Amy Arnold’s Slip of a Fish: an admirable, determined novel

This Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel commits itself absolutely to portraying the troubled state of mind of its protagonist.

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In his 1998 short story, “The Depressed Person”, David Foster Wallace describes, in torturous detail, a woman’s attempt to work through emotional problems that have their roots in her childhood and, latterly, grief following the death (possibly a suicide) of her therapist. The woman thinks of herself as “a solipsistic, self-consumed, endless emotional vacuum and sponge”, and over the course of 28 heavily footnoted pages Wallace makes us think more or less the same, as he exhausts any sympathy we might feel for her and replaces it with the frustration experienced by the members of her “core Support System”, who endure interminable phone calls at all hours of the day and night. Difficult to read, “The Depressed Person” is a powerful two-way mirror that captures how intolerable it feels to be severely depressed, and how intolerable it feels to be around someone who is severely depressed.

Amy Arnold’s debut novel Slip of a Fish was published by And Other Stories last year after winning the Northern Book Prize, and has now been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. It reminds me of Wallace’s story in that it too commits itself absolutely to portraying a troubled state characterised by obsessive involution, which resists being moulded into a satisfying narrative pattern. Like “The Depressed Person”, Slip of a Fish is likely to stymie some readers, but the fact that both works renounce the traditional pleasures of narrative is not due to their authors’ miscalculation, but is a marker of their achievement.

Arnold’s narrator, Ash, has a seven-year-old child, Charlie, and a husband, Abbott. As I read I found myself wondering if he was perhaps named for Bud Abbott, the straight man to Lou Costello, because while Ash is all over the place – albeit not for comic effect – Abbott really is straight. So straight, in fact, that he begins to seem crooked, his banal statements extending beyond normality into some creepy land of preternatural cosiness: “A nice watch,” he tells himself, as he regards his watch each morning. “A nice beer on a nice day,” he comments in a pub garden, sipping a pint. When Ash is lying on the floor reading, lost in a Norwegian novel about – appropriately – a woman engaging with painful memories, he texts, “Can you get the lasagne out of the freezer?” Escapism foreclosed by mundanity.

Ash and Abbott are clearly pulling in opposite directions. She loves taking Charlie swimming in a little-used nearby lake, but Abbott would prefer them to swim in the municipal pool. Ash likes walking, whereas Abbott drives. Ash enjoys nature and wildlife, Abbott insists on the windows being shut at night to keep insects out. Worst of all, while Ash is fascinated with words, with their fungibility (she is particularly obsessed with homonyms), Abbott insists that a word “is a word is a word”.

Beyond the apparent unsuitability of Ash and Abbott, and Ash’s intimate relationship with Charlie, which at a certain point becomes shockingly compromised, it is difficult to talk with much confidence about what happens in Slip of a Fish. Ash appears to be suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, or is having a nervous breakdown, and her thoughts run obsessively along a Möbius strip of shame, suspicion and upsetting, often sexual, memories. She remembers wading in the lake and “the bottom falling away”, and this recurring phrase gives a sense of the destabilising experience that trying to follow her story becomes. Her focus shifts wildly and she pushes things away, while individual sentences often end in mid-air: “… but Lynn was coming and Abbott was patient, as tender as.”“I didn’t think he’d cry, but.” “You know, you haven’t been the same since.”

“Since” is particularly loaded in this novel, a blank wall of a word that Ash, circling her secrets, runs up against repeatedly. For Abbott, time is something that passes in orderly fashion from future to present to past, but for Ash it is a whirlpool she cannot escape, and which might even destroy her. She had an affair with a yoga instructor called Kate, she does something to Charlie, and she suspects Abbott is sleeping with Lynn, the woman he has drafted in to help around the home because Ash is falling apart.

Uncertainty surrounds all these details.  The combination of Ash’s habit of shying away from the definitive and Arnold’s admirable, albeit sometimes frustrating, unwillingness to resort to exposition or narrative signposting of any sort, means even some of the most basic details about Ash’s situation remain unknown, and different conclusions can be drawn about what is real and what is fantasy.

As with Septimus Smith in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the narrator in Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, or the Alan Turing variant Alec Pryor in Murmur by Will Eaves, we experience Ash’s thoughts as an unmediated stream of consciousness. But her thoughts are less a stream than a treacherous weir, where the flow of the present and deeper pools of memory churn so violently that readers who don’t watch their step risk being lost. 

Chris Power is the author of “Mothers” (Faber & Faber)

Slip of a Fish
Amy Arnold
And Other Stories, 228pp, £10

This article appears in the 16 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war