Worlds From The Word’s End, by Joanna Walsh, And Other Stories, 128 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1911508106
“It’s time.” Time for awkwardness, bewilderment, disappointment, silence. Time to realise how wide the distance is between what we wish for and what we can ever hope to achieve. Time to stand on the side of the road and wait, or to do your waiting in a railway station letting time pass as you remain there for days and then weeks, always expecting the arrival of the person who said they would meet you there.
It’s not easy being in a Joanna Walsh story. Nothing is quite as it should be and however fervently you maintain hope, that vision you have of how life might approach perfection ‑ the image imagined ‑ never settles or sharpens into focus. As the narrator of “Femme Maison” finds, something is always unsatisfactory and incomplete. You do something with the expectation that it will feel like an achievement, however small, or at least like a completed task. But every finish is the start of something else.
You forget to wash your hands before reopening your laptop. Its keys are slick with butter. Not with jam, at least, but this is because the jam is still in the shop where you forgot to buy it.
It is one of Walsh’s great achievements to smudge the familiar just enough for it to become vague and indistinct. The recognisable suddenly eludes us, like the shadows that must be measured for “The Story Of Our Nation”. The diligent worker who relates the details of this history-in-the-making has the task of measuring the leaves in the unnamed nation’s hedgerows. “In the story of our nation nothing will be lost.” Others gather and record raindrops, cracks in concrete, the splay of light on ceilings. From the collection and tabulation of such information national greatness will be made. The circumstances of the time seem prophetic: all manufacture has ceased. The accumulation of goods (said in our reality of 2017 to be jading ‑“is that even a word”, as Walsh would say ‑ wealthy urbanites, sated and in search of authenticity) is not an option now. Acquisitiveness must be redirected. Annotating all of the existing goods and the accidents and artifacts of nature is what counts and everyone is counting on, and with, everyone else. Purpose and meaning must be squeezed from these numbers.
Diligence and concentration are also needed to be a successful secretary and the woman who narrates “Two Secretaries” has these and other qualities. Above all she has a smile-and-hope-it’s-true spirit. Though at times fearful or dejected, she must maintain an exterior that signals what she hopes is normality. She works with another secretary called K who seems more securely settled and at ease with both her life and job. She has a boyfriend and they are going to move into an apartment together (though an inability to agree on the colours they will paint the walls may augur badly for their future together). Yet amidst the banality of the office there is spite and thus, hurt. There is an intimation that K has been unpleasant behind the narrator’s back about her lack of an apartment (perhaps her lack of a boyfriend too, I wouldn’t put it past her). Such information cannot easily be forgotten. There is no Tippex for the soul. But the narrator is stoical: “I don’t expect to stay here for very long”, she tells us. But where will she be in a year’s time? Still finding reasons to explain her not-quite-right state of existence?
A similar stoical manner is possessed by the person who stands by a road in “Two”, at an unhelpful and somewhat inaccessible siding (“Still it is the only road there is, to my knowledge, and I am perhaps lucky to be there at all.”). There she waits with two wooden figures, ambiguously described which are, in some sense, available to anyone who might want them. Like Vladimir and Estragon she awaits the arrival of a person who has promised to collect the figures today. A car, as described by the interested party, appears to stop at more convenient part of the road, only to drive off and disappear. Is this the first time this has happened or have we witnessed a recurring scene? What, above all else, would happen if the figures were taken from her? Yes, she has been so angry with them in the past that she has tried to destroy them. But who, in a relationship of dependence, has not become frustrated by the intensity of their attachment and attempted to loosen the connection? However, the gleaming, hand-holding figures seem so central to her self-delusion that she would surely collapse without those two to lean on.
The gloom that these and other stories might imply is always delivered with wit in an immediately engaging style; a conversational tone in which the ordinary details quietly merge to become distinctly odd. Walsh’s carefully judged restraint lends the stories a watchful quality which deserves careful reading because so much is implied rather than stated. “What kind of substance is a hotel?” asks “The Suitcase Dog”. “Sometimes I break it apart to find out, always different bits.” That determination to open out, take apart and find the confused centre of things is crucial to the whole collection. But there is tremendous linguistic playfulness there too. Walsh cannot resist a pun or an opportunity for wordplay. So, in “Me And That Fat Woman ‑ Joanna Walsh’, the fat woman reads an old newspaper: “She had such gravitas, she could only be behind The Times.”
“Exes” attempts to decipher the use of x in messages and leaves us wondering what ex minus x might equal. One of the most inventive and intriguing stories in the collection, “Travelling Light”, begins with some substance or unclassifiable, very large, thing being transported “by lorry then ferry in shipping containers”. The exact nature of this thing is unfathomable because the glimpses and incidental descriptions we get never cohere around anything that might be known to exist. It’s beautifully perplexing. The object (?) is, for a time, newsworthy: “I’m sure you saw the headlines.” Early on its journey there is “leakage and noise”. Much later it is mistaken for a baby or a dog on a train. On its journey across continental Europe the item is pushed, dismantled, damaged and all the time reduced in size. In Belgrade it is divided (so it can be divided?) into a backpack and two suitcases. Then one of the suitcases (“the less important one, thank god”) is lost. So, perhaps, it is not a single object, but a construction of some sort? It swells in the southern heat and gives off a sour smell “in no way unpleasant, though other passengers moved down the bus”. The narrator stuffs part of it into her pockets. What burden is it that lightens as we travel? What is it that diminishes the further we are from home? We are left, at the conclusion of the story with the prospect of the harassed, worn-out narrator having to return with another shipment. Will this
thing begin small and gain in size as the original point of departure is reached? What is lost on a journey and what is gained?
The book is replete with these enigmatic experiences: “Enzo Ponzo”, who is kidnapped by a young girl and never attempts to leave the apartment despite the ease of doing so, instead remaining there for years, or the all too well evoked feeling of self-recrimination that results from having shelves filled with unread books, in the story “Bookshelves” . In that tale the bookshelves themselves must read the neglected volumes, leading to feelings of both guilt and contempt (“You will begin to pity its terrible appetite.”) and a questioning of the very basis of our relationship with books.
In the title story of this collection Joanna Walsh makes particularly good use of the opportunity to reinvigorate some clichés by using them to describe a situation in which one person in a relationship has created a barrier, a language barrier.
We were reading from the same page, at least that’s what I thought, but it was really only you that ever had a way with words. Sometimes you put them into my mouth, then took them right out again. You never minced them, made anything easier to swallow …They left a bitter taste. As for mine, you twisted my words and broke my English until I was only as good as my word …You studied the small ads:
INCREASE YOUR WORD POWER!
Trouble was, you didn’t know your own strength.
The faltering words and eventual silence of the couple then mutates into a general, modish rejection of words throughout the land. A collective adoption of a subjective reality. Newspapers produce only blank pages. Films are once again silent. “We realised we had been reading too much into everything.” This general rejection of verbal expression recreates the everyday (in a very Walshian way) until we return to the quiescent couple and the narrator’s equivocal feelings “I love you and I’m not aloud.”
Declan O’Driscoll has written for The Irish Times, Music & Literature and several other publications.