Julian Gough on Vertigo: ‘a terrific, terrifying book’
Vertigo is 114 pages long, and contains 14 stories. Each of these stories contains more good lines – more wisdom, more truth – than most full novels
Julian Gough on Vertigo: “There is no real point in my writing about Joanna Walsh’s prose, because she writes better than I do. I just want to quote her and quote her and quote her”
I loved Joanna Walsh from the moment I first read the opening line of her tiny, brilliant book, Grow a Pair, “A girl passed a penis-bush growing in someone else’s garden, and picked a ripe dick because she couldn’t resist it.”
This is a fearless writer, I thought.
And a fearless rewriter.
She will write the line she has to write. And she will work it till it’s perfect.
The first line of Vertigo is “A friend told me to buy a red dress in Paris, because I am leaving my husband.”
Oh, and the fourth line is “Even to be static in Saint-Germain requires money.”
The fifth line is “The white stone hotels charge so much a night just to stay still.”
The sixth line is “So much is displayed in the windows: so little bought and sold.”
I want to memorise these lines, they are so strong, and smart, and accurate. So perfect.
Grow a Pair is 56 pages long, and they are not large pages.
Vertigo is 114 pages long, and contains 14 stories. Each of these stories contains more good lines – more wisdom, more truth – than most full novels.
“My mind does not tell me everything it thinks.”
“My mother catastrophes in me.”
Even simple descriptive lines sing. On holiday, a character walks past some archaeologists, working in a field beside classical ruins:
“The pillars are laid out in rows in their field hospital.”
The way she writes about clothes – about what clothes really mean – is insanely great. I’m not even going to begin quoting her on clothes, I wouldn’t stop.
Every sentence has been thought about. Sometimes a single word is refreshed:
Book Club Podcast
“I look out of the window, while the kettle takes its foreign time to boil.”
And sometimes the sentences are so direct, so unornamented, that they land like punches. They’ve taken off their jewelery, their glittering rings, so they can hit you harder.
“My husband met some women online and I found out.”
They are literature, and humanity, condensed to an essence. The people in these stories are under tremendous pressure, much of it generated internally, as in a volcano.
Pressure can smash, crush, break.
Or pressure can make carbon, the dirty, nothing-much leftover of life, into diamonds.
These stories are diamonds.
There is no real point in my writing about Joanna Walsh’s prose, because she writes better than I do. I just want to quote her and quote her and quote her.
“Only a man loading into his car brightly coloured squat plastic horses for children to ride. They are beautiful! Or not. On holiday it is so difficult to judge.”
“So why continue to be unhappy? It was almost impossible to be unhappy now. To hold onto the unhappiness would be absurd. But to let it go…”
Dot dot dot.
Dash dash dash!
Dot dot dot.
The book is carefully built from panic attacks and breakups and breakdowns and Wittgenstein.
“I can breathe, but only just.”
In the stories of Vertigo, we are usually in a mind, noticing. Often what the mind is noticing is the world; sometimes what the mind is noticing is its own thinking. Sometimes the mind is fully occupied in blotting out the world, thoughts, everything.
In The Children’s Ward, the narrator is so close to a panic attack, waiting for the return of a nurse who will have news of her 9-year-old, that she retreats from the horror of this moment in this room, into a comforting, clearly familiar fantasy of a burglar breaking into her house, as she and her children sleep. In the hospital room, in her head, she listens to the imaginary downstairs movements of the imaginary burglar, from her imaginary bedroom.
“Does this person find me, and my children, insufficient prey? That I, or my possessions, or my children, are not desired by this person is more or less unimaginable. I am trying to imagine it, but failing. He will desire me, still, when no one else does.”
Some of the stories in Vertigo roar with anxiety; but they have been written with total control.
These are frontline reports from the big war. The war we fight against ourselves. The terrible grinding war that kills so many of us. But there are moments of respite, as in the astonishing story Young Mothers, where the women, in giving birth to their children, simultaneously give birth to themselves, as young, very young – newborn – mothers:
“Colours were bright, so our children did not lose us, so we could not lose each other, or ourselves, no matter how hard we tried.”
“See how we looked after our young selves, awarding ourselves little treats – cakes, glasses of juice or wine – never too much. If we noticed ourselves crying in a corner, we went to comfort ourselves. Sometimes we left ourselves alone to toughen up a little, but always with a watchful eye.”
This is intelligent writing that is not impressed by its own intelligence, that is not boasting, not showing off. The sentences are sharp because scalpels need to be sharp to do their job.
“In your hours of leisure no sooner do you go somewhere than you want to be somewhere else; no sooner are you sitting than you want to be walking; no sooner eating eggs than you want to be eating chocolate.”
“Everyone at the party was so lovely. Everyone was so happy. Everyone’s websites were now in colour with hand-drawn lettering. Everyone liked cooking and eating. Everyone didn’t see why they shouldn’t like – shoes!”
“It was not a fun party.”
As with Beckett, I love the lines without necessarily believing in the philosophy behind them: the view of the world here is considerably bleaker than my own. Like Beckett, Joanna Walsh is not a great believer in the possibility of communication between people.
The stories often take place in the aching gap – the void, the abyss – between what a character is thinking and what a character is saying. Sometimes I want to step inside the story, and explain to the puzzled woman, the puzzled man, sitting in sad silence after an exchange of banal remarks, what the other really means…
I think these characters could be a lot happier than they are. I think they would benefit greatly from reading, say, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, or Paul McKenna’s Control Stress, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies. But these clever, educated, wounded, deeply unhappy characters will never buy a book recommended by Oprah, or written by a Sunday Times bestselling TV hypnotist, or with an ugly, downmarket cover. And so they remain trapped in the pit of self; and these stories capture, with absolute fidelity, what that feels like.
The result is a terrific, terrifying book, with the anguished energy of a suicide note.
“My mother’s magazines are on her bedside table. In them are women who had cancer but did not die.”
Take a deep breath, and plunge in.
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.