Review :: Joanna Walsh, Vertigo

Vertigo Cover

I picked up this book on the strength of its publisher, And Other Stories, who have recently published some fantastic fiction by, amongst others, Deborah Levy, Yuri Herrera and Carlos Gamerro. I was also previously aware of Joanna Walsh as she is responsible for the #readwomen hashtag, which has profoundly affected my reading life by introducing me to an array of extraordinary and neglected women writers, including Ann Quin and Christine Brooke-Rose.

I really enjoyed this and was particularly impressed by the technical mastery and restraint exhibited in the prose, which recalls Nathalie Sarraute, Clarice Lispector (as noted by Jeff Vandermeer on the blurb) and Marguerite Duras in that that it moves fluidly between descriptions of the real and the thoughts of the characters, which often, and correctly, involves shifting between pronouns. Frequently, as we think, we use ‘you’ to refer to ourselves, we talk to ourselves, something writers attempting this mode of psychological realism often miss. Sometimes the ‘you’ addresses a missing significant other with whom we are engaged in an imagined dialogue and, in the case of these stories as well as in real life, this is often a lover, ex-lover, parent or child.

“You made yourself small on top of me, and I held myself still while you told me about the lovers you’d had while we were together. I held myself carefully because if I showed any reaction you would stop telling me. And then I would know no more than before.”
— ‘New Year’s Day’

There is something profoundly empathetic about this display of how we think about others in relation to ourselves, and it becomes particularly haunting when we are shown the divide between the truth of our cogitations and what goes on in real life. We ask ourselves questions, run phantasy scenarios, poke and prod at the temporal contingencies of indecision and regret. The stories in this collection capture these minutiae of consciousness by virtue of this formal experimentation, which never clouds intelligibility. “Style,” as Lacan noted, “is a question of to whom you are addressing yourself” and it is often the case that it is, in fact, ourselves whom we are addressing: various components of ourselves, and images of other people we have internalised — each in a unique voice. This idea of addressing the self is used to particularly good effect in ‘Half the World Over’, which brings to mind Michel Butor’s La Modification (a novel written entirely in the second person).

Additionally, when we experience a dislocation of some sort, our thoughtstreams will shift into the third person, as when the narrator of ‘Vertigo’ is setting off home on the plane, preparing to move back into a familiar lifestyle and reflecting on her holiday, surprised at her own happiness by which she becomes dissociated.

“The third person. There was no sign of this happiness on the outside, she knew.”

I would describe this voice as sort of the reverse of free indirect discourse, which is narration in the third person with elements of first person speech. This is first person narrative which modulates into the second and third as appropriate because, after all, “my direct discourse is still the free indirect discourse running through me.” (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus)

So there is a fine balance at play here between precise attention to the real world, the world of objects, and the inner world of the characters. Because the prose is possessive of the minimalism characteristic of the nouveau roman, there is never any of the confusion between the two that one experiences upon reading, say Ulysses or the novels of Samuel Beckett — to my mind this is a good thing. I remember when I first listened to the full-length audiobook of Ulysses I realised I had confused a lot of Stephen’s inner monologue (fragmented first person) with the third person “realist” framing narrative. Here there is a strong sense of the influence of either Sarraute or Duras, both of whom were in turn influenced by Joyce but who employ these techniques with a greater degree of distinction between voices. I have been fretting constantly over this question in regards to my own fiction. It seems to me that to write a novel so experimental it would necessitate a degree in literature in 2016 would be utter folly in terms of garnering readership, not to mention conservative and elitist in all the wrong ways. Gone is the patriarchal, academic vision of High Literature that led Joyce to say his work would “keep professors busy for three centuries”, and good riddance (I must quickly add this is not to say that writers and literature-fanatics will not continue to read and enjoy the incredible Joyce). It’s not even certain that the humanities will last three centuries from today in their current incarnation. My current rule of thumb here is that if you are going to experiment, do so for a reason other than showing off. What Walsh manages to do, and what I would argue all writers today should do, in reducing the amount of noise, fuss and pretence in her prose, in the application of an economy of language, is condense rather than reduce the influence of the 20th century avant-garde into something deeply contemporary and moving, which it to say it comes with the human element — an honesty and sincerity — that avant-gardists so often lack.

This darting back and forth between world and mind is on display most prominently in the title story ‘Vertigo’, when the narrator describes her intuition of vertigo (“the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space. I sense no anchorage. I will pitch forward, outward and upward.”) and this interior sensation is equated with nightfall itself: “then night falls curtainwise. I say ‘falls’, weighted — nothing to stop it — outwards and upwards as well as down.” This image is astonishing and psychedelic. The disorientating description of vertigo itself is amplified by the location of an analogous model in the real. A synchronisation of thought and reality is in operation, in the same way that when one experiences vertigo the sensation of altitude begins to seep through the mind and into the body. As Deleuze and Guattari remind us, contra Freud & Lacan, “If desire produces, its product is real. If desire is productive, it can be productive in the real world and can produce only reality… The objective being of desire is the Real in and of itself.” A lot of so-called psychological realism or stream-of-consciousness fiction is not “realistic” precisely because it refuses to let in the world of objects, favouring nested interior regressions and in doing so making the Cartesian error of absolute separation between the mind and the body in the world.1

In Cinema I Deleuze discusses the “semi-subjectivity” of the cinematic image, its being-with-the-world (after Heidegger): the camera is neither totally within the scene nor totally without it. Here, as with Robbe-Grillet’s novel La jalousie, the camera-eye can be seen as a model of embedded consciousness itself, a materialistic model of perception (eschewing the aforementioned mysticisation of consciousness), for it is certain that we too are neither totally within the world nor totally without it.

This collection of stories has a rare clarity of vision and purpose. Utterly successful, highly recommended — I shall be buying her other book Hotel and writing about it here.

  1. This does not apply in the case of Beckett’s Malone Dies and the Unnameable, since they take place in ontological nether-regions between life and death and feed on the memories of the semi-separated consciousnesses. The point being that we should not forget a character is in the world when they’re in the world.