It’s been hard to miss Joanna Walsh over the last couple of years: her first book, Fractals, came out in 2013, and was rapidly followed by Grow A Pair, Hotel and Vertigo (all 2015!), a digital novella, Seed, in 2016, and Worlds from the Word’s End in late 2017 – and now, a mere five months later, comes Break.up: a novel about the break up, or breakdown, of a relationship that never really was – or was it?
Joanna, our narrator (already we’re suspicious: what genre is this?) has, for a year, been communicating with the unnamed man to whom she addresses her manuscript: they’ve mostly chatted online (gchat, email, Skype, texts) and only occasionally met in the flesh – she’s in love with him, but he’s dismissive of her. Now that it’s (probably) all over, she goes on a round-trip through Europe, hopping from one friend’s vacant flat to another to try to exorcise herself of him, all the time preoccupied with the nature of their relationship, the nature of intercourse (as dialogue, they’ve had plenty; as sex, they’ve had none), what it is to know, to love, to miss a person, and what we mean by place, or borders, or home.
This is part novel, part travelogue, and like all Walsh’s work, it’s erudite and meditative; she riffs off pop culture and philosophy, throws in photographs, loops her readers around her thought processes until they’re dizzy; she’s exhaustive in her dissection of thought and language, but she’s also irreverent and accessible – unless you’re after a quick plot-driven read, in which case you’ll be terribly disappointed. This is hybrid fiction in its new heyday: semiotics meets romance meets a guide to interrailing around Europe. The book is littered with side-bars quoting everyone from Kierkegaard, Adorno and Breton, to Marshall McLuhan and Jarvis Cocker; as Joanna criss-crosses various cities, we too cross borders, hopping from margin to margin to read the quotes and examine the photos. Walsh’s own style lends itself to the pithy idiom. Here she is on connectivity:
‘When I am connected I am at home, but the net renders me foreign, is always talking about something going on elsewhere, outside its limits.’
And on power: ‘If I let you have power over me, we have a relationship’. And on sexual awareness: ‘I knew what it was to be attractive long before I knew what I wanted to attract’. And – I’ll stop now – on time: ‘Time is not just what I pay attention to, but how I pay attention to it.’
If you’ve ever obsessed over somebody – some awful undeserving person – at a distance, on the internet, for months, and found that the digital component of your lives won’t let the bad times die away, then you’ll find this book a resonant one. It’s not a rom-com, that’s for sure, but – even if you’ve never couch-surfed through Paris and Budapest – it’s realistic.
Any Cop?: You’d want to get on well with pretty experimental fiction to really love this, but the subject matter is compelling, and we think that fans of Chris Krauss and the likes will be very keen.