Review: Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

I reviewed the book Vertigo by Joanna Walsh (2015).

Understanding the term vertigo has always been a challenge for me. As a young girl, I’d spin my body on the cold tiles of our kitchen floor to feel vertigo. It didn’t work. On the advice of my brother, I confined this spinning to a single tile. That didn’t work either. Reading British writer Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo, I felt the same way I did as a child. I didn’t get it. Aside from sparing passages of genius, the text is often stiff and long-winded. Walsh is clearly a talented writer. But she her prose is ridden with so much literary pomp, it feels as though she’d celebrated the reception to her book before its release.

Vertigo consists of 14 short stories about a woman’s relationship with herself, her husband and her children. We’re not told who this woman is. She serves as our narrator, sometimes immersed in the action and other times commenting on it from a distance. Each story places us in a different environment with the narrator relaying the situation in which she finds herself.

In the story “Vagues,” we’re lying on a beach somewhere in France. We find ourselves on a hospital bed surrounded by inquisitive pediatricians and nurses in “The Children’s Ward.” And in “Online,” we’re in the midst of the narrator discovering her husband’s online dalliances with women she describes as “young, witty, and charming.”

Walsh’s stories are more focused on style and mood than narrative. In “Fin De Collection,” she writes:

“A friend told me to buy a red dress in Paris because I am leaving my husband. The right teller can make any tale, the right dresser can make any dress. Listen to me carefully: I am not the right teller.”

The details of the narrator’s broken marriage are incidental to the somber mood she conveys. There’s something bigger than the end of her relationship. At least that’s how we’re made to feel. To her credit, Walsh translates a sense of pathos that’s well sustained throughout the book. Vertigo is ubiquitously melancholic. There’s a sense of loss that anchors each of its stories. Even moments of joy are underscored with a palpable sadness that’s achieved perfectly in a passage from the the title story “Vertigo”:

“She realized she was happy and it was terrible to be happy with anything so ordinary…She swatted it away but the happiness would not leave. She was surprised to find things went on just the same beside the happiness, which did nothing practical…”

Walsh excels at giving her characters a heightened self-awareness that allows her audience to gain an immediate understanding of their world. She’s able to create a delicate but believable sense of detachment between her subjects, their emotions and the action that unfolds around them. The problem is that she does this scarcely. For example, she carefully reveals the narrator’s testy relationship with food through a brief interaction with a stewardess on a flight:

“No, I am not hungry. I will deny it very quickly, almost as soon as I feel it, or rather as soon as I feel the not being hungry, which is not the same as feeling nothing. I will deny it out loud so I don’t feel it, or rather so I feel what I say…”

There are also pockets of laughter in the description of parent-child relationships. These could easily descend into syrupy sentimentality. But Walsh avoids this by showing us the deadpan honesty parents usually avoid or deliver euphemistically to their children:

“My daughter has made her first sacrifice to fashion. She has bought a short pink skirt with lace, which does not suit her and for which there is no suitable season or occasion. It will remain unworn, but beautiful. When she wears it, it stops being beautiful. When she takes it off, there it is, beautiful again.”

“Online” gives us the best of Walsh as she shifts the narrator’s introspective account of the women her husband’s met online, to a conversation they have which ends in her trying to seduce him with cringe-worthy sexual innuendo. The scene is brilliant because of how Walsh exploits Britain’s most prized national treasure: embarrassment. You feel for the narrator as she attempts to revive their love life by resorting to contrived dirty talk. Poetic devices animate their dialogue. Walsh uses staccato-like rhythms to add texture and range to this exchange, making it read like an engaging soap opera at one moment and a good bit of improvised comedy at another.

But these snapshots aren’t enough to make Vertigo the book you hope it to be. Walsh strives to make the book too many things at once: a poem, a novel, a manifesto, a glimpse into the life of a modern woman, a view on motherhood, a social critique on aging, a book on broken relationships, a book about mental health, and so on. It could’ve been all those things had she opted to write a novel instead of a collection of short stories.

Going through each section of the book sometimes felt like reading a slim and shiny self-help book on “women’s issues.” As a result, the prose suffers because it seems like every story has a forced theme to adhere to as opposed to allowing the narrated action speak for itself.

Like Kate Zambreno’s much-praised Green Girl which examines a young woman’s tortured relationship with herself and the world around her, Walsh organizes Vertigo in fragments that are overly stylized. This overwrought structuring makes some passages read like a three-year-old reciting a children’s book backwards:

“Or at least I would not dislike them for being like, but unlike, me, and for him liking them not better but exactly the same amount as he likes me.”

Sentences become choppy and repetitive, making Vertigo a frustrating read because of the wordy stodge preventing passages from flowing freely. And much like Green Girl, the theme of nothingness is far too belabored. Instead of using prose to communicate the loss the narrator feels, Walsh relies on pretentious wording and editing to get across this emptiness. It makes interesting passages die on paper because they’re brought down by a need to relay this nothingness at every turn.

And while you get the sense there’s a gaping hole that occupies the narrator’s life, Vertigo doesn’t go beyond this. After several stories, you can predict the pattern and pace Walsh will take and the direction the story will follow. It’s a pity because these overly deliberated choices prevent us from appreciating the occasional brilliance of a potentially good book.

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