And: “Home is a rehearsal, by which I mean a repetition like in French: both what’s behind the curtain and in front of it, a cherry cake studded with the same surprise on repeat. It confirms itself; it must confirm itself.”
It feels so good to see Walsh jam open the lexicon—and with such dry wit. It’s Wittgenstein’s “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” undergirding a book of short stories. Yet, once the world does expand, once a thought is thought, it doesn’t make the speaker of Vertigo’s stories any less isolated in her interactions. No one else has her particular copy of the dictionary.
Laura (Riding) Jackson tried to solve exactly that problem by writing the dictionary to end all dictionaries—one that stripped words of connotation so that the truth might be finally, effectively communicated. While you can form your own opinions on whether or not Riding was successful, the thing that has always struck me about her project is that she undertook it with her husband. Nothing says “marriage” like a 600-page tract on the impossibility of words to convey truth.
…Which brings us back to Walsh. She’s also the author of a short book in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series called Hotel. With Heidegger, Freud, and Greta Garbo as touchpoints, the pieces use details from her job reviewing hotels and her unraveling marriage to meditate on desire, aphonia, immobility, and isolation. Like Vertigo, the book is driven by an intense self-consciousness, but perhaps because it doesn’t need to make even a gesture toward fiction, there’s more linguistic play in here, more aphorisms you want to copy onto a postcard and send to your unhappiest smart friend.
One could argue that Hotel is about the failure of Walsh’s home. But it is more personal than a marriage chronicle. Both of Walsh’s books, I’d say, are purgatorial horrors. Walsh is Marcelle Sauvageot; her hotels are Sauvageot’s sanatorium, her book, like Sauvageot’s Commentary, an autopsy of love and a birth of a self… “How long does a thought take to form,” asks the speaker of Vertigo’s title story. “Years sometimes. But how long to think it? And once thought, it’s impossible to go back.” Walsh’s characters, herself included, might suffer from labyrinthitis, but Walsh the writer does not. Sauvageot died of TB in her sanatorium. But Walsh, I hope, is just beginning to drive her fiery chariot across literature. - Darcie Dennigan
Joanna Walsh, Fractals, 3:am Publishing, 2013.
When people ask me what I like to read, the first word out of my mouth is usually “nonfiction.” My reasoning is simple: I like to read about what I like to write about, namely physical appearance and its intersection in women’s lives. And the open-minded part of me cringes to admit this, but: I’ve tended to believe that fiction isn’t the place for this. Sure, the occasional piece might illuminate an aspect of women’s stories, but on the whole, I’ll stick with my nonfiction shelf—Wolf, Berger, Sontag, Etcoff, Steinem, and so on.
Had Fractals, Joanna Walsh‘s new collection of short stories from 3:AM Publishing, been published earlier than this October, my answer would have changed earlier as well. I’d mistakenly conflated nonfiction with truth, entirely forgetting that fiction allows us to tell a different sort of truth—particularly about internal experiences. Like how, as with Walsh’s characters, we might keep ourselves groomed for an absent beloved we privately know will never arrive, or how we make silent bargains about our looks (“The man with the steak looks at my legs which gives me permission to look at the message he is typing into his mobile phone. I cannot see it as the glass reflects. I feel cheated.”). I knew from my first encounter with Walsh’s work—an illustrated look at five female authors, and how their self-presentation plays into their reputation—that she was as intrigued by beauty as I was. Fractals expands her thoughts on the matter, with a direct focus on how the rituals of womanhood affect not only how we’re seen by the world, but how we see ourselves. Her characters are keenly—sometimes painfully—aware of how they present themselves visually, treating clothing as a talisman, as a reaction to life events, as a confirmation of who they think they want to be.
When I asked the U.K.-based Walsh how she tailors her own choice of clothing to her state of mind, she had this to say: “I haven’t, so far, done any sort of public appearance (and I love doing readings) in a skirt or dress. I feel more authoritative in androgynous clothes, which I know is not a very worthy feeling as it’s got to be to do with kowtowing to the way I intuit ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’-looking people are perceived. But there’s also an element (another anxiety) of making writing look like ‘proper’ work—manual work even. I occasionally wear a boiler suit to read, and I always feel very comfortable. I think of the Surrealists in their suits: artists and writers who refused to look ‘bohemian’, who refused to make the distinction between what they did and less ‘artistic’ jobs. So when working at home I rarely stay in pyjamas. However I do own, and wear, a variety of pretty dresses…”
Enjoy “Fin de Collection,” one of the stories from Fractals, below—and leave a comment on this entry to enter to win a copy of the collection from 3:AM. Winner will be chosen by random number generator; leave a comment by 11:59 p.m. EST November 12 to enter.
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A friend told me to buy a red dress in Paris because I am leaving my husband.
The right teller can make any tale, the right dresser can make any dress look good. Listen to me carefully: I am not the right teller.
Even to be static in Saint Germain requires money. The white stone hotels charge so much a night just to stay still, just so as not to loose their moorings and roll down their slips into the Seine. So much is displayed in the windows in Saint Germain: so little bought and sold. No transactions are proposed that are not so weighty for buyer and seller as to be life-changing. But, for those who can afford them, they no longer seem to matter.
The women of the quarter are all over 40. They smell of new shoe leather. I walk the streets with them, licking the windows. Are we only funning that we could be what is on display? It is impossible to see what kind of women could inhabit those dresses but some do, some must. Nobody here is wearing them.
Amongst the women I am arrogant. I retain my figure without formal exercise. I retain my position as a wounded woman like something in stone, infinitely moving and just a little silly. In order to retain my position I must be wounded constantly. This is painful, but it is a position I have become used to.
We turn into Le Bon Marché department store, the women and I, Vogue heavy in our shoulder bags.
There is nothing like Le Bon Marché if you are rich and beautiful. But if you are not rich or beautiful, it doesn’t matter. The store has its own rules. It is divided into departments: fashion, food, home. It is possible to find yourself in the wrong department but nothing bad can happen here and, although you may be able to afford nothing, it costs nothing to look.
Le Bon Marché is always the same and always different, like those postcards where the Eiffel Tower is shown a hundred ways: in the sun, in fog, in sunsets, in snow. It may look different in Spring or Autumn, at Christmas or Easter, but the experience it delivers is always the same.
There are no postcards of the Eiffel Tower in the rain but it does rain in Paris, even in August. And when it rains, you can shelter in Le Bon Marché, running between the two ground-floor sections with one of its large orange paper bags suspended over your head (too short a dash to open an umbrella).
Inside is perpetual summer. Customers complaining of being too hot are forced to take off their coats beneath the stencils of artificial flowers that bloom across midwinter walls. The orange paper carrier bags are not made for real weather, either. Once wet their dye leaks onto hair, coats, and leaves orange stains on pale carpets, clothes, floorboards…
Fin de collection d’éte. In Le Bon Marché it is already Autumn. The new collections are in order. They do not privilege experience. With time they will deteriorate, unbalance, as each key piece sells out, leaving a skeleton leaf of basics, black and grey. One can commit too early of course. A key piece bought nearly in style will merely foreshadow the version available when the style is at its height.
In 35 degree heat, we bury our faces in wool and corduroy. We long for frost, we who have waited so long for summer. To change clothes is to take a plunge, to holiday. Who cares if we cannot afford to leave Paris. In the passerelle, the walkway between the store’s two buildings, a tape-loop breeze, the sound of water, photographs of a beach…
There is something about my face in the mirrors that catch it. Even at a distance it will never be right again, not even to a casual glance. Beauty: it’s the upkeep that costs, that’s what Balzac said, not the initial investment.
Je peux vous aider?
The salesgirl asks the fat woman with angel’s wings tattooed across her back. She mouths, Non, and walks, with her thin companion, into the passarelle, suspended.
The first effect of abroad is strangeness. It makes me strange to myself. I experience a transfer, a transparency. I do not look like these women. I want to project these women’s looks onto mine and with them all the history that has made these women look like themselves and not like me.
From time to time I change my mind and sell my clothes. I sell the striped ones and buy spotted ones. Then I sell the spotted ones and buy plaid. Does it get me any closer? At the checkout, the thin girl in her checked jacket looks more appropriate than me, though her clothes are cheaper. This makes me angry. How did her look slip by me? I was always too young. And now I am too old.
I cannot forgive them. I forgive only the beauties of past eras: the pasty flappers, the pointed New Look-ers. They are no longer beautiful. They cannot harm me now. These two are not even the beautiful people. It’s more that they’re so much less unbeautiful than everyone else. Please remember, we are in Le Bon Marché. Plunge into the metro if you want to encounter the underground of the norm.
Even your other women seemed tame until I saw them through your eyes, until I saw the attention you paid them. I no longer know the value of anything. And if you do not see me, I am nothing. From the outside I look together. I forget that I am really no worse than anyone else. But how can I go on with nobody, with no reflection? And how, and when, and where can I be inflamed by your glance? I can’t be friends with your friends. I can’t go to dinner with you, don’t even want to.
But why does the fat woman always travel with the thin woman? Why the one less beautiful with one more beautiful? Why do there have to two women, one always better than the other?
Je peux vous aider?
Non. There are no red dresses in Le Bon Marché. It isn’t the dress: it’s the woman in the dress. (Chanel. Or Yves Saint Laurent.) Parisiennes wear grey, summer and winter: they provide their own colour. I have learned to imitate them. Elegance is refusal. (Chanel. Or YSL. Or someone.) To leave empty-handed is a triumph.
In any case come December the first wisps of lace and chiffon will appear and with them bottomless skies reflected blue in mirror swimming pools.
To other people, perhaps, I still look fresh: to people who have not yet seen this dress, these shoes, but to myself, to you, I can never re-present the glamour of a first glance.
To appear for the first time is magnificent. - Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
A fractal is a model in which the patterns of the overall structure are replicated at an individual level; it is a useful image to keep in mind when reading these impressionistic stories, which view the alienation and dissatisfaction of modern living expressed through the experiences of isolated individuals. Joanna Walsh’s vignettes are probably too long to be flash fiction, but not as long as the traditional short story. Light on dialogue, they investigate the inner landscape of women who feel unable to perform the roles ascribed to them by society. The writing is tightly structured yet poetic; Walsh is skilled in using minor details to illustrate a wider point.
Throughout Fractals, Walsh expresses a sense that there has been a breakdown in the relationship between individuals and objects, people and places, aspiration and reality. It seems that the structures of capitalism have reduced individuals to the role of functionaries, expected to perform their allotted tasks in order to keep the wheels of industry turning. This inversion of roles is illustrated in Femme Maison, a portrait of a divorced woman struggling to maintain a routine: ‘you still attempt to generate one bag of rubbish each week, the bin demands it’. In Fin de Collection, we even see the calendar manipulated by the economy’s constant demand for novelty: ‘in Le Bon Marche, it is already autumn. The new collections are in order’.
In his collection Winesbury, Ohio, published in 1919, Sherwood Anderson documented individuals within a small-town American community, each of whom had come to be defined by one particular aspect of their personality. Anderson labelled these figures ‘grotesques’. In a similar way, Walsh’s characters are identified by their dominant trait. In Femme Maison, her character is overwhelmed by choice, and the practicalities of daily existence; she is unable to start one task without setting in motion a chain of tangential activities, and ultimately achieves nothing. Shh… portrays women who pretend to be ill in order to assert some control over their lives, becoming briefly ‘visible’ by sending dishes back in restaurants. They see themselves as competing for the scarce resource of attention: ‘the women envy each other’s illnesses / scheme to concoct new ones… Part of them knows / their pain will piss off / the other women’.
The subject of Half the World Away, an author attending a literary festival who is ‘lionised, though no-one in this country has read your work’, is obsessed with value, whether she is getting more worth from her glass of wine than her neighbour does from his steak. Summer Story depicts a woman too uncertain of social protocol to seize her chance of a relationship with a man she meets at a party. One story, Reading Habits, takes this reductionism further, attempting to force individuals into the role of data in a mathematical puzzle: ‘S is clever and well-educated but a bad reader. SL is a good reader but badly educated. G is better educated but a bad reader’. Such an algorithm would of course be manna to the likes of Amazon and Google.
Characters in Fractals are rarely given names; the implication is that such characterisation is unimportant, as they are merely designed to reflect a wider trend. What is more important is geographical location. Many of Walsh’s characters find themselves in foreign surroundings; the sense of alienation and unease, combined with the European locations, give Fractals a similar feel to Bowie's Berlin trilogy. Walsh observes the way in which the rhythms of city life affect her characters; the protagonist of Summer Story finds herself in ‘the awful point of London between work and social in which nothing can happen’, while the author in Half The World Over finds herself constantly dissatisfied, looking to move on, as the expectation of deferred pleasure outweighs any current sensation: ‘you have always wanted to be old. The rest is fake, a mere waiting… No sooner do you go somewhere than you want to be somewhere else’.
This sense of dislocation is best expressed in Hauptbahnhof, the highlight of the collection. In this story, a woman waits at the Berlin train station for an assignation which is never fulfilled. Unwilling to admit defeat, and with nowhere else to go, she becomes moored at the station. Hauptbahnhof is large, clean, impersonal, with its ‘smells of coffee, of floor polish, of cigarettes, of the substances we use to correct, to mark time’. The function of the building, as a transport hub, has clearly become secondary, as evidenced by the woman’s ability to use it as a home. Instead, it is a temple to modern capitalism, filled with amenities: shops, hairdressers, cafes. Rather than sending travellers to a destination, it serves to deliver consumers to these shops, ensuring a steady circulation of goods and currency. While her physical needs are met adequately (with a little subterfuge), Hauptbahnhof cannot provide meaningful human contact: ‘You would have thought that the shopgirls might recognise me after all this time, but they never do’.
Her characters often appear passive, but rather than seeing this as a character trait, Walsh suggests that this is the consequence of a deeper sense of alienation. Fractals is a very thoughtful collection, with some keen insights. Exes looks at the way our expressions subtly condition the responses we receive, imposing our wills on those we communicate with. In amongst its examination of indecision and social anxiety, Summer Story observes that ‘elegance is a function of failure. The elegant always know what it is to have failed’.
If this seems downbeat, the opening story And After… does supply a more optimistic vision. Here, Walsh indulges in a sort of urban picturesque, imagining a town with unmonitored spaces, where activities can be carried out for their own sake, without an economic purpose: ‘let there be backalleys for cycles hungover with brambles, with cider cans in ditches’. Walsh revels in the opportunities of the everyday; she doesn’t exactly advocate full communism, but at least hopes for an environment where individuals can experience a natural range of human emotions (‘let there be children and old people, but few whose occupation is nether hope nor memory’), with our current onslaught of sensation and manufactured desires toned down (‘let the branches of chain stores in the high street be too small to carry the full range’).This vision sits in contrast to the atomised, desire-driven world she goes on to describe. While there are no direct connections between the individual pieces, Walsh cleverly demonstrates patterns and recurring motifs, turning these disparate figures into players in a coherent whole. Released at a period when the British government is targeting marginalised groups within society, and the services which form our communal heritage are being dismantled and asset-stripped, Fractals is a timely collection, illustrating, without resorting to polemic, the divisions which occur when commercial interests are prioritised over communities. - workshyfop.blogspot.co.uk/
I am on holiday in a house with no mirrorsMy friend is here with me. She has agreed to share the house I have rented for the summer.
I see my friend in her swimsuit. She has good legs, very good legs. I can see them but I cannot see my own legs. If I want to see my own legs I must stand on the chair in the dark dining room and look at them reflected in the dim glass of the cabinet above the mantelpiece. Even attached to no one I know they are my legs and I know they are not so good as my friend’s.
The house is furnished with the dirt-ring of its owners’ lives. Some of it is very good, some of it is very bad, but nothing is perfect. The chairs’ legs are curved and polished, but they are chipped. The curved handles of the teacups are chipped, but they have gold rims, which are worn. The bathroom cabinet is made of chipboard. Its legs are missing. It has only plastic and metal stumps.
The decor of the house is blue, which I do not like. My friend is reading a book I do not like. Though I have not read it, I know it is not a good book. This makes things more even.
The bottom of the swimming pool outside the house is painted blue. The sky is blue, unclouded. The grass is blue in the strong sun. I pull a long string of skin, like dried grass, from a scratch on my shin. My friend jumps into the pool, her good legs flow behind her like contrails.
I read my book.
LET IT BE AUTUMN.
Let it be another town. Let the houses be lowrise, undistinguished, a mix of old and new. Let the doctor’s surgery in a terraced sidestreet be new sandbrick with a porthole window and double doors, and thick brightly-coloured metal bars at waist height to steady the entering infirm.
Let the branches of chain stores in the high street be too small to carry the full range. Let their sales be undermined by charity shops selling just as good as new. Let there be other shops stocking nothing useful: handicrafts; overpriced children’s clothes; holidays on window cards, faded; homemade homewares. Let these shops be unvisited and kept by old women still peering from doorways expecting their ideal customer. Let fashion be something heard of somewhere else.
Let there be backalleys for cycles hungover with brambles, with cidercans in ditches. Let these backways be quicker ways but let no one question the cars. Let these ways snake along the back of allotments and supermarkets and h-block schools on the ring road. Let the ways snake under the ring road. Let dogwalkers use them: let anglers use them, and junkies. Let these ways be deserted when the children are in school, except for the odd dogwalker or angler or junkie. Let each wear his particular uniform. Let no angler or dogwalker be mistaken for a junkie: let no junkie be mistaken for a dogwalker or angler. Let anglers only occasionally walk dogs.
Let there be children and old people but few whose occupation is neither hope nor memory. Let there have been immigration at some point: enough to fill the convenience stores, the foreign restaurants, but let it be forgotten. Let the children be all in school, a breath held in, released at 3 o’ clock across the park. Let the town’s rhythm be unquestioned. Let me be single: no children, no family. Let me not fit in.
Let there be a college where art students dream of cities they do not leave for.
Let art for the old people be something colourful and, for the young people, something black. Let their art be always things. Let the colourful things appear sometimes in the windows of the shops that sell homemade homewares. Let the art students sometimes fill an empty shop lot with black things. Let the old people go right up to the windows of the empty shop lot and squint and frown.
Let there be a coffee shop next to a head shop where the art students hang out, and let me buy a gypsy scarf with tassels there. Let my purchase mean I am considered arty.
Let the coffee shop serve bad coffee. Let it have only yesterday’s news and the local papers (let small crimes occur, and let occasional larger crimes, on the outskirts of town beyond the ring road, be personally motivated, down to nothing more than bad marriages, bad upbringings). Let me sit in the coffee shop and, while drinking bad coffee, hear the rumour that someone famous was to come to town but that their visit was cancelled. Let the woman behind the counter shake her head, her towelled hand continuing to spiral in the persistently streaked glass.
British writer Joanna Walsh’s work pulls you in unexpected directions. Readers in the United States can now get a sense of her literary range with the recent publication of two books. Hotel, released as part of Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series, shifts from the deeply personal to the abstract and intellectual and back again as it considers the space alluded to in the title. Walsh moves from observation of a specific period of her life to more wide-ranging cultural musings, repeatedly returning the reader to a sense of the author, to a sense of a body occupying the space about which she is writing. “During this other time I haunted a marriage I was soon to leave,” she writes on the book’s first page. And Vertigo, released by Dorothy, a publishing project, is a collection of memorably disorienting short stories. Their settings might be quotidian—a beach, a clothing store—but the perspective from which they are considered is anything but.
Walsh is also the fiction editor of 3:AM; she’s an illustrator, and she’s also behind the #Readwomen Twitter account. We spoke via Skype about her two latest books, as well as a handful of related topics. Though in Walsh’s hands, virtually any topic can be related—it’s what makes her work so compelling, and so impressive. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Tobias Carroll: Both Vertigo and Hotel recently came out in the US at about the same time. Were they written at roughly the same time, or is coincidental that they were published within weeks of each other?
Joanna Walsh: It’s coincidence, really. Vertigo is stories I’ve been writing the last few years. I had a very small story collection in the UK in 2013 and there are about four stories from that which have changed a bit, a little bit of rewriting. And then Hotel was commissioned. I had an essay which I wanted to write about hotels and I sent it to a few people and Bloomsbury were the people who were interested and asked me to go off and write a book proposal. It’s the essay that’s on Granta at the moment; it’s that and a bit more. So I sent them the first 4,000 words of Hotel and they said, “Yes, write a book proposal and get back to us.” So that was kind of—that was commissioned, and I wrote Hotel last year in quite a short period of time. And the Dorothy Project said they wanted to do the stories a little bit after that, and so I spent a lot of the early part of this year just kind of working on editing those and putting them together in different combinations.
TC: In terms of Hotel, how did the finished book differ from where you had expected to go with it?
JW: Grand hotels, I suppose, started to become a big thing in the 19th century about the same time as Freud and Marx were both writing. And so I was very interested in whether their theories could at all fit with hotels. I’d read quite a lot of Freud, and I realized very quickly that yes, Freud fits very well. A lot of his patients were hotel dwellers. They tend to be rich. Because a lot of them were Jewish, they didn’t tend to own a lot of land.
But then I thought about Marx, and I wanted to have kind of a materialist balance to this, a different approach, because you can get very into Freud and it can become all-encompassing and it’s very tempting only to think along those lines and not to think about things from the outside at all.
But then I realized I hadn’t really read that much Marx, so I decided instead I could make it about the Marx Brothers, and particularly this movie called Room Service. It’s a strange Marx Brothers film because they didn’t write it. It was a Broadway hit and they optioned it and made it into a film. So it’s a lot less funny than other Marx Brothers films, but the disjunction between the way they usually act and the way these parts are written by someone else is quite interesting.
TC: Vertigo has been described as a collection of linked stories. Was there one that sort of began that whole cycle, or did you realize there were these connections between them after you had written several?
JW: In this slightly early collection, which was published by a very, very tiny publisher in the UK, there are a few that treated things in a similar way. I sent a lot of my stories to Danielle Dutton at Dorothy, mostly because I’d read Nell Zink’s book and although our writing is very different I admire her writing so much and I admire the Dorothy Project and their sensibility.
Danielle and I had a lot of back-and-forth and realized that the ones that we were both interested in making a collection out of were ones that were really quite… I don’t always write realistic stories, but these are ones that are rooted very much in everyday life. But in a quite close focus, a reexamination of everyday life. So “Summer Story” was in that, “Half the World Over,” “And After”—those were in Fractals in the first place. So yes, they were stories about things that I’m very interested in and they collected themselves together, really.
TC: “Claustrophobia” is structured in a series of “Minus ___ Years” sections. Was that something you had in mind from the outset?
JW: It was something that I wanted to do. What I’m always trying to do is experiment with subjectivity, and a lot of that involves perceptions of time and the way that moments appear at the same time in our consciousness. We can’t have a conscious moment without some kind of understanding of what has happened to us before. I think repetition is something that’s very important in perception. So I was trying to find ways to do that. I’d read a few things that experimented with things going backwards or not quite going in a very linear direction.
I’m writing a kind of collection of essays about online relationships or about an online relationship and the way that that kind of affects your sense of identity and your sense of yourself in place because online tends to flatten things. Everything seems to be simultaneously available and you can skip between things. I guess that’s what we hear about the way people read now. They skip between lots of short things instead of progressing in a linear fashion through one long thing. I don’t know the creative possibilities of digital, because I don’t know if I’ve seen that successfully realized yet, but certainly I’m interested by the way that it interacts. It doesn’t necessarily make the way we think different, but it kind of links up with something which is already there: the non-linearity of our thought processes and of our perceptions and our identities.
TC: Do you see any parallels between the sense of displacement that can come from an online relationship and, say, the sense of displacement in space—and from one’s family—that you write about in Hotel?
JW: I certainly write a lot about travel and a lot about communication. So I write a lot about online communication in general and then a lot about people being thrown together in places where they can’t get away from each other.
TC: Do you generally begin a story with a character or with a setting or with sort of an image? I feel there’s a handling of material objects in some of the early stories of the collection that I found memorably disconcerting–the way that clothing is described in “Fin de Collection,” for instance.
JW: I’m interested in things. I was an illustrator for years. That was my first job really, apart from little jobs that I did like teaching and stuff. I keep notebooks and a lot of my stories happen when I find I’m writing about the same thing, I’m making notes about the same thing. So there are observations; there are thoughts. That’s the way they come together when I’m writing something. I’ll often check back through them to see if there is anything I’ve forgotten that’s going to work very well here because I am probably going to be writing about similar things. Things are going to come up. I don’t think, “Oh, right, he does something and after that . . .” It’s a backwards process. It’s an excavation process. It’s about finding things in what’s already there and what I’ve already noticed.
TC: Are there any experiences you’d like to write about where you haven’t yet determined what the best way to write about them would be?
JW: I’ve started writing another book I’m kind of excited about. I don’t know how long it’s going to be yet, if it’s going to be a novella or a novel, but it’s a long fiction thing. I’m always, always very, very interested in not being able to speak. I write a lot about this, about Dora, and I found I was very interested in Ophelia and she kept coming up. I didn’t want her to because when I was younger I kind of hated Ophelia because she dies and she’s also very decorative and very pretty and is unable to take any action except that. And so I didn’t like that, because I thought that was kind of a role model and she was presented as a tragic heroine and I didn’t like it at all.
But she keeps coming up all the time through not speaking. And interesting, you know, of course Dora was written through a man, through Freud, and Ophelia was even more fictional. Freud didn’t really have much control over Dora. She did leave his analysis, although he did have control over how he described her and how he broke her down. But it was both a controlling act and a generous act because he’s such a good storyteller. There’s so much ambivalence in how he writes Dora. It’s very interesting.
I think I like writing about the unspoken. I like writing about people who don’t speak. And there’s a really great bit in Hamlet where Gertrude describes Ophelia dying, and she says she was incapable of her own distress. She talks about going down the river as one incapable of her own distress. She couldn’t even understand how to describe the trauma that she was going through. And I’m very interested in that and interested in how a character would use language who was unable to use language to describe her own distress. And that’s the next thing I’m working on.
TC: In Hotel, there are allusions to the writings of Joan Didion and Wayne Koestenbaum. Were there any other writers whose work you had wanted to allude to, but weren’t able to?
JW: Well, probably Jean Rhys and E.M. Forster. I mentioned Forster briefly, but I think Rhys tells a very pertinent story. She writes about women in her novels, and her female characters often live in hotels. They’re called hotels, but they’re really guesthouses or boarding houses. They’re not at all glamorous. In the early 20th century it was actually cheaper to live in a hotel but it was fraught with rules. You usually lived with a landlady. And rather than the guest having a pleasurable experience it seems that the guests are very constrained by rules and very much by appearing in public and being able to appear in public at breakfast and dinner behaving in the right way. And also, you know, living in fear of being able to pay the rent. Of being found to be proper. To be clean. To be full of sexual propriety. Not to misbehave.
TC: If someone read Vertigo and Hotel, where would you suggest they go next in terms of reading your work?
JW: I have another book out with an English-language publisher in Berlin, Readux Books, and that’s a book of pornography. Well, it’s 9.5 pornographic fairy tales. I’m interested in writing sex. I’m interested in it because it’s one of those things that’s notoriously difficult to describe. It also does lots of things with language that I’m very interested in. It’s suggestive. It’s a speech act because it’s interested in doing something directly to you while you’re reading it as well as describing something, so it has several functions I’m interested in. And it’s fun and I like fairy tales.
I would like to say it was a fun thing to write, but in the end it turned out to be a very unsexy thing to write. You know, really it’s writing about sex rather than straightforward pornography and it’s not as much fun to write because I ended up having to write most of it when I was very tired and it was the end of December and I was slightly ill and I’d gone on a residency. I was on my own with my dog and it was freezing cold and I was in a place I didn’t know. And I didn’t have time to finish it off, so I ended up writing it very quickly during this time. But I’m very happy with it. I think it has quite a lot of things in it that, again, afterwards, you realize “Oh yes, now I realize why I was writing that.” And you discover things about what you want to write when you’re writing it. I discovered I wanted to write a lot about indeterminate sexuality, about metamorphosis, about physical changes. So there’s that.
TC: What do you generally read when you’re not writing?
JW: I read a lot of stuff online and then I go back to books and then I go between the two. I read, you know, a lot in translation because translation is certainly giving me a lot of models for writing. I’m also involved in a prize for writing by women in translation which I’m trying to set up with a few other people in the UK and Germany and Ireland, because the amount of fiction by women that’s translated into English in the UK—I think it’s the same in the States—is much lower than the amount by men.
I’m sure there’re a number of factors in that, including one of the main practices which is looking back at prize lists—it’s only recently that they’ve been anywhere near equal in the UK. The Women’s Prize for Fiction was set up in 1996 to counter this idea that most of the time it was only 10 percent women on prize lists. So you get all these writers who’ve won a number of prizes, and you know, obviously they’re the ones who are going to get translated and more of them are going to be men. So it’s one of those things that just happened and we need to do something about it.
I really love translation. If you’re looking for things I really like, I really like Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found. She’s a Korean writer. That’s her first book translated into English, and I think there are two more coming soon. I’m really interested in her, the way she plays around with time. She’s certainly been an influence on my work. Marie Ndiaye, who is a French writer living in Germany. I read the Lispector stories. They’re amazing. You know, Lispector is someone who’s doing great things that interest me very much or was doing things that interest me very much and she was extraordinarily skilled with the way she deals with interior voice and certain swerves and plot when indeed nothing seems to be happening at all. She’s very playful. I love that. - Tobias Carroll
Photograph by Wayne Thomas.
Joanna Walsh (also known as the flâneuse Badaude) is a British author with a number of other creative identities. She is an illustrator, a fiction editor for the notorious webzine 3:AM (slogan: “Whatever it is, we’re against it”), and also runs the award-winning twitter account @read_women. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Walsh towards the end of the summer and into the fall about a couple of her recent publications: Hotel (published in September with Bloomsbury) and Vertigo (out in October with Dorothy, a publishing project). Her pornographic fairy-tale cycle, Grow a Pair (Readux Books), launched in October as well, and although we do not touch upon it much in the following, it deserves a spotlight too:
Grow a Pair is a feat of imagination: It is not a rapunzel plant stolen from the witch’s garden, for example, which sets these stories in motion, but a dick stolen from the witch’s dick-bush. Gender congeals and then is swiftly liquidated; sex-parts are set free to roam. Three big, secluded, forest-dwelling dicks attempt to construct three cunts, not out of sticks and straw, but out of matchsticks and Jell-O. The second dick wouldn’t know a real cunt if he saw one; the third dick would, and sees one, but decides he prefers Jell-O. Do I detect a trace of cultural critique? Most definitely, though it is laced with other meanings which do not settle. I could précis and précis, but I won’t go on: the pleasure’s in the details, in the small twists and turns.
Hotel hits upon a more tortured mood; it is both philosophical and enigmatical. There are different ways you could summarize what’s going on in its pages. The speaker (the book is a memoir, but a creative memoir) is a reviewer of hotels who finds herself ‘hotel surfing’ for a fairly prolonged period of time, partly to escape a marital shit-show at home. The writings which spin out of her stay muse on the nature of ‘home,’ the nature of ‘the hotel,’ the possible presence of the home in the hotel (or ‘Hometel,’ as one of the pieces is called), of the hostile in hospitality, of the hospital in the hotel, and so on.
Vertigo, a short story collection, meanders through a number of different scenarios: A woman out to purchase a dress in Paris ends up reflecting on what it means to appear to another, and on the conditions of appearance: Does one, by dint of having become habitual for the other, also become old? A petulant man waits for his order in an oyster restaurant, ready to strike out, the woman across from him notes, at anyone: at the waitress, or even at her, for his delayed meal. Young mothers are birthed by their children, become other people and perhaps self-estranged, not least because they are defined relationally, after their children are born. Each story in the book is acutely psychological. Each story is aglitter with pain and insight; often enough the pain it depicts arises on the part of women and in response to male behavior and the conventions of a heterosexual (and asymmetrical) world.
A similar kind of pain saturates Hotel. I think it is true to say that, in both Vertigo and Hotel, you can cut frustration with a knife. Something feels about to blow. But these works give us intrigue in addition to bleak affect. One of Walsh’s great gifts consists of the impeccable observations and novel phrases she hands us: “There is a hole in my side into which someone else’s desires fit” (Hotel); “There is nothing to do with this time but put some alcohol into it” (Vertigo); “I am anxious to redistribute—especially—food I know diners have previously rejected: leftovers, anomalous items: boiled carrots, a spoonful of hot sauce, a single tinned apricot. I do this by introducing them into stews, pâtés, and other dishes. These additions are not in the original recipes and sometimes they ruin a meal, though in ways the eaters can scarcely identify” (Vertigo); “Perhaps he is not the burglar I’ve planned for but a junkie, a drunk, a psycho. I am more comfortable with a drunk or a psycho: his passion, when I counterattack, will answer mine” (Vertigo). Moments of blazing perspicacity, creativity, intelligence, and dark humor are insanely abundant in her writing; they pop at every turn: like nails in the sand: like diamonds in water.— Natalie Helberg
Natalie Helberg (NH): I thought we could begin with Vertigo. It seems to me that the stories in this collection spiral around a set of related ideas. In the story which shares the collection’s title, the narrator tells us “Vertigo is the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space.” It is a state, she says, without anchorage, in which one pitches “forward, outward and upward.” In a sense, ‘vertigo’ is linked to relocation, particularly to perspectival relocation: what we saw from there, we now see from here. In line with this, “Vertigo,” which is, for the most part, written in the first person, includes italicized paragraphs which switch the mode of narration to the third person. Displacement is a prominent theme throughout the rest of the collection as well, as is misplacement (one story’s narrator, for example, suggests that she is “not the right teller,” the right narrator; the children in the story “The Children’s Ward” “do and say nothing childlike” and there is the sense that they, perhaps, do not belong there, in the ward, at all).
Were there particular themes — relocation, displacement, misplacement — which catalyzed the writing, or did you discover them in the writing after the fact? To what extent do you write with an idea in mind?
Joanna Walsh (JW): It’s interesting that you mention relocation and displacement. I’m fascinated by prepositions, words that tell us about where we are and about our relations to other things—or people. Prepositions tend to be vague: they can mean several things at once and are often grouped differently in different languages. I wrote a story, “Hauptbahnhof” (in Fractals), about German prepositions, in which the narrator is always confused about how to locate herself, especially regarding a man she (believes she) is waiting to meet.
I’m interested in kinds of subjectivity, especially in relation to the people we live with. I’m not sold on some of the methods we’ve been given. The French philosopher Luce Irigaray writes that subjectivity is essentially relational (prepositionary?), that “Who are you?” can only be answered with “and who are you? Can we meet? Talk? Love? Create something together? Thanks to which milieu? What between us (entre nous)?” (“The Three Genres”).
I don’t ‘envisage’ my work. I’m not a writer who sets out to construct something according to a proposition. I’m attracted to the idea of chance but, for me, to set it up in my writing would itself be a less organic, more formal exercise. I see my work as finding things out, as excavating, drawing things together, more than as constructing something. It’s a delicate process, like threading a needle, and like threading a needle you have to keep very still when you’re doing it, and make just the right sorts of movements.
I notice common themes in my stories often only after I’ve written them: I could do a critical reading on myself. That kind of exercise can be fun, and sometimes it’s useful: I notice things I should pursue. But I’m very obliging, far too ready to create theories around my writing in response to questions, like a patient who is ready to talk about herself in the third person with her doctor, and this is tempting, but it’s also dangerous: she could die from it.
NH: When you say, above, that you’re “not sold on the methods we’ve been given,” do you mean the methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings, or the methods we’ve been given to conceive of subjectivity?
JW: It’s difficult to separate those two, because I think the idea of ‘methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings’ already involves some concept of subjectivity, so I mean both. I guess what I really mean is that I’m annoyed by the popular idea that a self should be a united thing. I’m always trying to find ways to reproduce the effects of subjectivity in writing: the way different moments can coexist within it, how time for a 45-year-old is different from time for a 5-year-old, and how time is also distributed across place through all sorts of things like actions and habits, so spaces become different too.
NH: The fact that you’re interested in prepositions makes so much sense. The works you sent me seem focused—on inter-subjectivity, yes—but also on language itself: its parts, its forms, its genres, on figures of speech, and so on. In Grow a Pair, synecdoche becomes playfully literal: In one tale, a princess is waiting for her one true cock, which could just mean she’s waiting for a prince-guy, if ‘cock’ stands in for him, but the cock in the tale is severed from the prince and becomes autonomous. There is textual support, moreover, for the idea that it was an autonomous nuisance all along. It is a whole unto itself, not merely a part standing in for a whole.
JW: Well, that’s reverse synecdoche, perhaps… I think I sometimes have a problem seeing the big picture, but yes, I’m attracted to ideas around wholeness and fragmentation, and boundaries. Well, I refuse to pull myself together…
NH: In both Hotel and Grow a Pair, you seem particularly fascinated with the pun. In Hotel, part of this fascination seems to be linked to an interest in the Freudian uncanny, which implies both the familiar and the unfamiliar, the homely and the unhomely (the familiar in the unfamiliar, the unhomely in the homely). Freud, of course, appears in the text, and his notion of the uncanny is mentioned. The text’s linguistic play fortifies the connections between dissimilar concepts like home and hotel, hospital and hotel, and so on: “Dora is a physical case. / KM is a mental case. / I am always escaping. I am no more than a suitcase.”
JW: I’ve been told that etymology and puns are not reliable roads down which to develop arguments, but I can’t resist them. A pun is a sideways move on language: homonym rather than synonym. Hotel and hospital really do share a root name, as religious institutions once served as both. I like it when language peels away from meaning and engages in other kinds of relations with itself. Maybe it’s a kind of escape, or, because both meanings remain present, something that only looks like escape but is an idea held in tension: even unrelated meanings evoked by puns sit side by side and the reader can’t help but make some kind of link: that’s a reader’s job. I’m probably occasionally guilty of using homophones to leap from one side of the road to another (and maybe they can go no further), but most of the puns in Hotel deliberately convey joint meanings. The suitcase pun sounds like it’s at the lighter end: sonic and throwaway, but it also goes back to Pan(Dora)’s box (all women are cases of one kind or another).
NH: Hotel is marketed as part memoir, but the chapters in it become so fanciful, with movie stars (Mae West, Groucho Marx), continental philosophers (Heidegger), and names associated with classic psychoanalytic writings (Freud, Dora) turned into characters, too. The chapters sometimes have the feel of an essay, but at other times they take on something like the form of a screenplay (e.g., we’re given a cast of characters and their roles before several of the texts get going). The lines the recognizable characters are given are sometimes quotations from their own writings. That being said, I thought your use of Heidegger activated a sense of the uncanny in the text as well: When Heidegger shows up, discoursing on home and dwelling, he seems both entirely appropriate (since the chapters in the collection pivot around the notion of ‘home,’ which they are trying, to a certain extent, to unfold) and odd (since Heidegger used the language of ‘home’ and ‘dwelling’ to hit at something entirely unrelated to the more everyday sense of home which Hotel seems preoccupied with): You’ve spliced Heidegger—very fruitfully—into concerns which are foreign, or unfamiliar, to him.
JW: It was important to me that Freud, Heidegger, etc., as characters, said only what they wrote in their texts (I like the idea of trying to re-hydrate a person from his or her dry pages). I’m also interested in misattributions and misquotations, though, in Hotel, I always let the reader know when there’s no reliable source for a statement.
Heidegger seems to be at war with nouns, and at home with verbs; Heidegger’s is an interesting crusade against language. His idea of dwelling is etymological: the path it goes down in English is very different from the path it goes down in German.
NH: I feel I should insert a sheepish laugh here. I guess I should quit trying to analyze your texts/prove, so to speak, something about them/pin them down/make them solid and scrutable. I understand that that can be a very violent gesture (it’s so limiting!). I think a lot about interpretation and what it means to track motifs and themes and try to put them together. It’s one of my favorite ways to engage with texts, and often I can’t help but do it (there’s a kind of hermeneutic pleasure, I think, I’m pursuing), even though I realize that a good text isn’t one that lends itself to definitive interpretation, and even though I recognize that any interpretation I come up with must ultimately dissolve. The act of interpretation is for me something like a game; it is a way for me to engage deeply with a text at a given time (it provides a focus for my attention to the text), though without exhausting the text, and while leaving open the possibility that I will return to the text in a different way in the future.
JW: I find family resemblances and Venn diagrams useful ways of visualizing meaning, and I think you can use these to think about reading too. It’s probably inevitable that each reading will draw particular things from a text, so that a reader can use, as a handy way of categorizing it, a memory-tag—but with good writing this will shift if you reread, or even as you remember reading. The best texts are open to a range of interpretation: anything that starts and ends with the author’s intention will die very quickly, or its words might become purely decorative: then you can put it on a T-shirt and things become less about how the text is read and more about what it looks like: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. But while there’s a reader, even of a T-shirt, some kind of meaning’s always waiting, like the faces that form in clouds, or the patterns in the carpet.
NH: I want to go back, for a moment, to the fact that, in Hotel, you’re using theorists as characters and redeploying what they’ve written as dialogue. It seems that part of your creative process is connected to a reading practice. Your writings seem to have steeped in theory to a certain extent; they seem to have, to use your language, drawn theory in. You mentioned Irigaray informs your concerns with subjectivity as well. How do you see the relation between reading (theoretical and other works) and writing? I know Kathy Acker is one of your influences, and that for her the two acts were indissociable.
JW: I like theory (as a—for want of a better definition—‘creative’ writer, am I even allowed to say this?). I like theory that’s written as if it’s ‘creative’ writing. I like Christine Brooke-Rose, and Maggie Nelson, and Denise Riley and Anne Carson’s criticism as well as their poetry and fiction. They acknowledge what language does even as they are using it: they don’t try to pretend it’s some kind of neutral tool. I like Acker’s methods. They’re not straight cut-up (maybe that’s an involuntary pun). In The Childlike Life of The Black Tarantula, there’s nothing coldly experimental about the way she rewrites classic texts, and the result has in no way the alienating effect of many other cut-ups. But her work, commenting on what it remakes, is always criticism as well as fiction. I like her emails with McKenzie Wark, which are all voice—voice whose artifice is very natural and whose naturalness is very artificial—which constantly undermines itself and turns itself over: it is irreverent and then surprisingly reverent by turns so that, in some ways, she seems to be holding a conversation only with herself.
NH: It’s funny that you mention the correspondence between Acker and Wark. I’m just reading that. The idea that Acker seems at times, in the correspondence, to be conversing with herself is interesting, too. There’s a line from Hotel that seems to be haunting me: “I have suspected for a while that some people talk to the page because there is no one else they can talk to any more.” The writing scene that Acker was embedded in in San Francisco was and continues to be very community-based, so much so that the communal scene itself often enough becomes the subject, the content, of the work: writerly names are named in the writing itself and in a way become signatures which indicate where the reader can place this work on the literary map; ‘gossip’ gets in and becomes art, even becomes explicitly framed as art (I’m thinking of Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto and even, in the broader American scene, Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too). Anyway, scenes like that are conducive to such fruitful collaborations and dialogues: there are others to talk to, and this talk may make it onto a page. Then there are writers like Anne Carson, the lone wolf types (though she is constantly communicating with the dead writers and thinkers she loves, constantly incorporating them into her own thinking and art). I wonder if you might tell us about your own relation, as a writer, to community. When did you begin to write, and, when you did begin, were you surrounded by others who wrote, or did you only begin to come into contact with writers later on? Are you a lone wolf type, or do you have writing relationships which fuel your practice?
JW: The emails show Acker as lonelier than I’d have expected: she complains about it (though this might simultaneously be a seductive pose, and I do often think of works of fiction—in which I’d include emails and letters—as really elaborate secondary sexual characteristics). When I started writing, I was completely on my own. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and I didn’t think of the things I was doing as ‘writing’ in any formal sense. One of the reasons I’ve stayed with writing is the people. I used to be an illustrator: that was lonely. I don’t know why, but maybe it’s because some illustrators have a different approach to using words. I suspect I also found it isolating because of the economic structure of illustrative work: there are no ‘readings’: you seldom connect with your audience; work is usually commissioned in response to writing, often as the last stage in a publication process, and you rarely meet the author, get to exchange ideas or influence their end of the process. Some illustrators work in studios, but I prefer to work alone, with access to collaboration and discussion when I need it. I like emails and all forms of disembodied communication (except phone: I like writing, really: g-chat, Twitter; I’ve fallen in love by email…). I find talking face-to-face intoxicating—with the right person. There are a few people I write to about writing and the writing about this can itself become something creative: a game, something with a texture of its own…
NH: I’m curious about what your relationship to the materiality of a text or book is, especially in light of the fact that you’ve worked as an illustrator. Do you relate to creative writing—text on a page—as if it is a visual object, a thing, for lack of a better word, with a visual dimension which sits alongside its other dimensions? No one would ever space an illustration you’ve handed over to them differently, for example, in the way that they might space a piece of text you’ve handed over to them differently, or change its font and so on (though maybe poetry is conventionally more respected than prose as far as preserving the original spacing goes). It’s unusual for writers to have a hand in designing their own books these days—it’s just not how we divvy up the labor, culturally. Do you ever find that division—writers versus designers—frustrating? Could you speak to these questions in connection with Hotel, which seems to sit on the page in a very interesting way, perhaps partly because of the way that short quotations are interspersed, or distributed, between the text’s paragraphs?
JW: I find writing different from illustrating: the gaps are in different places: I don’t mean literally, but the gaps I use as a writer to work with the reader. Illustrating other people’s texts, I find myself playing around these gaps. I don’t illustrate my own work because that would involve somehow second-guessing myself as I was writing.
The page layout in Hotel is excellent: those chunky chapter and section headers, and the elegant, slightly square, page format. It was very important to me that the ‘screenplay’ parts of the book—where characters like Freud and Heidegger have ‘conversations’ with the narrator— looked like a screenplay: centered, in a Courier font, with the names of the speakers in capital letters. When I sent my final manuscript to Bloomsbury, I had formatted it very carefully. They proofed it, and sent it back to me with all my formatting equally carefully removed… luckily they were happy to put it back.
I’ve never experimented with breaking up the page in ways that are outside the conventions of typography, but I do find paragraphing, use of italics, line-spaces, etc. important: I think most authors do.
NH: The ‘fragment’ seems to be one of the central forms you’re using in Hotel. There’s also another form that’s marvelously conspicuous: the postcard form. Two pieces in the text, “Marriage postcards” and “Postcards from 26 hotels,” are assemblages of postcards. These postcards are, of course, not literally postcards, so I wonder if you could elaborate on what they are: How are you conceiving of them, and how did you stumble upon them or invent them as an organizational unit for these pieces? They seem related, in some way, to the fragment, though they come with a different set of associations: They imply an addressee, for example, and actions of sending and receiving in a way that fragments do not, or at least do not necessarily.
JW: The “26 postcards” were written at the beginning of the process of writing Hotel, as a kind of warm-up exercise, though I didn’t really think of them in that way at the time because I don’t like to formalize how I write, so maybe it’s better to call them one of many approaches I tried. In the end I put them at the end of the book, though there are also some postcards half-way through. There are lots of approaches to communicating with an unseen correspondent in Hotel, because there’s a lot in the book about the difficulties of communication, and especially the difference between talking (and the ‘talking cure’) and writing, and also corresponding. There’s a lot in the book about email, and g-chat as well as postcards. Dora writes a suicide letter, then, attempting no harm against herself, puts it away in her desk where her parents—to whom it is addressed— discover it. I quote Freud, who “remembered seeing and hearing that among people with hysterical mutism, writing vicariously stood in for speech. They wrote fluently, more quickly, and better than other people did.”
NH: You mentioned that, when you started writing, you were hesitant to conceive of what you were writing as writing. I wonder whether you could elaborate on that. Was this because the form the writing assumed was unconventional, or was it because you didn’t think that what you were writing about was the stuff of ‘real’ writing, or something else? I’m curious about how our conceptions of ‘real’ writing are formed and about what informs them. In an interview you did for The Fem, you spoke of rendering seemingly insignificant experiences in words as a feminist gesture of sorts. Other writers have felt it necessary to invent, inhabit, and validate forms of their own. Is the writing you are doing now continuous in any way with the writing you were doing earlier on and which you did not, then, conceive of as legitimate writing? Has your conception of ‘real’ writing shifted over time?
JW: It was definitely to do with my conception of what writing was, and a conception of what a person like me might be allowed to write. I have a degree in English literature, but I had no framework for reading as a writer. I was not inspired by a lot of the writing I saw around me: this is partly why I now read a lot in translation, as well as a lot of books published by indie presses who are more willing to publish unconventional works. The realist novel is just one form amongst many.
Ideas that stood in my way (as they do for many women) included a notion of what was important, what could be discussed, and where, and how; the idea that writing about family, domesticity, and romance should be confined to certain genres (even to special places, and ways of writing, within the ‘genre’ of literary fiction); as well as the notion that literature should be ‘improving’ or tell the reader about something ‘interesting.’ This is why I’m so interested in writing female voices that are internal monologues. At the moment I’m writing a voice that doesn’t know itself, that has no real vocabulary for expressing its desires, or identifying its distress, but which is able to reveal these nevertheless.
NH: Your interest in internal monologues is definitely apparent in both Vertigo and Hotel, though both texts also make use of other modes of narration as well. There are pieces in Vertigo, for example, which expertly navigate and exploit the fine line dividing the first person and the third person point of view. I mentioned the title piece, “Vertigo,” above. Another piece, “Vagues,” seems to start off in the third person: an oyster restaurant is described in detail, the narrative voice comes to fixate on a man sitting at one of the tables, but eventually the third person gets sucked into a first person perspective: The woman sitting across from him, who has been narrating the whole time, speaks of herself: she says ‘I.’ We only realize that she’s been narrating once she does. The shift in point of view perhaps helps to convey the woman as a particular kind of self, one that risks being forgotten (though everything, the whole narrative world, is filtered through her).
JW: Yes, I’m interested in how we use language to convey ourselves, when words are such worn-out, borrowed things that it’s easy to think of ourselves in the third person. It’s pretty much impossible to use language without quoting, if not directly, then by referencing a sensibility: you find yourself talking like a newsreader, or a teacher you once heard, or whatever (to quote Vertigo, “I say ‘you.’ Of course I mean ‘me.’”).
NH: Could you tell us more about your next project? A voice that doesn’t know itself, that lacks a vocabulary for expressing its desires, but which somehow conveys them seems like it would be very challenging to write! How are you approaching the task?
JW: I want to do something new (to me, at least) in every project, so I don’t think about approaches beforehand: the writing process is all about evolving techniques to cope with what I’m exploring. In the next thing, I’m writing about a teenager, someone whose memories are limited in terms of timescale but are still very sharp and intrusive. She’s relatively well-read, so has a wide vocabulary, but has little of what people would conventionally call ‘life-experience,’ though she has experienced her whole life up to that point. I want to look at the quality of that overlooked experience, and at how she expresses it, knowing, herself, that it’s not conventionally valued.
NH: It seems that both Vertigo and Hotel are circling around the figure of a distressed, even suffocated, female subject. In Vertigo, this figure is manifest as a number of different characters (that is, in the different stories that make up the text), while in Hotel, it is manifest as one subject, whose subjectivity is itself distributed across, or manifest in and as, a number of different textual forms (postcards and diaries, among others). There is even definite crosstalk between Vertigo and Hotel on the subject of home—the former text includes the rather dark consideration of home and family history, “Claustrophobia.” Hotels are not alien to Vertigo either. They—the infamous ‘they’—say that some poets write the same poem their whole lives. I wonder what your own relation is to returning to familiar themes in new ways. Repetition with difference. The new project sounds like it might, to a certain degree, be this kind of return. Do you have any reflections on what is sometimes the need to write and rewrite and rewrite (or any other concluding thoughts)?
JW: Well ‘suffocated’ is a good word, because I think I do have a thing about breathing, like in the claustrophobia story, and in Hotel I write a lot about Freud’s patient, “Dora,” who stops speaking: speech being another thing that comes out of the mouth. I’ve had attacks of claustrophobia a few times, including one where I was staying somewhere and had to sleep downstairs on the sofa, because I couldn’t stay in the bedroom; I didn’t want to tell anyone about it, but even at the time I found it quite funny.
Someone I once met told me, “You just write how you write.” He was a writer but quite a different sort from me, and I didn’t know him for long but that stuck with me: why worry? There’s no point writing anything that’s not felt urgently. I’m always writing about home and family, and love, and escape, and identity; I think those are big enough topics for anyone. –Joanna Walsh & Natalie Helberg
Joanna Walsh’s writing enacts what Chris Kraus has called “a literal vertigo—the feeling that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space—by probing the spaces between things.” Walsh, a British writer and illustrator, is fascinated by liminal spaces, especially in the many varieties encountered by tourists. She’s sometimes known by her French nom de guerre, Badaude, loosely translated as “gawk,” and suggesting the perambulatory figure of the flaneuse. Her work trades on the literary genres of the miniature—short stories, essays, even postcards—reminiscent of Marcel Schwob, Clarice Lispector, Roland Barthes, and Lydia Davis. Her 2014 Twitter initiative @read_women is an archival who’s who of modern female writers, extolling in its tweets the distaff works of everyone from Leonora Carrington to Elena Ferrante. Aside from her abundant online presence,Walsh’s prolific output includes three new books: Hotel, Vertigo, and Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairytales About Sex, all of which run from the bantam lengths of fifty-five to 170 pages.
Among her seemingly disparate subjects are hotel architecture and etiquette, sexual politics in twentieth-century psychoanalysis, the perils of family vacations, the fantasias of cinema, and fables of transgendered witches. In Walsh’s feminist cosmogony, all are brought to bear as inscrutable souvenirs of the everyday mundane. She elucidates the slippery, gendered in-betweenness of everyday ritual in a manner reminiscent of Derrida’s disquisition on the chora—that most mysterious and mundane of spaces, not unlike the anonymous corridor of a hotel.
I reached Walsh, appropriately enough, at a hotel in Mexico. She and I shared a lively discussion about hotel culture and theory, travel fantasies, and the contemporary potential of fairy tales.
You write toward the beginning of Hotel that “A hotel, restless, cannot be a home, not even a home away from home … A hotel’s secret is that it’s only a seeming mini-break from the rights and wrongs of home.” Similarly, in Bruce Bégout’s phenomenology of the motor hotel, Lieu Common, he refers to the hotel as a “home without qualities.”
A hotel has no qualities perhaps because its connections have different consequences than they do at home. Encounters are, as Raoul Vaneigem describes—and I quote him in Hotel—formalized “inauthentic.”
The hotel becomes a kind of disorienting counterfeit to the authentic shelter of the home, which is the dominant space of traditional Western values because it’s a place of permanent or rooted dwelling—in the Heideggerian sense of the word.
There’s something a bit silly about Heidegger and his hut (which I write about in Hotel). There’s nothing more kitsch than the search for authenticity—but it’s impossible not to engage in it at some level. There’s something slightly silly about most desires, probably because they’re not needs. Unless we’re engaged in a constant struggle for basic necessities—and thank goodness I’m not—we live in a world in which desires claim a massive role. Desire involves definition, choice, and rejection. Hotels are all about defined choices. A refusal of desire leads to a lack of definition. Homes have a lot of blank spaces. It’s easy to get lost there.
If we could shift our traditional notions of “placeness” from the home to the hotel, we could find a new way of considering modern space.
Well, a hotel is a commercial enterprise. It’s not set up for our benefit, though it appears to be. Nothing fits perfectly in this hotel where I am right now. The chair is far too low for the desk, and I have to sit on a pillow to type. It’s difficult to think of either homes or hotels as pure space, as places we choose—they are materializations of psychological space. Freud uses an economic metaphor, with “a desire from the unconscious” as the “capitalist” who also needs the “entrepreneur” of a “diurnal thought” in order to construct a dream. The dreamer, I suppose, is a kind of consumer, or hotel guest. I wrote, “A hotel is a dream and must avoid the disappointments of the actual, but it requires something physical: an entrepreneur to provide the furniture for desire. And it is made of both human and inhuman materials.”
It would be interesting to imagine a hometel without the context of either a hotel or a home, but I’m not sure it’s possible. Hotels and homes are codependent but it’s a shifting codependency, as what we desire from either of them is not fixed. Though each can invade the other, what seems stable is their polarity, and also this—if a hotel is an open but formalized exchange of money, and time is money and so are so many other things—for something that addresses itself to our desires, then homes also contain their very own halls of mirrors that conceal the number and nature of the things we sacrifice to keep us homeful, not homeless. I think the knowledge that these things are hidden is at the heart of both hotel and home, and the relationship between them.
The hotel’s increasing focus on fantasy and interiority has made its own space—it becomes part of the tourist’s primary experience of travel.
You could go on holiday and never step out of your hotel room. I’m enjoying staying “home” in this hotel tonight. There’s a big window overlooking a park and, even better, a six-lane highway whose lights provide some interest as it’s night and the park is dark. I’m definitely cheating on my spare time when I should be out “enjoying” the city.
Hotel also focuses on what you call the “language system” of the hotel experience, which brings the symbolic regime of patriarchy beyond domestic life into recreation and tourism. How important was it for you to dig outside of the typical theoretical reference points for “homeliness”—Freud, Heidegger, the situationists, et cetera—to showcase these dissenting female voices?
Most of the writing I read on hotels by women was fiction or autofiction, not theory. Jean Rhys, Joan Didion, Katherine Mansfield—they wrote about the texture of living in hotels, its rhythms and rituals. At the same time, Rhys and Mansfield wrote about service, the lives some of their women characters were keenly aware of refusing. We don’t live in the early twentieth century, but service is something most grown-up women know about. Even rich women are usually the ones who organize and pay the cleaner, the nanny. And there’s an intimacy to many of the services women provide professionally. The job of a chambermaid is so different from the job of a janitor, and these jobs still tend to be gendered. Most women who do the “home work” I talk about in Hotel—unequal amounts of unpaid domestic labor—are encouraged to feel they’re doing it for love, and I’m sure that’s the case, but they could do other things for love and they tend to have limited choice in the way love can be expressed.
The joke every American seems to make when traveling to Europe is that the hotels there are half the size and double the price. Do we expect different forms of hospitality, fantasy, amenities, luxuries?
I don’t know whether Americans expect anything different in their hotels. As a European, the U.S. sometimes seems an almost fictional space connected by a language—and we’re dominated by U.S. culture. An American friend first visited Europe as a student and was disappointed that the castles didn’t look like the ones she’d seen in Disneyland as a child. She’d expected them to be pastel-colored and sparkly. As a child I knew what European castles looked like. I was instinctually revolted by the Disney version—I knew castles didn’t really glitter, and I felt I must be being obscurely manipulated—but I had to engage in a kind of doublethink, knowing the Disney version might currently be more important.
Do you think these differing symbolic orders of the European and American hotel are represented as such in their respective literatures?
The division seems more between the early and late twentieth century, and beyond. In the early twentieth century, people on both sides of the Atlantic really could live in hotels, but I doubt many of them were very glamorous. There was something shameful about living in a hotel, as though guests had neither the economic nor emotional resources to construct homes of their own—but this had its own glamour, too. In the screwball comedies of the 1930s, Fred and Ginger, Loy and Powell are never at home.
Are there other writers whose focus on the hotel presents a different perspective on the complexity of tourism and hotel dwelling?
I like Sophie Calle’s work very much. She’s one of the few artists who treats the subject of working, rather than staying, in a hotel. In a work called L’Hotel, she took a job as a chambermaid and illicitly photographed people’s luggage. It’s a typical Calle project—a small-scale transgression, a minor, but very personal, impertinence. I love how she deals with the petty. She’s not a shock artist—and art is under so much pressure to shock—but an annoyance artist, and annoyance is surely an underrated affect.
In Hotel you include a series of resort postcards, where you describe in short capsules some of the quotidian frustrations of marriage and love that exist just outside of the frame of the picture-perfect fantasy. In some sense, I think these parallel your new story collection, Vertigo, which often invokes a tourist whose spatial displacedness mirrors an estrangement from the “confines” of home.
Lots of the Vertigo stories are holiday or travel stories, stories about places where we’re forced to confront our own oddness, especially our oddness in groups, and particularly families whose members, traveling, have no recourse to the support structures of external relationships they have at home. I’m also concerned with how strange words are, and how difficult it is to get them to visit reality for any length of time before they peel off, start obeying their own rules. I find all writing strange or estranging. I think I’m one of those writers for whom, as Thomas Mann said, “writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” When I started, I definitely found it hard to string a sentence together, and then I got interested in that. I don’t like to read writers who make me feel they are entirely in control of their material. I don’t like that relationship between a reader and a writer.
I’m also intrigued by your use of the paradigm of the fairy tale in Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairy tales About Sex, because fairy tales are sort of a genre of tourist or travel literature. Do they provide you with a unique template?
Who is it that said that fairy tales are a king visiting another king to borrow a cup of sugar? Was it Angela Carter? That’s what I love about fairy tales, the combination of the grand and the minute. I love Calvino’s collection of Italian fairy tales—such economy of language. There’s a wonderful throwaway line in one of the stories about “a little door into Scotland.” How fantastic to cut any “realistic” approach to moving from one scene to the next.
The characters in Grow a Pair gorge on sex, of every form and pleasure. As fantasy genres, do porn and fairy tales have a unique bond in how we relate to them?
There should be more writing about sex, and it should be less sectioned off from other areas of writing. It’s notoriously difficult to write about. How do we know if we’re doing it right? We’re back to anxieties about authenticity. Ideally, sex writing provides the writer with access to the fluidity of language. Writing about sex is often meant to be a turn-on, of course, so it’s a kind of speech act that reveals language’s multiple intentions. Everything becomes at least double. I like every kind of “suggestive” language—and suddenly the word “suggestive” sounds so … suggestive. Once you start talking about sex, everything sounds dirty and all language is brought into question. I love puns, and lots of puns are dirty—their function both to conceal and reveal at the same time. Puns are not really very funny though, are they? I’m a real lover of stupid, clumsy, obvious jokes where the purpose is to rehearse something over, to make an exchange. I’m not a fan of real wit. It can be bit show-offy and aggressive. I love a joke that ends lame—phatic humor, perhaps.
Well, I didn’t really answer your question there … - Erik Morse