Member of the Crowd: Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

A flâneur is a member of the crowd, as well as a detached observer. This French word — literally meaning a “stroller” or “idler” — indicates, at least in the 19th-century-literary-sense, a person who wanders the urban streets, silently observing. The flâneur is inconspicuous as both participant and spectator, and he thrived in the hustle, bustle, and high commerce of 19th century Paris. Walter Benjamin wrote, “It suited [the flâneur] well to see his indolence presented as a plausible front, behind which, in reality, hides the riveted attention of an observer who will not let the unsuspecting malefactor out of his sight.”

Touching on a flâneur tradition set forth by writers like Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Marie Rilke, and Walter Benjamin, it’s fitting that Joanna Walsh’s new book, Vertigo, opens in Paris. In the spirit of those writers, Walsh conveys the Parisian streets in a manner that’s both surreal and razor-sharp. In the opening story, for example, the narrator strolls, reflecting:

“Even to be static in Saint Germain requires money. The white stone hotels charge so much a night just to stay still. So much is displayed in the windows: so little bought and sold. The women of the quarter are all over forty and smell of new shoe leather. I walk the streets with them.”

There’s an end-of-a-marriage at the center of this 4-page opening story, yet that loss is primarily rendered through the narrator’s experience of a Parisian department store. Instead of particulars on the philandering husband, we get observations on Chanel, Balzac, and department store design. Just as the store makes its mark on the narrator’s interior experience, the reverse is also true. There’s a gorgeously hazy line between the aisles of Le Bon Marché, and the passages of her contemplation.

Baudelaire thought that the human attempt to articulate feeling was weak compared to, “this ineffable orgy, this holy prostitution of the soul which gives itself entirely, poetry and charity, to the unforeseen that reveals itself, to the unknown that happens along.” In the case of Walsh’s story, the end of this marriage is represented by a sought-after red dress. So, we look at the clothes.

Walsh’s narrative method is more dynamic than straight flânerie, though, or it at least carries its own obsessions. Walsh, for example, is interested in turning this investigative impulse inward. When Walsh does reflect the internal trauma, she — sparingly, powerfully — captures it with precision. “I can’t be friends with your friends,” the narrator quickly imagines saying to her husband in the opening story. “I can’t go to dinner with you, don’t even want to.” In a manner that’s nearly as distant as her gaze on the streets, the narrator observes her own devastation.

Walsh’s stories contain many instances of flâneur-like investigations yielding moments of emotional revelation. In “New Year’s Day,” Walsh’s narrator reflects on the prior night’s party: “Everyone at the party was so lovely. Everyone was so happy. Everyone’s websites were now in color with hand-drawn lettering…” There’s a disappointing, one-night liaison at the core of this story, but it’s only circuitously remarked upon. Remembering the amorphous crowd, the narrator thinks, “Everyone liked looking at things that were pretty. I can still make things that are pretty, but I don’t now, and, as for the things I made in the past, I don’t even like to look at them anymore.”

Maybe one of the most brilliant moves Walsh makes is turning her flânerie on her experience of gender itself. In “Drowning,” a mother on a beach savagely observes that her husband never has to choose to be neglectful of the kids, because he knows if he does not pay attention to them, she will have to. She must also achieve the pretense of having fun doing this, otherwise “the holiday itself tips over.”

Or, in the title story, a mother sees her twelve-year-old daughter toss her hair. “It is the same gesture she used at nine, at ten,” Walsh writes. “One day it will become sexual. Is it yet? I don’t know. Why am I frightened by this progress? It will happen. It must happen.”

It’s notable that Walsh’s Vertigo was published by Dorothy, a press “dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women;” Both their stars seem to be rising at once. Last year, Dorothy published Nell Zink’s Wallcreeper, and they continue to build attention and momentum for their stunning catalog of books. Walsh, meanwhile, had three books come out this Fall: in addition to this one, a memoir/essay collection called Hotel (published by Bloomsbury), and Grow a Pair: 9 ½ Fairytales About Sex (by Readux Books, a small European press).

The stories in Walsh’s Vertigo are equally strange and edgy. She’s a flâneur who’s just as capable of representing the exterior and interior wreckage with equal precision. She takes on big ideas — partnership, loneliness, femininity, etc. — through the vibrant minutiae of contemporary experience.

Walsh excels as an inconspicuous observer, demonstrating the Benjamin assertion that, “The space winks at the flâneur: What do you think may have gone on here?”

Click here to read a story from Vertigo — “Option” — as part of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.

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