Your bookself is a being who thrives on all the unread books that you pile up in corners, everything you’ve neglected, not got round to yet, or discarded. The narrator tells us, “It has been through the charity bag. It has scraped every word from torn and mouldering volumes streaked with tea and bacon fat at the bottom of the dustbin.” I have so many unread books. I keep buying more. This story makes me feel better about it. It also makes me think people’s bookselves should get together at parties and events and readings to talk about books and all our unbookselves could stay at home and read.
First published in Narrative, 2014.Collected in Worlds from the Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017
There are some things you still can’t get on the internet.
In Joanna Walsh’s short story, a writer in residence at a theological college is searching in vain for a copy of Zoo, or, Letters Not About Love by Viktor Shklovsky, which had been recommended to her by her agent’s husband on the day before she took up the residency. She is meant to be writing a novel about emails to an ex, but, ‘I do not write about my ex’s emails. I write about not being able to read Shklovsky’s Zoo.’ Joanna Walsh’s recent collection, Worlds at the Word’s End was my favourite short story collection of last year, but in 2015 I was privileged to publish ‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ on Piece of Paper Press, in a limited, numbered edition of 150 copies. Half the print run was given away during a launch event at the bookartbookshop on Pitfield Street, London. Joanna and I divvied up the rest, and sent them out gratis to people we thought might like it. I have a numbered copy and Joanna has one. Apart from that there aren’t any left. ‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ is now essentially unobtainable, and as far as I know Joanna has resisted at least one offer of further publication. So, a story that largely comprises speculation about a book that cannot be read, cannot now itself be read. I think ‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ is a literary and conceptual masterpiece, but you may have to take my word for it.
First published Piece of Paper Press, 2014
Literally every sentence of ‘And After’ – one after the other – ends in an unexpected place, subverting the expectations of the reader as it unfurls. As such, you might think that the story risks overstaying its welcome; that it doesn’t come close is a testament to both Walsh’s technical excellence and her feel for the shape and balance of each construction, and how they fit together.
First published in Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016
‘Drowning’ is redolent with those earlier depictions of motherhood in the seventies where women took to testifying to their experience, and in so doing to making the personal political. So, when I first read ‘Drowning’, I was already there, in motherhood as abysmal, as oblivion, motherhood as death of self, say… In Lynda Schor’s 1979 ‘My Death’ it’s not the sea but the bathtub in which the mother drowns herself, and then in her case she was dead already:
‘Listen Ruth, I’m dead. Could you pick up the kids for me and keep them a while till Dave picks them up?’
‘I’m dead too. I was going to call you and ask whether you could pick up Rosalee?’
Somewhere between ironic and deadly serious, Schor charts an afternoon as a mother, dead, but obliged to carry on with her chores. “The baby sucked greedily, unaware of my condition.” Her husband suggests she think of something more positive, chiding her, “You always complain.” The story casts an acerbic gaze on parenthood, one typical of the era, but not without resonance today.
‘Drowning’ was first published in Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016. ‘My Death’ is anthologised in Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood, ed. Moyra Davey, 2001)
This story rests on an irresistible premise that all your unread books might step from your shelves in the shape of a polyphonous reader to share with you some conversation and a glass of wine. This flesh and blood creation opens up the question of who we would be if we actually read all these carefully hoarded books. It is Reader as pure potential and permanent aspiration.
Included in Worlds From the Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017
And, if you reach the beach, walk back across it like everything is fine, toward your family who would not like to see the abyss you have just swum over.
A last line suggestive of a mother’s happy reconciliation with her family after a near-drowning undermines our wilful happily-ever-after with its “if”. Undecided, the story throws the woman back into the sea, keeps her there, “moving arms and legs”, near-drowning, near-happily-ever-after. Not sure. How quickly summer holiday stories turn sinister, or how sea under sun dazzles, makes us giddy. But that’s not what I read here, in this lush story where “The tarmac is a warm body beneath my feet”. What I read is the domestic tyranny, the maternal drudgery that even a holiday, a French village, a strip of sea can’t shake. A woman steps into the sea so as to no longer see whether her partner is choosing to pay attention to their children or choosing to read a book. She swims the channel so as to no longer be able to see, to no longer have to know. It’s a brief act of maternal finitude and one that sheds an acerbic light on parenthood. “Shall I tell you what it is like to drown? It is very calm and quiet.” As in, it is calmer and quieter to drown than to mother?
In Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016. Chosen by Olivia Heal
I am the biggest fan of my own work: if I didn’t take the utmost joy in my own writing, why would I continue? To compromise on any perceived narcissism, I’ve chosen a story you can’t read. Shklovsky’s Zoo was published by Tony White’s Piece of Paper Press. A story about the ways literature disappears on and offline, and particularly about the erasure of women’s words, the 2015 print run of 150 copies were given away for free and the story can no longer be read or reproduced anywhere.
Piece of Paper Press, 2015