Break.up, by Joanna Walsh, Tuskar Rock, 272 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1781259931
Liberating The Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature, edited by Isabel Waidner, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 272 pp, £6.00, ISBN: 978-1999924508
The troublesome personal pronoun – the all seeing “I” – is always present. No matter how far you travel, “I” always turns up.
“All love stories begin with the letter I.” As, it seems, do no-love stories.
The narrator of Joanna Walsh’s Break.up is at the end point of a relationship, though she is reluctant to see it as the end. The “I” that reflects on why this point was reached is reluctant to accept the absolute finality of the connection. Delusions are more easily maintained now because of technology. The “I” can look at old emails; find WiFi hotspots that allow anxious checks for new emails; locate the exact time of every significant event because it is all recorded on your personal tagging device. If we connected once, might we not connect again?
To probe the reasons for the ending of the relationship, the narrator of Break.up travels to several cities, beginning with Paris. Why she travels, or why she moves from city to city is never entirely clear. She seems curiously uninvolved and detached everywhere she goes. There is no interaction – beyond the unavoidable ordering of food and so on – with strangers in the cities. She wanders freely, but without the mischievous intent of a Situationist dérive (a drift in Paris). Indeed, when in Athens, she says: “you can’t walk one city to the map of another”. But one of Guy Debord’s friends once wandered through Harz in Germany using a map of London. Such subversive playfulness would have added another dimension to the book. Instead what the narrator prefers is to loiter in those “non-places” (as Marc Augé called them) – railway stations, airport waiting areas, internet cafés (the internet being nowhere and everywhere) – where decision-making is suspended and there is a neutral space in which she can more easily locate her disappointed, dislocated self. The non-places help to clarify the non-relationship. In such places, and throughout the book, she maintains a conversation with the “he” that is no longer hers. Each city, from the narrator’s solipsistic viewpoint, allows open access to thwarted hopes. As Marx wrote: “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves.” Men, and women. We’re not so different sometimes.
From the position of Joanna Walsh, this is a risky strategy, as is the discussion, over several pages, of her boredom. In Amsterdam she makes a brief search for a hotel in which she honeymooned: “I don’t find it – but then I’m not looking very hard.” Having arrived in Berlin, she declares: “I want, here, to know nothing. I have here, nothing to say.” In Sofia, “I cannot find anything to interest me about the city.” The danger here is that all of this will be met with a contagious yawn from an equally uninvolved reader. What maintains the reader’s interest is the quality of the writing and the honesty of the insights. What could be more accurate than saying: “A love letter received unexpectedly reads as the ramblings of a crazy person”? She has a very clever way with clichés too, using them in their usual form before disassembling them and then revivifying them with the spark they originally possessed. Her cool wit could have come to the fore more often to negate the feeling of lethargy; it is excellent when she deploys it.
Throughout the book there are quotations from writers and philosophers (Kierkegaard, Barthes, Heidegger) which intensify or enhance thoughts expressed by the narrator. This is especially true of André Breton’s Nadja, which is in regular discourse with the main text. This shadowing is especially acute when the narrator has returned to London, but remains in the railway station (“a temporary stillness, an absence of pain”) and thinks: “I will keep on sitting and, because I am not ex, nothing will come to an end, though that may mean nothing will rekindle if he ever does sit down opposite me and look into my eyes.” The accompanying Breton quote is: “The detailed character of this tale of something which nevertheless didn’t happen.” A cancelling out. A return to “I”. “[I]n order to come back I have had to go away.”
Joanna Walsh is one of the contributors to Liberating The Canon, an anthology edited by Isabel Waidner. Waidner last year published a novel called Gaudy Bauble (also published by the defiantly independent press Dostoyevsky Wannabe), a perspective-shifting, animal-shifting, tooth-shifting, gender-shifting, shape-shifting novel that brilliantly sustained its own convoluted sense. Waidner’s intention with this anthology is to capture “the contemporary emergence of nonconforming and radically innovative literature … unrepressing what the cultural theorist Raymond Williams termed the ‘multiplicity of writing’”. The inclusiveness of her approach crosses out the delimiting of form, class, gender, sexuality and race.
Of course for the reader it is the worth of the stories that will decide the merits of such a collection rather than any admirable intentions. Judged in that way the anthology makes a very convincing case for the permanent upheaval of the staid, accountant-led approach of mainstream publishing and the extension of both the expectation of who might be heard and the form in which they will transmit their thoughts. In a better world (what chance?) this book would, after the passing of a few decades, be seen as a significant pointer towards a then very different literary environment.
Although Waidner speaks of “radically innovative literature”, not every story in the book is especially radical in its realisation. The very first, for example, by Juliet Jacques, is a straightforward account of discovery and misery in a British holiday camp. Similarly, Sara Jaffe’s tale of bringing her baby into a bar is neatly told but unremarkable save for the exasperating section in which she has to prove to a man that the baby is hers. One of the most appealing contributions is Mojisolo Adebayo’s play extract “Stars”, which begins with a Griot telling the Dogon people’s predictive story of the universe which correctly identified Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s stars. The second scene in which Mrs and Mary (an old lady and a young girl, “11 years old, East African accent”) converse is beautiful. In several senses they find their own space, whether through Milky Way and Galaxy bars, looking at an eclipse or by allowing each other to reveal difficult truths.
Among those who are unquestionably innovative in their approach to language is Rosie Snajdr. Her story, “Bingo The Drunkman”, is full of verbal exuberance and it is the sound of the words – their resounding clatter – that matters most, with syllables and stresses passed along the lines of text, knocking sense out of the words. Victoria Brown’s “A Girl Called Johnny” is very enjoyable too, with Johnny’s movements mapped out on a floor plan and deadpan footnotes helpfully reminding us what, for example, a kettle is: “The advent of lightweight yet durable and heat resistant polypropylene coincided with the re-emergence of the jug kettle, which has become the dominant type of kettle. Functionality rather than style has characterised the jug kettle.”
Language is, of course, central to all the stories, as a way of telling or as something to be interrogated for its role in conveying meaning. Seabright D Mortimer wonders if language pushes us away from what we experience. Nisha Ramayya reaches beyond any conventional recognition of what can be understood. Richard Brammer invents codes outside of which nothing exists, but within which personal meanings are created. Steven J Fowler, by not correcting his first draft, forces language to act like a much damaged record, skipping and missing, but creating a feeling of urgency, as if the details are too important for prissiness.
The uncompromising nature of the anthology is greatly to be welcomed, accepting, as it does, that ordinary lives are not as simple to understand as naturalism would suggest. To exist is to be confused and the writers here use format, structure and, of course, language to render experience as confusion and turmoil as everybody’s normal.
The timing of the publication of Liberating The Canon is surely fortuitous, arriving at a time of renewed interest in the British avant-garde writers of the sixties and seventies. This awakening has, in large part, been prompted by the publication of The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin, a collection edited by Jennifer Hodgson and published by And Other Stories. The unanticipated attention this book has received has prompted literary editors to run features on Quin and her adventurous contemporaries as well as an hour-long programme on Radio 4, presented by DJ Taylor, which remembered BS Johnson, Christine Brooke-Rose, Alan Burns and others. So perhaps, after many fallow years in which British writing seemed bound to rigid notions of what fiction could be, we are seeing the emergence of a new generation of writers who find themselves connecting with, and inspired by, the writers of that previous great era.
Declan O’Driscoll has written for The Irish Times, Music & Literature and several other publications.