Vertigo, by Joanna Walsh. St. Louis, Missouri: Dorothy, a publishing project, October 2015. 120 pages. $16.00, paper.
Vertigo is the kind of book it’s easy to let yourself be fooled by. It is smaller than the average prose collection. It is shorter. It has a very low number of lines per page, something you might realize if you flip through it or glance at a screenshot. These facts will make an impression upon you even if you aren’t aware of them. You might imagine yourself reading this book quickly and shelving it confidently, certain that your time with it was more or less well-spent, and is now over.
This would be a mistake. Because Vertigo is a worthwhile book, yes; but more importantly because it is perhaps best not to read it as a book of prose fiction at all. In fact–and to its great credit–there is hardly a plot to be had in the whole collection. There are narratives a-plenty; Joanna Walsh is an expert at breathing life into a possibility without forcing it to move. For Walsh, what matters most are the interstices, those infinite moments of transition between discovery and consequence, cusp and movement, belief and deed. Each of her collection’s fourteen stories gives the impression of having been crafted less with words and paragraphs than pigments and brushstrokes. Vertigo is very nearly a collection of fourteen paintings into which we are meant to stare.
Consider “Vagues,” the second piece in the collection. It’s ten pages long, the first eight-and-a-half of which are pure tableau, full of rhythm and rich detail that exist, so far as we can tell, for their own sake. The narrator is a woman, calm, sitting at a seaside table with a man, agitated. His queries and rationalizations about the oyster restaurant’s absentee and inept staff become a jarring counterpoint to her thoughts, which alternate between lengthy answers for the man’s rhetorical questions and her own observations about their surroundings. “Yes, the beach has rubbish, though not much,” she thinks, “and the restaurant, by its presence, makes the rubbish unmentionable. All the beaches along this coast have some rubbish: either more or less than this beach.” It is impossible to sit out of the sun and face the sea at the same time; the restaurant is open only over the summer, by which time oysters are said to be their least tasty; the man’s anxiety regarding the delay in service fuels the woman’s tranquility. Everything offers ruminative potential.
Then, the narrator returns to a thought she has addressed only once, and that briefly: the notion of infidelity, in the form of her husband, with whom she is not seated at the beach. Why does she return to the thought? It’s the reason for the whole tableau–though the expected tension of her own will-she-won’t-she moment is instead supplanted by the simple, detached observatory calculus in which the story is based:
As my husband knows that I know he is unlikely to tell me the truth about the woman with whom he will or will not have slept, so that, even if he tells me the truth, I will be unable to recognize whether or not he is being truthful, he must believe that if he sleeps with the woman, he will sleep with her entirely for his own pleasure. I, if I sleep with the man who is sitting opposite me at the restaurant, though I will not lie about whether I have slept with this man or not, will be unable to tell my husband anything he will accept as truthful, so much also, by consequence, make sure that, if I sleep with this man, it must be entirely for my own pleasure too.
Passages like these call to mind the similar cerebrations of Lydia Davis, whose characters present mazes of delightful thought meant only to appear obtuse. That comparison, however, can go no further than the brain. Where Davis often concocts entire stories out of mental mazes, Walsh uses them to bring dramatic heft to an otherwise still situation. In the case of “Vagues,” the narrator’s (relative) intrusion functions as does the denouement in a crime novel: the curtain is pulled back, and we find out what we’ve been pondering all this time.
A similar example comes from “Drowning,” the final story in the collection, where Walsh turns a metaphor lively by stretching it over her narrator’s head and setting her adrift in it. It is perhaps neither a surprise nor a spoiler to reveal that the “drowning” of the title happens not in water–though there is that chance–but in everyday life. Its narrator is a woman who spends the story walking about the town to which she’s swum across an unidentified channel, having left her family functioning without her on the beach from which she’s come. She is no longer young–“I am too old to look good in a bikini,” she tells us–but neither is she old. Her children are not adults, but they are “losing their last childish things, their shoes and clothes have become bigger until they are barely distinguishable” from hers and her husband’s. She has a husband.
The tropes might feel familiar, and it’s perhaps impossible to read “Drowning” without feeling surer and surer that the narrator will let herself go when she makes the inevitable swim back across the channel to her inevitable family. It’s when she does get back in the water, though, that we realize the metaphorical drowning has already been happening; it began before the first page of the story, like a Greek myth–and the potential of actual, physical drowning becomes a poignant afterthought:
If I stopped swimming to tread water enough to raise my head, if I inflated my lungs enough to call to them, I would no longer be able to pull against the current, and then she shouting would not be loud enough, not in the right language, and do no good….If I drown, whose fault will it be? The fault of the waves, the lack of a sign, the fear inspired by the sign, lack of sufficient muscle? Does it matter whose fault it is?…Despite everything, we are good people, who can hardly live in this world that continues almost entirely at our expense. The best thing is to keep on moving arms and legs, and watch the waves, almost as though moving forward. In this way, despair turns quickly over to happiness, and back to despair again.
What would in another writer’s hands become a message of hope, an end point as tired as the tropes that led the narrator to swim the channel in the first place, instead becomes a continuum. There is no literal drowning in “Drowning.” Nor is there rapture. What there is is an awakening … and an ongoing. The narrator swims back to her family. The reason why is also the reason she left.
“There is now very little in my mind” is how “Drowning” begins. “Fin de Collection,” the first story in Vertigo, ends with an equally curious declaration: “To appear for the first time is magnificent.” The width and breadth of the space between those statements is where the collection’s characters–all of whom are well past first appearances–live. Water, as promised by the book’s cover photo, is a useful tool for inducing the vertigo necessary to get there: “Vagues,” “Drowning,” “Claustrophobia,” and the title story all involve the ocean; “Half the World Over” features a bathtub and a river at crucial points; “Summer Story” involves a storm. But vertigo is everywhere. “The Children’s Ward” substitutes “water” with “diagnosis.” The stories about lovers–“Online,” “New Year’s Day”–replace it with “loneliness.” Entrances appear when you find yourself waiting for them. Before you’ve finished reading, you will be creeping toward edges and gazing at fixed points.
John Brown Spiers lives in California’s Central Valley. He spins plots.