‘The reader can expect to finish Vertigo feeling slightly emotionally scoured’
Joanna Walsh is one of the most important writers today exploring and navigating the gap between the possibilities and actualities of female experience, says Stephanie Boland
Joanna Walsh: If Hotel and Vertigo obsess over whether things are in their right place, then Walsh’s book of erotic stories, Grow a Pair, wrings joy from things going in the wrong places. Photograph: Lauren Elkin
How to occupy space, and public space in particular, is a question women cannot get away from. In her 2001 history of walking, Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit writes that “A man of the streets is only a populist, but a woman of the streets is, like a streetwalker, a seller of her sexuality”.
For a woman to navigate space – or even (why not?) to seek pleasure in it – requires her to live between two states. To think constantly about every risk, every potential judgment, would drive one mad, and so there is a necessary forgetting involved in going out one’s door. But to forget the reality of being a woman out in public can feel like wilful naivety – especially after dark.
If this sounds rather dramatic, it is important context for Vertigo, which is a collection pre-occupied with such balancing acts. Joanna Walsh is one of the most important writers today in terms of exploring the gap between the possibilities and actualities of female experience, and what it means to navigate that gap.
In Vertigo, this figurative female space finds literal expression. Never have the regular spatial metaphors of English been thrown into such sharp focus. “Vertigo,” Walsh writes, “is the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space.” Deciding whether to tip over the precipice of a failing marriage is the core of the book, but there are other potential leaps: into relationships, into people’s beds, into being the sort of person who orders in French while in a French restaurant.
Reading a passage in which the narrator imagines how her female relatives might look upon her changing body (“Now that I am thin you admire me, though you no longer like me”), I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s description of the internalised male gaze which makes unselfconsciousness its own fantasy: “pretending . . . you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else”.
Vertigo’s narrator martyrs herself to this self-voyeurism. Rather than attempt escape, she thinks about the spaces she is in obsessively. Her unceasing attention to what her behaviour means in each place render the parts of female experience one always prefers to forget the whole substance of her thoughts. While it is always a relief to see theses aspects represented on the page, it also makes for difficult reading. The reader can expect to finish Vertigo, like Walsh’s other books, feeling slightly emotionally scoured.
At the opening of the book, the narrator says that she is in Paris, specifically Saint Germain; more specifically still, she is in a branch of Le Bon Marché, which is itself “divided into departments: fashion, food, home”.
In a book pre-occupied with the possibility of putting oneself in the wrong place, Le Bon Marché is a feint and a haven. “It is possible,” the narrator says, “to find oneself in the wrong department, but nothing bad can happen here.” This is not my feeling in department stores – the same way the police can make you nervous even when you’ve done nothing wrong, department stores are one of the places I always suspect someone will figure out I’m not a proper adult woman – and one senses something winking in the childlike “nothing bad can happen”.
How to behave in such semi-public spaces is a recurring concern of Walsh’s writing. The 2015 Hotel, for instance, recalls a period of her life as a reviewer of hotel rooms. Interweaving her observations with passages from Freud and excerpts from Katherine Mansfield’s In a German Pension, Walsh breaks the liminal space of each not-home-from-home into its disparate parts, from the lobby to the staircase, questioning her behaviour in each.
If Hotel and Vertigo obsess over whether things are in their right place, then Walsh’s book of erotic stories, Grow a Pair, wrings joy from things going in the wrong places. The collection begins with a woman passing a penis tree “growing in someone else’s garden”, from which she steals, on the spur of the moment, “a ripe dick”. (The fairy tale setting almost, but does not quite, obscure the biblical reference.)
Like a lot of things in Walsh’s books, the act is double-edged. The girl enjoys her penis, but it also confuses her: her girlfriend does not like it, and that day at work she wonders if the women’s bathroom is now the right place for her – although the men’s leaves her “overcome by a similar unsettled feeling”.
Going where one should not might be the oldest metaphor in the book, but it works for a reason, and often stands in for the choice between knowledge and security. Is it worth being a woman who questions every single one of her places in the world so deeply? Most of us have things we would rather not know – or have wondered if ignorance about certain things might make one happier, or at least better at getting along with our female relatives in the kitchen.
There is an Alastair Reid poem on this topic called Curiosity, however, which makes a potent case for the knowledge option. “Only the curious,” Reid writes, “have if they live a tale / worth telling at all.” At the end of Vertigo, Walsh’s narrator swims across a deep channel between a hotel jetty and a beach. She thinks about the fact she is wearing only a bikini. She thinks about the fact she has “made\ [herself]… virtually concave”. She divides the world into two hemispheres of air and water. “The lower hemisphere is cold. I do not know what goes on there. It is vast, and in it is 90% of my body.” She is deeply conscientious of every possible danger: “If I drown,” she wonders, “whose fault will it be?” Eventually she makes it to the opposite shore, where her family are waiting. They, she writes, “would not like to see the abyss” she has swum over. The book ends before they find out where she has been. But not before we do.
Stephanie Boland is a writer and editor from London. She works at the New Statesman
Throughout June, we shall publish a series of articles by the author, writers and critics exploring Vertigo, culminating in a live interview with Irish Times journalist Laura Slattery at the Irish Writers Centre on Thursday, June 23rd, at 7.30pm, which will be made available as a podcast on irishtimes.com on June 30th. Readers are invited to read along, comment and engage.