Remember how John Freeman pegged Elena Ferrante’s novels: “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry”? Remember how the cover of a great Clarice Lispector novel touts her as “the premier Latin American woman prose writer of this century?” (Should they have italicized “woman” there to emphasize that there are still a lot of men who are way better?)
If anyone in the course of reviewing Vertigo refers to Joanna Walsh as a “woman writer” or says the book is about women, relationships, or mothering, I will send an avenging batibat to infiltrate his dreams because that would be like saying Waiting for Godot is about a bromance.
No, this book is about how embarrassing it is to be alive, how each of us is continually barred from our self. Think of the Alice Fulton’s poem “By Her Own Hand,” whose speaker has killed herself and yet is still so in thrall to her husband that even her own suicide does not give her sole possession of her self. Unable to meet her own desires, and perhaps wary of others reading that disappointment in her dead eyes, she laments, “I wanted to be self-reliant. /I wanted to reach up and shut/ my own eyes just before I died.”
That power and wariness is all over Vertigo. In the collection’s final story, a woman, while drowning, says to herself, “if you reach the beach, walk back across it like everything is fine, toward your family who would not like to see the abyss you have just swum over.”
Death will not deliver you back your self from others, but grammar, syntax, and excruciating semantic precision will. Vertigo is a writer’s coup, an overthrow of everyday language. Walsh splendidly manhandles prepositions and upends sanctified words: “Mother is where we put things we don’t like.” And: “Home is a rehearsal, by which I mean a repetition like in French: both what’s behind the curtain and in front of it, a cherry cake studded with the same surprise on repeat. It confirms itself; it must confirm itself.”
It feels so good to see Walsh jam open the lexicon—and with such dry wit. It’s Wittgenstein’s “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” undergirding a book of short stories. Yet, once the world does expand, once a thought is thought, it doesn’t make the speaker of Vertigo’s stories any less isolated in her interactions. No one else has her particular copy of the dictionary.
Laura (Riding) Jackson tried to solve exactly that problem by writing the dictionary to end all dictionaries—one that stripped words of connotation so that the truth might be finally, effectively communicated. While you can form your own opinions on whether or not Riding was successful, the thing that has always struck me about her project is that she undertook it with her husband. Nothing says “marriage” like a 600-page tract on the impossibility of words to convey truth.
…Which brings us back to Walsh. She’s also the author of a short book in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series called Hotel. With Heidegger, Freud, and Greta Garbo as touchpoints, the pieces use details from her job reviewing hotels and her unraveling marriage to meditate on desire, aphonia, immobility, and isolation. Like Vertigo, the book is driven by an intense self-consciousness, but perhaps because it doesn’t need to make even a gesture toward fiction, there’s more linguistic play in here, more aphorisms you want to copy onto a postcard and send to your unhappiest smart friend.
One could argue that Hotel is about the failure of Walsh’s home. But it is more personal than a marriage chronicle. Both of Walsh’s books, I’d say, are purgatorial horrors. Walsh is Marcelle Sauvageot; her hotels are Sauvageot’s sanatorium, her book, like Sauvageot’s Commentary, an autopsy of love and a birth of a self… “How long does a thought take to form,” asks the speaker of Vertigo’s title story. “Years sometimes. But how long to think it? And once thought, it’s impossible to go back.” Walsh’s characters, herself included, might suffer from labyrinthitis, but Walsh the writer does not. Sauvageot died of TB in her sanatorium. But Walsh, I hope, is just beginning to drive her fiery chariot across literature.