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Ruby Cowling

vertigo book cover

“The feeling of falling, which was not falling”

A review of Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

Dorothy (US), 2015; And Other Stories (UK); Tramp Press (Ireland), 2016. 123pp

 

Vertigo Joanna Walsh

Review by Ruby Cowling

 

Struck with vertigo, suddenly things are not what you thought. You’re dizzy, disorientated, and it turns out the world is not, after all, what your brain has been constructing every day through its normal sensory feeds. Actual physical vertigo is not pleasant, but a literary style that steps away from the one we know best is exciting, and Joanna Walsh’s approach in this collection certainly does that.

This is not to say that her stories are obscure or “difficult”; I’d hesitate to even label them with that damningly nutritious word “experimental”. They are full of recognisable situations, humour and relatable moments. It’s just that she goes directly for “the truth”, without all the niceness that the mainstream short story slips into so easily. She unhooks herself from common expectations of narrative, in turn untethering the reader from the standard, safe experience of reading short fiction.

Short stories in the form we know best – the form you find in weekend magazines or in annuals from big, safe publishers – typically feature a little aching moment of truth at their heart, which is wonderful, of course; it’s an authentic experience, a quiet, humane offering in a noisy and brutal world. But too often they’re under pressure to deliver that moment up to the reader in a nice velvet-lined box of comfort and familiarity (a named character, going about business you recognise (even if in an exotic setting), working up to a relatable moment of realisation or change). The lid of that beautiful box gently closes at the end of the story, reassuring you of solid ground. However, instead of apologetically working up to a tentative assertion about Life, Walsh just states a truth and kicks it around – no box, no lid, no tethering it to reassuring elements such as softly-introduced character or plot. Because she pulls no punches in her stories – simply stating facts, observing behaviours and honestly presenting the kind of psychic darkness that usually gets fudged – the peculiar is made powerfully universal.

There is so much in this collection: so much intellectual and emotional content, so many direct gestures toward the biggest, scariest parts of human existence. No wonder we get dizzy. One of her skills is to achieve an almost-real-time expression of thought. Internal reality moves quickly and the resulting impression is that we are inhabiting a real mind. “A man sits down at the table next to me. I wonder whether he is French, whether he is foreign, whether he is a tourist. I also wonder whether I could say hello to him, in French or in English, whether we would like each other, whether we could sleep together.” Aren’t characters in cafés supposed to mull things over in a Stately And Important Way, using their observations of the people around them to Come To A Subtle But Profound Conclusion? Once again, we are untethered from expectations, unhooked from the usual steady, authorly manipulation of time. Walsh gives us a more honest experience, and we are giddy.

“The first effect of abroad is strangeness,” says the opening story’s narrator, and it’s because we are “abroad” stylistically that it feels strange at first. But my argument is that these stories are more radically realist than the standard so-called lyrical realism. Drowning, the final story, may be one of the more accessible stories in the collection (perhaps deliberately, so that we think we’re back in safe waters and are even more emotionally unprepared for the stunning ending), and even here Walsh doesn’t shy away from admitting that “the abyss” is real, and although it is “your family who would not like to see” it, it is nevertheless a real part of lived experience which must be acknowledged, however vertiginous that makes us feel.

* * *

Some of the fourteen stories are very short and focused, addressing quite viscerally the internalities of humanhood – and, all right, of womanhood. Here, I get hesitant. It’s essential not to circumscribe Walsh’s intellectual ambition by claiming her focus is “women’s experience”. It’s easy for it to seem that way, because her narrators are female, and because of her “otherly” narrative form – the “other” arguably being aligned with the feminine. She speaks powerfully and concisely of the experience of “failed girls”, and many of her detailed observations encompass clothing, food, and the specific ways people touch each other and use language to manipulate their relationships. Historically, these have tended not to be Great Literature’s dominant concerns; I don’t have a PhD-length space here, so let’s quickly agree that this is because clothing and food have been part of the domestic realm and the significance of the domestic has been side-lined, and that if a writer includes these, the writing ends up with the label female interest. This is not a complimentary epithet: it still carries the accusation of smallness, weakness, intellectual parochialism, so I am loath to bring it up at all. But there is still that political paradox in which you have to marginalize yourself to point out that your voice is not yet, and should be, part of the mainstream – so, there, I’ve brought it up.

These female interest stories are stark and muscular; full of invitation, full of provocation, full of the acknowledgement of the non-separation of body and mind. This latter position has been a concern of feminist thought, and there are certainly explicitly “feminist” moments here (“I’ve heard him shout at her to pick up the telephone, as though she were his extra hand”, says the narrator in Claustrophobia, about her parents). But even to label these as “feminist” is to put a boundary around them: to say, well, that’s an argument, that’s a position, an opinion – instead of a fact. Hence my hesitation to bring up any of these terms.

What Walsh does, in her refusal to use standard story conceits or a banal lyrical realist style to soften the blow, is to bring all this female interest material into the realm of hard fact – of unapologetic, undeniable truth – reminding us that women’s intellectual lives are actually being lived, in reality. They are not a special interest or a theory. They are real.

It still feels radical to be intellectual, in fiction, from a specifically female perspective. It gives us vertigo. “There’s something about our un-control, no men to watch over us,” notes a character in Claustrophobia, a story in which the narrator’s father dies. “What if it never stops?” In these moments vertigo is giddy possibility: freedom, danger, adventure, the sudden removal of the gravitational force of embedded power structures.

* * *

For reasons I’ve just alluded to, clothing is a neglected node of social significance; Walsh’s narrators notice clothing and its meanings perhaps more than any other writer I’ve read. Indeed, the book opens with Fin de Collection, a plot-light exploration of a Parisian department store and its stock (and its customers). In later stories, her eye for clothes is that of an artistic sociologist: she knows what these colours and shapes and fabrics and choices mean. Nurses’ uniforms in The Children’s Ward are unsettlingly the same blue as the attendants at petrol stations; in Relativity a grandmother’s “shades are mint, peach, lemon, blueberry, cream. She dresses as she would like to see her granddaughter dressed: edibly.” A daughter’s “short pink skirt with lace” ignites the title story. And in the Paris of Half The World Over, the young women tourists “are all dressed the same, in the current fashion. The older women are dressed either more primly or more provocatively than the older women, but always in reaction to them.” The iterative effect of these observations is that they are not the stuff of flimsy domesticity but a type of forensic anthropology.

Walsh is preoccupied with the disorientating experiences of contemporary life; its shocks; its threats; the things that throw us off balance. And what delights me most is that she doesn’t shy away from any of it: she doesn’t pull the cozy blanket of standard narrative over the dark and difficult things. Like family. In the complex, multi-generational story Claustrophobia, children are mentioned in passing as “blind lumps of my flesh, detached…”, while the narrator wrestles more centrally with the meaning of her own mother. In The Children’s Ward babies and children are the pulsing, “beeping” heart of the horrific tension of being a parent at all. This story is strung out with the hopeless terror attached to parenthood, the supremely attached status a mother has, against her own will. Young Mothers takes this further: the mothers have become children in the way they dress, behave, and speak, even though it is mysteriously important to everyone that the contract remain “kids be kids” and “mothers be mothers”. Do we get soothing resolutions to these unsettling scenarios? Of course not.

It’s brave and essential to lay out so starkly the details of life – and often, women’s lives – in all their uncomfortable ambiguity. Not to say that laying things out starkly means there are no layers of meaning – quite the opposite; this book is full of those. But the layers of meaning aren’t here because of that standard, MFA-story, show-don’t-tell manipulation. They’re part of the honest presentation of the complexities we negotiate as we go through life, as “good people, who can hardly live in this world, which continues almost entirely at our expense”.

Vertigo is packed full of the stuff we’re afraid of and attracted to, in the way we’re attracted to wild animals and cliff edges and the disconcerting behaviour of other humans we’re close to. And ourselves. The overall experience is exciting in the way only a truly original reading experience can be.

 

 

BIO

Ruby CowlingRuby Cowling is a British writer currently living in London. Her work has won awards that include, The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and has been shortlisted in contests from Glimmer Train, Short Fiction, and Aesthetica, among others. Recent anthology credits include I Am Because You Are (a Freight Books collection of work inspired by the theory of General Relativity); Flamingo Land and Other Stories, from Flight Press; and Unreal City: Constructing the Capital, a book of fiction and non-fiction about London, from Cours de Poétique.

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David Rose author

DAVID ROSE INTERVIEW WITH THE WRITING DISORDER

by Ruby Cowling

 

Drop Cap An interview with David Rose, “hidden gem of the British short story”. Author of Posthumous Stories (currently shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize) and Vault: an “anti-novel”, his work has been described as “euphorically paranoid, slyly narrated, often hilarious” (The Guardian) and “deft, deliberate and utterly delicious” (3:AM). Here he’s generously answered some probing questions about the advice given to young writers, different artistic approaches, and what it means to have lived a “boring” life. Thank you, David.

 

David Rose was born in 1949, in a small semi-rural town outside London, moving later to another small, entirely suburban town slightly nearer London. He left school at 16 with two O-Levels and spent his working life on the Post Office counter.

 

WD: A review headline described you as a “hidden gem”. How long were you writing before you were published?

DR: I had my first story published at the end of 1988, in The Literary Review, which was then edited by Auberon Waugh (the son of Evelyn Waugh) – I still have his handwritten letter of acceptance. I had by then been writing fiction for about four or five years.

 

WD: As a younger writer, did you have a mentor? Did you feel generally encouraged or discouraged by the people in your life to pursue the writing of fiction?

DR: I had written the usual sub-Eliot poetry in my teens, but never thought of writing fiction, or writing seriously, until my mid-thirties. It happened spontaneously: I suddenly had an idea for a story, based on a man I met on a bus, and wrote it out of curiosity. As it happened, I was working with a woman whose daughter knew the novelist Graham Swift – this was around the time of his writing Waterland. I had read an extract in Granta, then read his earlier novels, and wrote to him through that connection. When I finished the story, I sent that to Graham too, for an opinion. He was tactfully encouraging, despite the amateurishness of the story. So he was in a way my first mentor, but not in any more active sense than that. But that was enough to make me join a local creative writing adult-education course. As to friends and family: I never showed my writing to friends or family, and never would. If they want to read it now, they can buy it.

 

WD: Young writers are sometimes advised to have “one true reader” for whom they write (for Stephen King, it’s his wife). Do you have one, or have you had one?

DR: The one reader we are writing for or to is that reader who has read the identical books, and had similar experiences, i.e. ourselves. We write for ourselves, initially, then consider others. I don’t think we can consciously aim our work at a specific readership; that’s too calculating.

But if we do happen to have a specific friend as a reader, that’s a different matter, and a bonus. Wasn’t it Steinbeck who wrote a long (unposted) letter to his agent every morning before a day’s writing, as a way of clarifying what he wanted to write?

 

WD: What are your tastes in other art forms? Do you enjoy experimental music, visual arts, etc, or are your tastes more conventional?

DR: I have always had an interest in all the arts – music, painting, literature – from my teens, though the interest wasn’t nurtured at school. My tastes in music and painting mirror my taste in literature: Twentieth-century Modernism and beyond. So in music, the discovery of Mahler was overwhelming (as was Mahler’s discovery of Dostoyevsky), but also then leading on to the discovery of the Second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, their contemporaries such as Bartok and Janacek, the Americans – Copland, Ives, Harris, the later Minimalists, and jazz… One discovery always leads to another in an endless ramification.

Likewise in art, the great Modernist movements leading onward and, by their confrontation and engagement with the past, backward (as with music: Weber leads backward to early polyphony…). I thus have an interest in most contemporary artforms, apart from conceptual art (an oxymoron). I think we do need to immerse ourselves in the expressions of our age, which are most condensed in the arts but should extend to philosophy and history. (Old-fashioned Humanism, I guess I’m advocating.)

 

WD: There are a lot of “how to write” books and blogs around. To what extent do you buy in to the importance of sticking to agreed formats – such as the 3-act story structure? If this “works”, why do something else?

DR: I haven’t seriously read any ‘How-to-write’ books – I find the idea of them dispiriting. You can only learn how to write copies of stories/novels. Better to read good citical books on literature, and learn by example.

Agreed formats produce formula writing. That is fine if you want to write ‘best-sellers’ or Hollywood scripts – and it’s equally fine if you do want to do that – but not if you want to write something original. I don’t believe for one minute in ‘the 3-act story’ – it’s similar to Aristotle’s rules on drama, which were simply describing current practice, not prescribing how drama should work.

Formats work, of course – that’s why they exist – and will obviously go on working, but will do so with diminishing returns, and eventually the formats wear out. Just ignore them.

 

WD: Is part of a writer’s job to expand the form in which s/he is writing? Is writing simply a personal “emission” or transmission, or does a writer need to be aware of the historical context of their genre (including literary fiction as a genre) and the direction in which it’s going, and take some responsibility for their part in that?

DR: Yes, I do think it’s the writer’s concern to expand the form – that is a logical result of simply finding one’s own approach, own voice, and producing the one (or more, if you’re lucky) work that only you can contribute, which seems to me the only worthwhile reason for doing anything.

Is it ’emission’ or ‘transmission’? It’s both. It starts as emission – finding one’s voice and subject – then becomes transmission in clarifying it for others, which is how it becomes literature. I always think of Sartre’s definition of literature as a person sitting quietly in a room, using their freedom to write in addressing a reader sitting quietly in another room using their freedom to read it.

But I believe a writer’s first duty (only duty, since the rest follows naturally) is to the initial inspiration; in getting that idea out intact and alive, and finding for it its natural form. Once that is captured, the revision stage becomes a process of transmission, and of engagement.

I do think we need to be aware of what has already been written in our own field. Literature is community, not solipsism, and finding our own voice is only done by engagement with others. So as I have said about engaging with our time, we do need to be as aware as possible of the history of our chosen genre, and although it’s impossible to read everything, to at least be conversant with the range of what’s on offer. But it’s probably unnecessary to say this; most writers were readers long before they became writers.

I don’t think we are individually reponsible for the direction of a genre, because such direction can’t be controlled or directed. As Popper pointed out in science, and history, progress can’t be predicted. But in the process of finding one’s unique ‘take’, and in engaging with the genre and body of existing work, that uniqueness of voice will inevitably alter the direction of history, however marginally.

Because part of finding one’s voice lies in opening up new approaches, exploiting the possibilities of the form. I think this is especially true of the short story, which is the most Protean of literary forms, with limitless possibilities – many of them still currently ignored. But the important thing for me was always allowing the idea to dictate its own shape. It has been commented that my stories can be bewilderingly different, but I have never set out to ‘do something different’ – only to find the ideal form for a particular idea, and come up when successful with something fresh.

 

WD: What do you think about the argument that writers who are writing now must have an online presence, a profile?

DR: I am firmly of the pre-internet generation, and feel closer to writers such as David Markson and Cormac McCarthy in their non-use of the digital world. However, when Vault was first accepted for publication, my agent advised me to have an ‘on-line presence’ in the form of a blog – which he set up for me – and by joining Facebook. No one ever read the blog, but Facebook proved rewarding in making contacts and, in a number of cases, genuine friends, as well as reconnecting to some old ones.

It enabled me too to become acquainted with several writers whose work I would never have encountered otherwise – American writers in particular: Steve Himmer, whose novel FRAM I read in manuscript and loved (soon to be published); Edmond Caldwell, whose post-modern masterpiece Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant I went on to review several times, including in American Book Review; and Oisin Curran’s brilliant late-Modernist novel Mopus, which is still scandalously unknown even in America.

In turn, they and others have discovered my work, and stirred interest in it in America, Brazil and elsewhere. So it’s reciprocal, and that is the point. To set up a ‘presence’ in the form of relentless self-promotion will backfire. Literature is a community of writers and readers, and use of the internet is one way – now I suppose the quickest way – of tapping into and becoming part of that community.

 

WD: You’ve said elsewhere that “my own life has been extremely boring”. Yet you produce very rich and interesting fiction: in spite of, or because of, this quiet life?

DR: When I described my life as boring, I meant outwardly – most of it spent working, at what would appear to be a boring desk job. Actually, it was anything but – on the Post Office counter I was in close contact with thousands of people over the years, from the whole spectrum of society, many of whom I came to know well. And many of whom had led interesting lives; many of them were very funny, and some deeply strange.

Life will always trump fiction. Many of these people I could never have made up, and a number of them were the starting point for my fiction. It was, as someone pointed out to me, the ideal job for a writer.

But the imaginative conversion of the material into fiction takes place in that silent, empty room, in the evenings, which I would spend either writing or reading. Writers live a rich interior life, but an outwardly boring one. The ‘hell-raisers’, the drinkers – the hell-raising and drinking was all done when they weren’t writing (drinking doesn’t help you write; it helps you to not write).

 

WD: What advice do you have for writers starting out?

DR: I have never seen the point of advice on writing itself; if you need to write, you will, and you’ll find your own way. But it’s the next stage which becomes tricky: getting your work published and known.

My only advice on that would be to get involved. Don’t just submit to magazines – subscribe to them. Set one up, or help on an existing one. Starting a magazine may be easier now, in the digital age, or harder – I don’t know. It was perhaps easier in the old days of photocopying and stapling and distributing small magazines round colleges or bookshops.

In my case, I became involved in a print magazine, Main Street Journal, initially as a contributor, when it was just getting off the ground. Then, when it was refused Arts Council funding, I became involved financially, then editorially. Paradoxically, that meant we could no longer use my work in it (it would have been vanity publishing) but that didn’t matter. It made me friends and contacts who later proved immensely valuable. But at the time, it also brought satisfaction: to spot talented writers and excellent work in the unsolicited submissions, and be in a position to do something with it is deeply rewarding. It’s the community aspect again; give and take. And if you don’t support others, why should they support you?

 

WD: What’s next in your writing life?

DR: Next in my writing life? There is no next; my writing life is over. I have an experimental – and I believed unpublishable – novel due out in November [title: Meridian]. That I think will be my swan-song.

 

 

BIO

Ruby CowlingRuby Cowling was born in West Yorkshire and now lives in London, UK, working as a freelance writer for nonprofits. Winner of the 2014 White Review Short Story Prize and the 2013 Prolitzer Prize from Prole magazine, she was a finalist in the February 2014 Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers as well as being Highly Commended in the 2012 Bridport Prize.  Her recent print/online publication credits include The Letters Page, Unthology 4, The View From Here, and, in audio format, 4’33” and Bound Off. She is represented by Euan Thorneycroft at A M Heath.

 

 

 

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