Joanna Walsh: a writer out of the ordinary

Sometimes disorientating, often fragmentary, there is a quality to Walsh’s writing akin to the very feeling of vertigo she describes in her title story, says Susan Tomaselli

Working for a small boutique publisher, I became distracted from the task at hand – typesetting, the laying out of words – and became transfixed with the words themselves, the elegant, swift sentences that made up the stories. One, And After…, struck me as a playful take on the opening of a typical New Yorker story – the setup of time, place, and weather – and it began: “Let it be autumn. Let it be another town. Let the houses be lowrise, undistinguished, a mix of old and new.” The narrative continued in this vein for three pages – “let me be single: no children, no family” – and included the killer, “let me not fit in”. This was a writer who was ignoring conventional modes of story-telling, not fitting in with traditional forms of writing. Reading And After… in Joanna Walsh’s collection, Vertigo, I am still transfixed.

Cinematic in style, the stories are framed by a distinct narrative voice, a voice close to Joanna’s own though never identical. Scene by scene, rather than from page to page, or story to story, episodes unfold: a shopping trip for a dress, an anxious night in a hospital with a sick son, a burial, evenings “spent furious with alcohol”, boring parties, disappointing affairs:

“About this time my husband must be leaving for the city that is home to the woman with whom he has been thinking of sleeping. As I know my husband is unlikely to tell 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 recognise 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.”

Banality, Marguerite Duras said, is sometimes striking, and no more so in Vertigo, where Walsh explores the minutiae, the small stuff “always the same and always different”, or, as Wallace Stevens calls it, “the nothing that is”. Oulipean writer Georges Perec called it the “infra-ordinary” and suggested we find our own anthropology: “What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist… How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?”

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Sometimes disorientating, often fragmentary, there is a quality to the writing akin to the very feeling of vertigo she describes in the title story, 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.” The book has been deliciously described as a “writer’s coup”, an up-ending of sanctified words, and we are clinging to the words as anchorage. I am reminded of Duras again – specifically her call for a new language (“There should be a non-writing, and it will come some day. A simple language without grammar. A form of writing consisting only of words.”) – in The Children’s Ward, where Walsh writes: “There will be no more words soon. Get ready for it. No more words ever now. No more ever. I don’t dare to ask anymore.”

In a voice-over in nouvelle vague director Jean-Luc Godard’s Everyman For Himself, Duras talks about the dubious nature of writing, of women writing, and the “silence that surrounds the text”. It is there in the work of Lydia Davis, of Joy Williams, of Ann Beattie, of Clarice Lispector and of Joanna Walsh too, who, like modernist writers Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf, documents the interior monologues of women. In The Children’s Ward, the “people who wait are all women. The nurses are women. So is the receptionist, the cleaners, and some of the doctors. I saw a man once but he left.” In Claustrophobia, in a house of women “everyone is losing it [..] There’s something about our uncontrol, no men to watch over us. What if it never stops?”

In her memoir, Hotel, Walsh examines the compulsion to write. She says: “I have felt for a long while, maybe forever, that there is something not quite right about my life. The plot could be better, or maybe the scenery. This is, perhaps, why I am writing. I have suspected for a while that some people talk to the page because there is no one else they can talk to.” The clamorous silence of Vertigo, a writer’s conversation with the page, is quite breathtaking.