Vertigo  by  Joanna Walsh  (Dorothy, Oct. 2015)  Reviewed by  Anna Zolokostas

by Joanna Walsh
(Dorothy, Oct. 2015)

Reviewed by Anna Zolokostas

“How long does a thought take to form?” asks a woman in Vertigo, a collection of linked stories by British writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh. “Years sometimes. But how long to think it? And once thought it’s impossible to go back. How long does it take to cross an hour?” Sometimes it takes hours to finish a sentence, a lifetime to find a city from which it becomes possible to begin. Time in Vertigo doesn’t so much slow down as it does short-circuit; the present moment is suspended, each instant expanded. Stories pass by like slow motion film; long stretches of thought are torqued by the white noise of the ordinary. This is a liminal space that eludes situation, an amplified present that expands the possibilities of genre.

What unfolds is a story cycle structured by repetition: a woman walks alone in Paris, eats oysters at a restaurant or a croque monsieur at a café. She watches her children play, leaves her husband or doesn’t, speaks to her mother, rides the bus with her daughter. She drinks and then she is drunk, to interrupt the boredom, “so the scum of things rises to the surface.” This isn’t—and is—the same woman. Events are repeated with small variations: a disintegrating marriage, a love affair gone awry, solitary walks through Paris, travel with family. Though each story begins with a different set of circumstances, experiences overlap as moments replay themselves with a nameless set of husbands, lovers, daughters, and mothers. The female narrators share similar thoughts as they experience the world from a shared subject position, which is always a gendered and political position. Their voices bleed into—without becoming—each other: mothers are also daughters and sometimes wives, or ex-wives. They come into articulation through accretion, constructing a feedback loop in which each voice becomes augmented, clarified, and entangled. A feeling of homelessness and a struggle to locate the edges of the self thread these stories together, alluding to the larger, gendered forces that structure our day-to-day experiences.

Walsh’s prose is simple but stunning in its precision. Her stories examine the minutiae of women’s experience, the experiences language often passes over too quickly, too dismissively. Female narrators observe, collate, and assess—they are acutely aware of the world around them, which they study fastidiously. They report what they see, diligently. Though they seek to tell the story in clear and straightforward prose, there is too much that eludes reasoned explanation, and plot is always secondary to feeling, to consciousness. In “Vagues,” a woman is preoccupied with mapping out the possible arrangements of tables and diners in an oyster restaurant while her husband is in another country, maybe sleeping with another woman. Dining with a man who is not her husband, she tries to assess her position with detached practicality:

As I know my husband is unlikely to tell me 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. As my husband knows that I know he is unlikely to tell me the truth about the woman with whom he will or will not have slept, so that, even if he tells me the truth, I will be unable to recognize whether or not he is being truthful, he must believe that if he sleeps with the woman, he will sleep with her entirely for his own pleasure. I, if I sleep with the man who is sitting opposite me at the restaurant, though I will not lie about whether I have slept with this man or not, will be unable to tell my husband anything he will accept as truthful, so must also, by consequence, make sure that, if I sleep with this man, it must be entirely for my own pleasure too.

Walsh’s writing frequently draws comparisons to that of Lydia Davis—both write stories that are difficult to classify because they refuse the dramatic action of narrative. Like Davis, Walsh depicts female narrators who dissect the quotidian with obsessive precision, their insights punctured with sensitivity and humor. But Davis’s narrators remain socially grounded—as writers, translators, intellectuals—whereas the women in Vertigo lack this anchorage: in work, function, and identity. And while Walsh’s prose shares much stylistically with Davis’s, her depictions of women’s inner lives are closer to cinema. Vertigo summons the relentless long takes and domestic claustrophobia of Jeanne Dielman; the black-and-white minimalism and protracted flânerie of Cleo; the haunting silence at the center of Barbara Loden’s Wanda.

To break down experience in this way is to subvert the forward propulsion of narrative, and, in doing so, to inhabit a strange and estranged time that lays burrowed in the recesses of the ordinary. If logical reasoning promises resolution, that resolution is revealed here to be a fantasy. Methodical thought unravels more than it resolves as diligence crosses over into the realm of the obsessive. Labyrinthine sentences pile up and qualifying clauses threaten to trip over one another. The woman in the oyster restaurant concludes that if she decides to sleep with the man who is not her husband it must be for her own pleasure, but her desires remain as obscure to us as they do to her.

How long does it take to get over something? The female narrators have a hard time moving forward, past the sense of loss that permeates their stories. To dwell in the hugely elastic present of Vertigo is to get stuck by one’s own vulnerability. There are some things you can’t get over, no matter how much you struggle to reason your way through them. And so it becomes difficult to get the story right, impossible to find its center. In Paris, a woman searches for a red dress because she is leaving her husband, as if the right garment will bring everything into its proper place: “The right teller can make any tale. The right dresser can make any dress. Listen to me carefully: I am not the right teller.” This is the disavowal, the dislocation, which Vertigo circles. She insists that she cannot weave a tale, that she cannot make her words into something other than what they are. It’s hard to tell the story when there’s so much that overflows form. The failure here is twofold: the failure to tell the right kind of story is also the failure to appear in the right dress. There are some days when nothing fits; sometimes this is every day. You can be the wrong woman if you leave your husband, but you can still be the wrong woman if your husband leaves you. To insist that you cannot speak is to know that everything you say will be held against you.

“Elegance is a function of failure,” says a woman in “Summer Story,” who leaves a party quietly after a man she has slept with ignores her, then pulls her aside to tell her he is seeing someone else. “The elegant always know what it is to have failed. There is no need for elegance in success: success itself is enough. But elegance in failure is essential.” Walsh does not glamorize this failure, but experiments with elegance as style, as a way to keep one’s self guarded under the hyper-exposure of the social. “Elegance is refusal,” says the woman of “Fin de Collection,” the first story in the collection. She does not find a red dress: “To leave empty-handed is a triumph.” If women are always hyper-visible in public, then this attempt to recede into the background is a tactic of survival. To leave quietly, without saying goodbye; to leave without making a fuss, without making a scene; to leave so that no one notices: this is elegance that depends on withdrawal, on sneaking away, on trying to become as inconspicuous as possible. To refuse to call attention to one’s failure is also to make an attempt, however preliminary, at giving up an attachment to success that is drawn around markedly gendered parameters.

“There are no red dresses in Le Bon Marché,” concludes the woman in “Fin de Collection.” “It isnt the dress: its the woman beneath the dress”—but what happens when you don’t know who is beneath the dress? Vertigo doesn’t so much answer this question as it does pass through it. “I know a woman is not her clothes: she’s the body under the dress, or what someone could imagine her body to be,” says another woman in “Claustrophobia,” visiting her childhood home during the dissolution of her marriage. “I have learned that even underneath I am replaceable. You could employ someone to be me and get just the same thing, maybe even better, if you had the money.” If money is the universal equivalent and the young girl is living currency, then the woman discarded is what, exactly? Several of the narrators in these stories struggle to reorient themselves after the breakdown of a relationship. Outside these roles—as mothers, lovers, wives—they are socially illegible. A man walking alone around Paris is a flanêur, but a woman walking alone around Paris is lost.

Moving in and out of these social roles, women become interchangeable and exchangeable. They are the sum of their social value, which is tied to their function as mothers, lovers, or wives. Shifting in and out of pre-defined roles, their parts are multiple. In “Online,” a woman discovers her husband has met some women on the internet:

His women are the sum of their qualities, not several but complete, massive, many-breasted, many-legged, multi-faceted, and I participate in these women. Some of his women have been chosen because they are a bit like me, some because they are unlike. He likes them. And he likes me. He likes me for being both unlike but like them. He likes them for being both like and unlike me.

The body beneath the dress is as stitched together as the dress itself: beneath the surface is more surface. The women in “Online” are assemblages of parts, rather than complete individuals. There is no authentic subject in these stories—the female subject is, at every moment, fractured, stitched together, determined by social circumstances, constituted and undone by her relationships. In “Young Mothers,” the collective narrators describe how their children have given birth to their function: “Colors were bright, so our children did not lose us, so we could not lose each other, or ourselves, no matter how hard we tried.” The narrator in “Claustrophobia” remembers: “When you made partner, mother said to me, you must be proud. How could I be proud of something that was not my achievement but its inverse? Unless I am such a secondary part of you that when you eat, I taste it; when you urinate, I am empty.” There is no sovereign self, no essential interiority, regardless of how many layers you strip away. The ties that constitute us are also the ties that constrict us. Vertigo enacts the emptying out and questioning of the self the accompanies the loss these attachments, revealing that the self has always been partial, always incomplete, always a conceit of language. This is “I”-driven literature that simultaneously seeks out and destroys its “I.”

Within these parameters, solitude becomes a feminist act of rebellion: to extract and safeguard a private pleasure is a way of attaching to yourself again, even if you’re not quite sure what or where that self really is, what or where that self could or should be. Sometimes it takes abandoning every former attachment before you can become recognizable to yourself. “The first effect of abroad is strangeness,” says the woman walking around Paris, turning into Le Bon Marché. “It makes me strange to myself. I experience a transfer, a transparency. I do not look like these women. I want to project these women’s looks onto mine and with them all the history that has made these women look like themselves and not like me.” If the flanêur is always in possession of himself, here, the flanêuse is absorbed by her surroundings, losing herself in them. Suffused with the white noise of context, she possesses and dispossess a sense of self so porous it threatens, at every moment, to fall right out. This strangeness is at once liberating and damning, opening up new possibilities for the “I” at the same time as it makes the “I” socially illegible.

But losing oneself can be a way of coming back to oneself, or coming into a new self. “There is nothing to do with this time but put some alcohol into it,” says a woman killing time in a café. On her way to a party, another woman exposes herself “to the point between work and social in which nothing can happen.” Walsh resurrects this dead time. Very little happens, but the women in these stories pay attention anyway. After a lifetime of being bound by social function, this pure expenditure of time becomes in itself a radically feminist act, a way of looking at the world that that refuses the programmatic. The point is to imagine a different texture to an everyday, one removed from an economy of use. Killing time is a way of getting it back.


Anna Zalokostas is a bookseller in San Francisco.