By Thomas Storey.
Not quite a short story collection, but not really a novel, Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo washes over you with quietly astounding force, leaving you haunted by its precarious beauty.
In Vertigo Walsh collects a series of largely plotless vignettes — capturing fleeting moments in time from the perspective of seemingly dislocated protagonists — all of which are suffused with wry humour and an ineffable sadness. Together they impart a sense of melancholy and disjunction, with each story offering an oblique reflection on time, identity, love or loss so that the collection forms a beautifully coherent whole, tied together by the resigned, detached quality of Walsh’s style. Her protagonists embody this detachment, appearing free floating in a world they can’t quite engage with — missed connections, lost associations, the alienating thrill of the foreign and the disorientating numbness of modern travel all recur. In the first story, ‘Fin de Collection’, she writes, “The first effect of abroad is strangeness. It makes me strange to myself”. This essential strangeness is alienating, but is also enabling, as if by taking a step back she is able to observe more completely the conventions and conflicts that make up the everyday.
In Vertigo not quite fitting in, or feeling the awkward chafe of a socially imposed role is an unending process – one characterised by grudging adjustment, quiet rebellion or resigned acquiescence. Young mothers who experience the sudden strangeness of this new role as if “in the youth of our young motherhood our children had given birth to our function”, or the lament of the protagonist in the titular story ‘Vertigo’, “It is cruel to expect me to be both mother and daughter – such different expectations”. Walsh suggests that identity is fragile, and oscillates between an imposition and an act. In the repetitions of social formulae we rehearse and therefore create our own identity, which is both a reflection of how others see us and how we see ourselves. In ‘Claustrophobia’ a daughter, struggling to relate to her mother, realises that “Home is a rehearsal, by which I mean a repetition like in French: both what’s behind the curtain and in front of it”. In Walsh’s world identities are inconsistent, and can be slipped on and off with the adoption of a new style of clothes, or a writing style. In ‘Online’ her protagonist attempts to shore up her own persona following her husband’s infidelities through writing to him: “I have somehow assembled some words that, when seen through a glass screen, might look something like it could begin to be somebody”. This fashioning of a self – through words, through clothes – is unstable and liable to slip away, revealing something more fractured and nebulous beneath.
The lapse in marital fidelity in ‘Online’ is one of the many instances of complicated relationships in the book, in which most are strained or not quite realised. These failed connections are ruminations, not just on the fleeting nature of affection, but on the fact that relationships are founded on projections, and that, when a person’s identity is necessarily opaque, that projection will always overreach. “I have learned that even underneath I am replaceable”, Walsh’s protagonist states, a contingency that suggests it is not the essence but the superficial accoutrements of a life that motivates many relationships, in some cases maintaining them, but in others revealing their insubstantiality. “Elegance is a function of failure. The elegant always know what it is to have failed” reflects the protagonist of ‘Summer Story’ – an episodic tale of a romance which stutters to life only briefly – and Walsh is adept at summing up the various ways in which relationships can struggle and fail, and how we can reinscribe ourselves with the bitter wisdom of melancholy. Failure may be the price to pay for elegance, but as often in Walsh elegance and failure are cloaks that can be slipped off, to reveal something else. In ‘Summer Story’’s beautifully guileless ending there is more than just loneliness in her description of a spurned lover leaving a party alone: “I left quietly and walked over the bridge to the station and it was not raining and nobody knew I had gone”.
In Vertigo there is pleasure in melancholy and confusion in happiness – the unknowability of others reflected in our own inconsistency, and the inability to trace the gestations of our own states of being – as in the titular story when Walsh writes: “She was bored by this happiness that seemed out of place, impatient to get rid of it. The feeling was less pleasurable than she imagined it might have been, less well-defined, and when she felt along its strings she found it was not easily traced or attached to the objects she thought it might have been attached to. Perhaps it was not attached to anything at all”. Happiness as a burden, detachment as freedom, elegance as failure, identity as a veil; in Vertigo Walsh beautifully disrupts apparent certainties, leaving a tide of uncertainty in her wake.
“Look! Look at the bread, the wine, the tourists! I cannot stop looking at them”, states the protagonist of ‘Half the World Over’ and Walsh persistently captures characters voyeuristically drinking in the mundane attitudes and events of everyday life, transforming those banalities into moments of beautiful isolation. She dramatizes the tragedy of looking from a distance, of being at a remove from life as it is lived and feeling as if it is passing you by. Even the ending of the seemingly slight ‘And After…’ embodies this feeling of not quite being there when it happens, albeit in a more droll way; “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 the visit was cancelled”.
Time is slowed down in this collection, and the sensation is more one of free floating than falling, as if you are hovering in space, observing life from a distance – an emotional as well as physical remove. Vertigo is one of those seemingly slight works that leaves a long, powerful impression – a feeling of detachment combined with painstaking focus, as if the detail of life is overwhelming and too painful to bear. “Despite everything, we are good people, who can hardly live in this world that continues almost entirely at our expense,” Walsh writes, and it is this feeling of an overabundance of life which is achingly close, but which you can’t quite bear to reach out and touch which Vertigo expresses so beautifully, and which gives it such a haunting power.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thomas Storey lives in London, works in independent publishing and is studying for a doctorate at King’s College in contemporary literature and representations of the technological sublime.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 26th, 2016.