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Time and the Woman

Declan O’Driscoll

Strange Hotel, by Eimear McBride, Faber & Faber, 149 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0571355143

A woman stands on an exposed balcony outside a hotel in Prague. She draws slowly on a cigarette and looks to be deep in thought. It might just be boredom, or she may be thinking about what it would be like to jump from there onto the rained-upon street below. It could well be a scene from a Michelangelo Antonioni film, with the woman played by Monica Vitti. But it’s not a film. It is one of the elaborately detailed scenes from Eimear McBride's novel Strange Hotel. As such it might fit better with the time when films like Antonioni’s could be made and receive acclaim or, more especially, when a group of French writers such as Nathalie Sarraute and those others associated with the nouveau roman began to reject the confines of plot and linear narrative development and concentrate instead on the interior mind of characters and their surroundings, with sometimes exhaustive precision.

Strange Hotel presents us with a woman (or is it a series of women, as in Eva Figes’s Days, with which it also has a certain kinship?) at various stages of her life, presented within the confines of a hotel room, but on each occasion in a different city, beginning in Avignon, then Prague, Oslo, Auckland and Austin. There is, though, a twist at the end. Not a plot twist, because there is no plot. This is a change of perspective and location, although again, the veracity of the details is deliberately smudged. So what are we left with ‑ in a novel with no momentum, centred on a character with no name ‑ and why would we want to keep reading?

There is firstly the association and experience we may ourselves have with hotel rooms. There is the excitement or let-down of opening the door (whether with a key or a card; both are used and mulled over in the novel) and decisions about how to act within that space. It is something Joanna Walsh explored very well in her book Hotel: “The eternal hotel-room question is what am I allowed?” It’s a question pursued throughout Strange Hotel. “To do To do. She seeks tasks to do but can’t find them anywhere.” This woman is, she tells us thirty-five years old. She has been in this room before or if not this exact room then one very like it. She was with a man and the thoughts of him and the circumstances of that time are endless and unyielding. “On that first visit, she reminds herself, her attention had been on everywhere and so nowhere near the all-important imperative to forget.” The syntax and construction take on a distinctly Beckett-like formation on occasion: “She remembers that. Thinking that. So now does she think it afresh? And can she think it afresh? Or only ever again?” Easier to remember than forget, she finds. Being alone this time means having possibilities, a less defined sort of pressure. What might she do? What is allowed? Why, we readers may justifiably ask, is she even there?

We will continue to wonder about the purpose of each hotel visit and never reach a conclusion. In Prague, the woman has been with a man. A man she would now like to leave. She perches on that balcony ‑ despite the rain ‑ hoping that he is going, or has already left. Perhaps she will see him leave? This woman is in her early forties and remembers explaining the concept of vertigo “to a child, for an essay, for school”. So she is, perhaps a teacher? “To a child” suggests too much distance for the woman to be thinking of her own child. Such knowledge is gained in an incidental fashion, as if we already know this woman, so that the need for any detailing of the quotidian aspects of her life is superfluous. Yet this is no “everywoman”. She is very particular to her situation. Subjective thought ‑ though rendered in free indirect style ‑ must substitute for any objective evaluation of this woman or her plight. The man may leave, but we never leave her.

The immensely formal language used to convey the thoughts of this woman and the very obviously worked-on sentence structure offer another reason to keep reading, provided we find such basic elements of writing interesting in themselves. It is not a naturalistic style. Such precision of reflection would be unlikely. But for much of the novel, it effectively elides the conventions expected of more orthodox writing. All the more disappointing therefore to find some lax writing in there too. The use of clichés is both surprising and distracting. It seems that McBride, like the woman, “could pluck them out of thin air”. We find her “smoking like a chimney”; later “all hell broke loose”. “It works like a clean bill of health . . . There. Done and dusted.” On they go, not regularly, just too often. It’s not as if they are used in any humorous way (there is no humour in the novel) or that she attempts to revivify these clichés by showing them in a new light (It’s catching!). They are simply there: wrinkles on an otherwise smooth bedsheet.

Whether it is through the accumulative effect of her mode of writing or because it brings about a change of gears from third to first-person narrator, it is the section that begins in Austin, Texas that is the most effective and engaging. It’s an interesting choice of location too. As with every other city and hotel room, we are never made aware of why the woman is there. The University of Texas at Austin is where much of Samuel Beckett’s archive is held (among other items, they possess early drafts of Waiting for Godot). Beckett’s influence is never far from McBride’s novel, though it is by no means dominant. It is present in the many considerations of time’s erosive waves and the contrary, unrelenting, onward-movement of time. “Time is all there is,” the woman says in the previous section, set in Auckland. There too we learn that someone very close to her died some time before. Here too, there is an effective and moving switch to the personal pronoun: “Tomorrow I will be older than you for the first time. I am about to pass you by. After all these years, and how it always was, the time where that shape kept its shape has almost run out. You will stay behind now and become younger than me.”

Back in Austin, the woman has asked a man who spent the night with her to leave. But she is unable to anticipate how she will feel until her request has been enacted. It is only by doing so that she can understand the whorl of her own confusion. She wills him to return and knock on the door. When he does she briefly opens the door and then closes it again. Only by doing something does she know what she thinks, and then it is too late. “She already knows she’s miscalculated the outcome of this and, given her natural antipathy towards inconclusiveness, is irritated by having gotten it wrong.” The difficulty of knowing and the likelihood of being wrong. Later, she considers that “the only place for impulse is in her past”. Then, “having grown tired of her own loneliness”, she enters “The Imagined Room” and tells us, directly, about another time of indecisiveness and turmoil which occurred in London. That time too a connection was sundered, resulting in her being booked into a hotel by the man whose house she has just left. Or is that how the event unfolded? ‑“perhaps ‑ to lie about this differently ‑ it all worked out another way? And why not? I hear you can try anything.” And so she revises every aspect of what she has just told us. “This version has its own consistency,” she tells us, but this presentation of the events is also beset with doubts about what-could-have-been or what the impact of a single change of heart would have led to. “We cannot know what we are not or what we were not to become.” The dilemma is that even knowing what you want or feel may not be of help: “knowing myself has invariably made matters worse,” she says. However we may wish to change the past, it remains there, stubbornly asserting its command over us and our appraisal of the life we have lived.

As she erases or revises her past it begins to look as if only a total re-evaluation of both the life and the novel will suffice. A level of frustration and self-laceration that had been checked by the austerity of the writing breaks through.

And what does my will think of me now?
Probably that it’s tired of this tone. Of relentlessly reshuffling the deck of pseudo-intellectual garble which, if I’m honest, serves the solitary purpose of keeping the world at the far end of a very long sentence.

1/5/2020

Declan O’Driscoll has written for The Irish Times, Music & Literature and several other publications.

 

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