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Presence Through Absence: On Joanna Walsh’s Break.Up
Jay Merill , April 13th, 2018 13:34

Jay Merill explores the gaps and border zones in the new novel by Joanna Walsh, author of Seed, Hotel, and Worlds from the Word’s End

It is highly noticeable that the title of this book places a dot between the word “Break” and the word, “up”. To read the work, a novel composed of essays spoken in the voice of a female first person narrator, will reveal that the placement of this dot is no arbitrary affectation but is of crucial significance in demonstrating the fundamental rationale of the book itself. For the dot abruptly separates what has gone before from what is to come, breaking up the smooth impression the two words together might otherwise convey. Alternatively, it could be argued, the dot exists in the gap between two words. It connects as well as divides them, with each giving a different message. In both cases we are directed to the thought: Why is the dot here?

To begin reading the book by asking such a question as this would be entirely in keeping with the spirit of the work. For above all this is a book of thoughts and any number of thoughtful questions are raised within its pages. Self questioning is particularly evident. And the matter of love, of course. Questions about what it is, or what it could mean, are always present at some level, many thoughts arising as to what it might prove to be.

Break.up tracks the journey of a woman through several European cities after the collapse of a relationship. Her ideas, feelings and emotions throughout the many ports of call are expressed, deciphered and questioned. From the first page language is being played with. Gracefully, amusingly. The protagonist says, “I made myself up each time we met.” On the one hand she is simply referring to applying make-up in the Ladies' room at St Pancras Station where her journey is to begin. On the other, it is evident that self creation is meant. Constructing a false persona as a way of protecting self from any possible damage inflicted by the other, for example.

When the character looks at the mirror or window in this Ladies' room she feels herself to be similarly transparent. Though whether this is with love, or with grief, she isn't quite so certain. She recounts critical comments made by the man with whom she has recently broken up. “You are fragmented”, or, “You are obsessed by surfaces.” However, when the protagonist moves South, to Nice first of all, and describes narrow alleyways where lights flash through at angles, she observes that they seem to be a reflection of her “fragmented self”. And it emerges very strongly that the idea of being fragmented is not a state of being which feels altogether negative or distressing to her, after all.

Her relationship is at an end, but memories and thoughts of this man recur constantly as she traverses city streets, so that in a sense he remains present. She feels a continuing need to communicate – even if it is only to tell him there is nothing left to say. In fact, she considers sending an email to this effect, attracted by the idea of his receiving “the noise of nothing arriving”. The purpose of this would be to remind him that she continues to be. Presence through absence – particularly of love – is a dominant theme in this work and the paradoxical notion that the less love is present the more it exists, confronts us.

Entirely in keeping with this perspective is the positive feeling generated in the text about the act of creating distance. Leaving somewhere behind is presented as desirable. All too quickly a place can become over-familiar, and moving away a relief. People at railway stations are in the process of moving to somewhere else. So the railway station, it follows, is a highly desirable setting through which to pass. In this location the protagonist describes herself as “entirely present, yet entirely absent”. And given that leaving is a most beneficial state for the perpetuation of love the railway station is also therefore, the most perfect location for love to flourish.

This book is fast-paced, adeptly conveying a sense of movement. For, without question, movement is a dominant theme. Other, frequently repeated themes are gaps, and connected to gaps necessarily, borders. One can fall in and out of a gap, go back and forth across borders. Freedom occurs in such movements as these. The author points out that this is an opposite state from the condition of marriage, in which one becomes embedded, so that change cannot occur, and movement, such an imperative, cannot arise. Beyond the recent break up, the author refers to a marriage which had broken up in the past.

Movement shifts individuals into a new present, and there is an element of the impersonal about this. They become as tourists, drifting, with no personal context to bind them. There's an out of time quality. Our tourist-protagonist is happy to keep knowledge of the cities on her itinerary to a minimum and feels a continuing sense of estrangement from the world of objects. An excess of materiality is not desirable.

Walsh introduces the idea of repetition with a quote from Kierkegaard: “This is the reason there is a world. The world consists of repetition.” The traveler has now arrived in Budapest where she had been many years before. Recognising the shift in time, she says, “It would not be the past without this gap” and later in the chapter indicates that memory requires the presence of gaps in order to function.

Budapest is an excellent location in which to think about gaps. There is Buda and then there is Pest – and the character is never quite sure whether she is in one or the other. The Danube runs in-between, and there are many bridges to cross. She finds enjoyment being in the centre of a bridge “balancing over the gap between one thing and the next.” There's a knowledge of two sides from this position: past and future, with the bridge itself as the now, perhaps; one moment in time. Other than when at railway stations, the happiest, most integrated moment for the character is when she is standing on one of the Budapest bridges.

From the first, it is made clear that the protagonist never had sex with the man she has recently split from, though she does indicate the idea of sex with him has enhanced her other sexual encounters. Also most of their interactions were via email and did not involve physical contact. But there is an implication that the virtual possesses as much substance as the real. Emails can be endlessly clicked into and reread. Unlike conventional love-letters they cannot suffer from becoming frayed. Yet, is this eternal quality an advantage? Doesn't it go against the necessity for movement and freedom? These, and many other contradictions are drawn forward within the text.

There is an evident delight in considering disparities and disclosing oppositions, which gives this book its exhilarating quality. One might, for example, look at the thought of falling. It is a type of movement, whatever else is true. Is falling good or bad, or both things together, or neither? Falling is an ambiguous state. Part terrible, part delicious, it can be euphoric. At the railway station in Milan the protagonist is tormented by a fear of falling. Falling is, of course, one of the words commonly associated with entering the sphere of love.

The digital nature of love is emphasised. It is never one smooth analogue of an experience. And the character shows herself to be in perfect harmony with love, for she recounts that, in defiance of one of those critical comments from the loved one, she had claimed: “I am digital”. It is quite evident that she is at home with the gaps, the stops and starts, and the visual expressions of these within written language, particularly the dots.

In due course we are back in London. Yet there is no ending. And this doesn't just happen, like some accident; some fading away to nothing. The lack of an ending is a conscious choice on the part of the character. “I refuse to finish this book. There is no end to love.” These are the penultimate sentences. Getting somewhere conclusive and reaching a final destination would have been unproductive in the context of this work. The point of all the gaps and borders would have been lost; the value of stops and starts as enhancers of experience and memory, been done away with.

Love has more reality in movement, and in time and space punctuated by endings and repetitions, than in a constant or material world. Space and time without gaps would be the antithesis of love. Arrivals are important but so too are departures, and shifting from one to the other is a never ending process. That's the thing. The sharply amusing language in which the book is couched draws out to the full the paradoxical nature of the worldview this novel is propounding.

Break.Up by Joanna Walsh is published by Tuskar Rock Press on 19 April

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