“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)
This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho