No place like home: a meditation on the meaning of hotels

Hotel by Joanna Walsh is deft and imaginative, tripping between references to Katherine Mansfield, Mae West, the Marx Brothers and Karl Marx.

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“There was a time in my life when I lived in hotels,” writes Joanna Walsh at the start of Hotel – while haunting “a marriage I was soon to leave”. She took up reviewing hotels for a start-up website, half-thinking that by residing in them she would get a foretaste of what it might be like to live elsewhere. An unhappy woman, on the move, looking for somewhere to land, Walsh discovers that hotels are not the home from home they pretend to be but “the opposite of home”. It’s an insight that gives this slyly humorous and clever little book its internal propulsion.

In spite of their myriad comforts and round-the-clock service, the elevation (or is that inflation?) that hotels offer their clients belongs to the realm of fantasy. In truth, observes Walsh, you are neither your ideal self nor your best self when you inhabit a hotel. You are flattened into a being who ceases to have desires, since hotels exist solely to meet and thus neuter them all. You are not so much a guest as a ghost – a “paying ghost”.

Hotel ghosts go through the motions of being at home but are frustrated at every turn. Their rooms are invaded by staff, who primp and clean and leave melting chocolates on the pillow. Anything broken, or eaten, must be paid for. Signs politely remind you that you do not own (and therefore should not run away with) the towelling robes, ashtrays or slippers – although you are explicitly told how to leg it in the event of fire.

Even the minibar is a con – just like the other “gadgets, which resemble, but are unlike, those I have at home . . . I could put my own champagne in the fridge, but it wouldn’t fit,” writes Walsh. It is another reminder that: “The hotel is not on my side, not really.” All this carpet-pulling makes hotels “uncanny” – a term, Walsh reminds us, that Sigmund Freud relished for capturing what one felt when the familiar was defamiliarised.

Hotel is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. Before it came volumes on remote controls, golf balls and drones, while still in the publishing pipeline are those on dust, doorknobs and hair. Though short, at roughly 25,000 words apiece, these books are anything but slight. As the publishers explain, “Each book starts from a specific prompt: an anthropological query, archaeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation – and from that starting point develops an investigation or inquiry around the object of the title.” In the case of Hotel, Walsh’s provocation is this idea of haunted space, while in one form or another the ideas that shape her subsequent interrogation take flight from Freud: “My suitcase stands in the corner of my hotel room, small and black, square-shouldered as a visiting psychoanalyst.”

Walsh couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate dancing partner, since no one better understood how things are emphatically not what they seem. Words, objects, actions, dreams: everything stands in for something else – something that cannot be articulated directly. Hotels stand in for an unease with home.

Walsh’s prose style is also indebted to Freud. It is elliptical and associative, moving like quicksilver from one thing to the next, as ideas take shape only to dissolve again. This is bold, risky writing but Walsh is deft with fluidity – perhaps because it mirrors the dissolving boundaries that she was grappling with in her life at the time.

An example of her productive sleight of hand is the way in which she moves from writing about Freud’s patient Dora, who was “sick” in a hotel, to the idea that hotels hold out the promise of a cure (like spas and sanitoriums do – symbolic analogues of the hotel and also the hospital), to the notion that checking in to a hotel is already an admission that there is something wrong with you (you can’t live at home). One reason for such restlessness – an avidity to escape home – is that home is work, especially for women, whereas in a hotel you are served, even if your leisure is bought at the cost of someone else’s industry. And so it goes, with Walsh tripping effortlessly and imaginatively from one thing to the next, referencing Katherine Mansfield, Mae West, the Marx Brothers and Karl Marx, but with utter conviction at each step.

I loved Hotel and would read it again for the pleasure of its playful linguistic slips (not all of them Freudian) and jokes. Walsh claims that she wrote it in a matter of months but had lived with it for years. Her long residency (another haunting?) was clearly fruitful. It has bequeathed this small book a big heart.

Hotel by Joanna Walsh is published by Bloomsbury Academic (176pp, £9.99)

The Middlepause by Marina Benjamin will be published next spring by Scribe

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires