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Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo is artful and intelligent – but not wholly successful

Walsh's short stories are elegant, but the closed-off life they portray is an impoverished one for anybody.

“Elegance is a function of failure,” says the narrator of Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo, a collection of short stories all told from the point of view of one character. “There is no need for elegance in success: success itself is enough. But elegance in failure is essential.” Walsh is a sublimely elegant writer. Her interests revolve insistently around failure: failed marriage, unsatisfactory affairs, disappointing parties, travel that ends nowhere. It’s them­atically consistent at least that the collection itself is not wholly a success.

Much of the problem stems from that solitary narrator. It’s a choice that pays tribute to Katherine Mansfield’s first published story collection, In a German Pension (1911), which Walsh wrote about last year in her non-fiction book Hotel – an odd, intriguing work, part analysis of the cultural import and symbolism of the hotel, part memoir of Walsh’s dissolving marriage and fugue into hotel living. But where in Mansfield’s book a single, semi-autobiographical narrator observes multiple guests during her stay at a boarding house, Walsh’s narrator in Vertigo (who sounds strikingly similar to the autobiographical voice of Hotel) travels to multiple locations, yet only fully observes what happens inside her own skin.

Maybe there is something political in this solipsism. In Hotel, Walsh writes that: “Permeability is a feature of abjection. It is the human made serviceable.” It is a commentary on the way hotel staff discreetly tidy the unseemly mess of their guests’ lives into their pockets, but also on gender and women’s bodies: to be able to accommodate the other inside you, via womb and vagina, is to be marked as a member of the inferior sex class, one of the conscripts to the unrewarding seams of domestic work and emotional drudgery.

Walsh is acutely observant of the uneven burdens of household economy. In “Drowning”, the narrator calculates the tax that default caring responsibilities exert on her leisure, mentally addressing her husband: “For you to read your book is not to neglect the children because you know that if you do not pay attention to the children I will [. . .] My choice to read my book necessarily involves the worry of the possibility of neglecting the children.” (She escapes this problem by swimming away from her family, where she can no longer see whether her husband is neglecting or not neglecting their children.)

By refusing to care, Walsh’s narrator refuses the feminine obligation to sympathise. She will not give herself over to other people’s feelings, though she might be covetous of what they have experienced that makes them unlike her. Standing in a Paris department store in the first story, “Fin de Collection”, the narrator stares at her ­fellow shoppers and thinks: “I want to project these women’s looks on to mine and with them all the history that has made these women look like themselves and not like me.” But in the end she buys nothing and leaves, still implacably herself.

Other people are inaccessible regions that can be mapped out using careful reasoning, but never totally comprehended. In “Vagues”, the narrator sits at a beach oyster bar with an anxious man whose main attraction to her is that he could facilitate some retaliatory adultery. She tries to deduce her husband’s moves like a chess player:

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.

The book maintains that flat, precise, repetitious tone throughout. The affectlessness is attractively disarming to start with, then predictable and, by the end, in danger of feeling as tired as the narrator seems to be. At 123 pages, Vertigo does not exceed its welcome, but it does run out of ways to surprise. Where Mansfield’s narrator can extract a library of registers – comic, ironic, tragic – from her fellow guests, Walsh’s has only herself as a resource.

The predominant experience of this collection is not vertigo, but claustrophobia (which is also the title of the most domestic of all the stories here). For a woman to turn away from sympathy is a bold way to refuse the inferiority imposed on her, but the closed-off life is an impoverished one for anybody. Vertigo is artful, intelligent – and elegant above all else.

Vertigo by Joanna Walsh is published by And Other Stories (123pp, £8.99)

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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