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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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear