January 27, 2016

Book Review: Joanna Walsh, "Vertigo"

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Vertigo, by Joanna Walsh

Vertigo
By Joanna Walsh
Dorothy, A Publishing Project
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

An odd collection. A great collection, although it takes some time to settle into its rhythms, but an odd collection just the same, and one with all the markings of a normal collection. The stories in this book feature such commonplace themes that the book could be confused with a conventional work of realism: protagonists worry about their marriages, deal with their parents' aging, and cope with a sense of alienation so overwhelming it's impossible for them to relax. Yet the resulting stories are a bizarre and highly subjective portrait of their characters' interior lives.

I say "characters," but there's nothing to stop this whole book from all being about the same woman, since Walsh never names her protagonists. Even if these women are different, they're dealing with similar things: in "Vagues," the narrator claims her husband "may be sleeping with another women" (17), while "Online" concerns a woman whose husband "met some women online" who "were young, charming and witty" (54). They also deal with the same domineering mother in "Vertigo" and "Claustrophobia." Youth is also an issue, most prominently raised in "Online," "Drowning" and "Young Mothers." Regardless of whether it's one woman or several, Walsh has a good understanding for how to bring readers into her characters. Indeed, much of this is so close that it's uncomfortable; consider the insecurities revealed by the final line of "Relativity," "[Off the bus] we get, and away we go, the young, the old, and the failed girls (109). Or how half of "Vagues" is an essayistic meditation on how oyster restaurants stay in business, with one section even labeled "Theories."

As a result of this extreme subjectivity, time is often distended in these stories. Some contain no identifiable time at all: "And After..." is a series of statements containing starting with the phrase "let there be," part wishes and part commands. Others magnify single moments, such as "The Big Black Snake," which zooms in on the discovery of the title creature. Meanwhile, "Claustrophobia" chops the last several years of the protagonists' parents' lives up, complete with a black-humored discussion of the father's passing, and while much of "Vertigo's" exterior action takes place at a ruin, the conflict is almost entirely in the narrator's mind. Since the motion in these stories is often so odd, it might not be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed the subjectivity on display - Walsh created characters and stuck to them. It's a mystifying reading experience, but consider me impressed.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about Vertigo: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, January 27, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |