“We were younger than our children: the children that had birthed us. Our men wondered how they could have married such children . . .”
Joanna Walsh’s story “Young Mothers” is a moving account of the infantilising effect that nuclear family life can have on women. Here, motherhood renders its subjects slavish, childish, and intellectually useless.
As a stand-alone story, “Young Mothers”, is wonderful, but the narrative voice remains unchanged across this whole collection, comprising a sort of character study of an infantilised woman.
The result is that I was unsure whether these were stories, or 14 episodes culminating in one vertiginous mindscape.
The pieces in this collection are short, very simple, and make no room for lyricism.
Walsh’s prose interrupts with deliberate ugliness, as though willing the reader to dismantle the syntax and expose the inadequate language with which the character must build a self: “I will deny it out loud so I don’t feel it, or rather so that I feel what I say – which is an absence, or rather an absence of the absence that is hunger: so that I don’t feel the absence . . .”
And yet there is a poetic sensibility to each piece. Rather than pack full these few pages, in each story Walsh distils a single idea and sounds it out. At times her descriptions strike a heart-breaking balance between ridicule and self-pity: “Pregnant, we already wore dresses for massive two-year-olds: flopping collars balancing our joke-shop bellies, stretch-marked with polka-dots.”
Sometimes she is stunningly accurate. The hospital bed in “The Children’s Ward” has “the same smell as new clothes shops: synthetic, sweet as a nut. There’s something of the body about it, but only just: the body removed, perhaps.”
A First-Person Problem
Across the collection, the narrative stays located in a very particular space in the mind – the voice of self-construction and self-vindication. Through this lens we see the narrator as Mother, Daughter, Lover.
The stories are predominantly told in the first person, with some second-person narratives that are almost more intimately rooted in the “I”: “I say ‘you’. Of course I mean ‘me’.”
Each story focuses solely on the narrator’s experience, chronicling her creation and destruction under various gazes. In “Online”, for example, the narrator discovers her husband’s internet relationships with other women.
The knowledge fragments her into a string of commodified personal assets: “His women are the sum of all their qualities, not several but complete, massive, many-breasted, many-legged, multifaceted, and I participate in these women.”
In the title story, a throwaway opinion offered by the narrator’s children is received as a devastating personal affront: “There are times I should just keep quiet. That’s what the younger generation teaches me. They take the words out of my mouth . . . I’d thought the words were mine. My children have reminded me I was wrong.”
The narrator is continuously defined against her family – “the boy”, “my daughter”, “this man” – faceless persecutors rather than proper-noun-ed people. The love interests are generally the, “you” to whom many of these stories are addressed, and on whom much of the character’s identity depends.
One of the most interesting stories, “The Children’s Ward”, is about “the boy” undergoing an operation. Told by the mother, it begins “I have had some good times in this body . . .” and continues ruthlessly in this direction. This mother’s greatest departure from self-description is when she imagines how she might appear to passers-by:
Perhaps, walking along the corridor with the windows, the people who come and go can also see me through this window, sitting and not moving, my face towards them, with the back of a smaller head between me and my window, which they must see only as a shape blocking the lower part of my face.
She even discounts her son’s presence when lamenting his father’s leave-taking; “You left me at the door on the ground floor.” (“Me”, not “us”.)
This is a remarkably bold register to write in, particularly for a first-person narrative. It is very uncomfortable to read, not only because there is a sense of engaging with a dangerously lonely mind, but also because it throws into stark light the fragility of that distinction between the mother as speaking subject and the bad mother.
Is an all-devouring ego the only alternative to the maternal self-abnegation of “Young Mothers”?
A Wedge-Shaped Core of Darkness?
The idea of entering the minutiae of life – revealing the hell and the ecstasy within the banal, has been the particular focus of much modern literature. Woolf’s women, for example, have interior worlds that move within a static external world, while it is her men who are stuck in the “I, I, I”, of rigidly organised self-identity.
“Really I don’t like human nature,” wrote Woolf in her diary, “unless all candied over with art.”
There is no spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of Vertigo go down. Instead of opening up the richness of the inner world, this text traps us in the heteronormative horrors and desperation of mundanity – there is no epiphany or beautiful turn of phrase on offer, no break from the maddening natter of the self.
“My mind does not tell me everything it thinks,” says the narrator, but she tells us more than most narratives. Thoughts that take less than a moment are slowed and stretched into words, making the very nature of thinking seem a painful process.
In “Vagues” we are treated to a vivid, forensically realistic and intensely depressing account of a dreary lunch date at an oyster restaurant. The scene is comically recognisable:
“Maybe they will bring the entire order at once, though I would have thought they would bring the drinks first.”
“They do not have enough staff.”
They employ the number of staff they can afford to employ and serve at a pace at which the staff is capable of serving. The capacity is natural and proportionally correct. Il faut attendre . . .
And yet by taking the reader through each painful detail, Walsh pulls us so much inside the scene that it is impossible to laugh at these characters; we are forced instead to partake in the tediousness of their world.
In “The Children’s Ward”, the dissociated thoughts of the mother, focussing away from the crisis at hand, are painstakingly chronicled:
Opposite the window is another window, and through that window, another. The window frames are dark brown and made, perhaps, of metal. They come in pairs, one frame inside another, the inner located in the top right corner of the outer. The smaller frame might be open, but none of the windows is open. This might be because it is raining. Through the window opposite is a white wall with a doorframe and, through that, a window that looks onto another white wall. Sometimes people pass between the brown frames and the white walls, and their colours look shabby.
There is a brass-necked confidence in the voice; at times unflinchingly self-important – at times so faltering – that is compelling to read.
The final story of the collection might be a loose nod to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
An unhappily married woman describes a grim family holiday with an emotionally distant husband and children. Contemplating death as she swims across the water, she describes all the things that are “good” about herself and her husband – they are not paedophiles or rapists, they do not steal milk from their neighbours . . .
Read as a character study, her assertion that “we are good people, who can hardly live in this world that continues almost entirely at our expense”, is all the more moving because of the prison of egotism that the character must inhabit to bring forth such a proclamation.
Because (despite some differences in dietary preference) there seems to be only one voice in this collection, the reader is in danger of conflating the narrator with the author. This opens the narrator to the kind of unsolicited moral, intellectual, and political reckoning from which fictional characters should be exempt.
What Walsh does here is, for better or for worse, even bolder than creating an “unsympathetic narrator”. The “I” narrating Walsh’s stories is less a character, than a register – the remnants of babyhood that still exist in all adult minds, the layer of narrative that places itself at the centre of the world.
It is not so much a case of the voice being unlikable, but of parts of the human mind being rather ugly. The authenticity of this voice is remarkable, but it never gives way to anything deeper than a rigidly constructed self; and so at times the voice becomes monotonous; the concepts and the prose remain penned-in to a single facet.
On finishing Vertigo I turned it over and read it again, because I genuinely didn’t know what I thought.
I knew that most of the time I didn’t enjoy it, but also that enjoying it was never the point. I knew that a book that makes the reader squirm and think has to be worth reading.
The register is one rarely encountered in paper, and there is a genuine achievement in cracking open, as this author does, the tiny nooks in the mind, slowing single moments into painful swathes of time, and giving free reign to that egocentric part of the mind that rarely speaks with such unmitigated rawness.
Vertigo by Joanna Walsh (Dublin: Tramp Press, 2016)