Talking of clichés, couples meeting in train stations is one of the most well know, and ‘Hauptbahnhof’ by Joanna Walsh gives a wildly new take on it. Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a whole sterile ecosystem, a walled city laced with tracks and it was the first monster train station I visited. I was at the age where I could just look up at the departures board and pick an interesting sequence of letters that also happened to be a place I could visit. I ended up travelling to Bonn, but Walsh’s narrator is forever waiting for someone to arrive.
First published as a chapbook, ‘Hauptbahnhof’, 3:AM Press, 2013 and collected in Fractals, 3:AM Press, and Worlds from the Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017
Like much of Walsh’s Vertigo, this story lays out bare units of the quotidian under our noses, bringing taken-for-granted things into question by positioning them baldly outside of a “normal” narrative. This time it’s the mothers of young children who are under the Walsh heat-lamp. ”Our children gave birth to our function”, state the young mothers, their identities subsumed as soon as their child is born. They’re infantilised through the clothes they’re expected to wear and the round-edged objects they handle all day. And, at last, here’s a mention of the way young women so often become “X’s mum” – not only at nursery-gates introductions, but also in those deliberately-non-threatening online handles women feel obliged to use. Seeing Walsh record this so directly and plainly is such a relief, like a thirst has been quenched.
From the collection Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016
What would happen if we stopped using words? Walsh’s story charts the breakdown of language and relationships, working through what happens when words are no longer enough and through writing opens up new possibility for articulation outside of language. It is of course delightfully playful in its language, so that people are “dead to the word” and the failing economy places a picture at “five thousand, ten thousand words, a million!” The old writing adage is to show not tell, but in telling us the state of things, Walsh brings language and character to the forefront to create a new word-less world out of her words.
First Published in Best European Fiction, 2015. Collected in The Best British Short Stories 2015, Salt, 2015 and World’s from the Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017
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
The One That May Represent Some Sort of Platonic Ideal:
Officially, this is an extract too, but the first time I read it was as a standalone piece, so I’m going with that.
I used to think Hemingway’s ‘Canary for One’ was my favourite short story: the way it describes a train journey – initially along the French Mediterranean coast – via the landscapes flashing by outside the window, the way it talks about relationship ending without really talking about the relationship at all…
Then I read this, which starts by travelling the same geographical territory, but heading East rather than West, and also talks about/ doesn’t talk about a relationship ending, and is more perfect, more right, word for word, than anything has a right to be.
I won’t go on about how great Joanna Walsh is because you already know – you, of all people – and also because I’m not qualified to do so, and I detest theorising talk, but if I had to come up with some sort of example of how I wish I could write then it would look a lot like this.
(Available to read on Granta.com. Officially part of Break.up, Serpent’s Tail, 2018)
John Berger has written that ‘Of all nineteenth-century buildings, the mainline railway station was the one in which the ancient sense of destiny was most fully re-inserted . . . in a railway station the impersonal and the intimate coexist. Destinies are played out.’ (I think Walter Benjamin has something to say about stations, too, but I can’t find the reference now – why did Benjamin have to write so bloody much? – and anyhow I’m sure you probably know it better than I do.) Here, Walsh plays with the entirely reasonable idea of taking up residence in a railway station.
In Worlds From The Word’s End, And Other Stories, 2017
I came across Joanna Walsh’s stories for the first time only a few months ago. They’re experimental, not ‘easy’ and on a first reading I found many of them sterile, lacking the emotion which I crave in a story. But what I discovered was that they went on to snag at my mind in a disquieting ways until undercurrents of emotion rose to the surface. In ‘Two’, the narrator has “two polished and uncomplaining companions”. One holds the other by the hand. Though clearly inanimate, they play a very important part in the narrator’s life, though not in a straightforward or comfortable way. In this as in another story I might have chosen from this collection, Travelling Light, love co-exists with anxiety. So it is in life. For me reading (and writing) stories is a way of making sense of a world which, let’s face it, is nigh-on incomprehensible these days to many of us.
(In Worlds from the Word’s End, published by And Other Stories, 2017)