OCTOBER 4, 2017
HOW DO WE write about language’s insufficiency? More so, how does the world exist in excess of language’s depiction of it? This is something Joanna Walsh wants to ask in her latest collection of short stories, Worlds from the Word’s End (And Other Stories, 2017). On their surface, Walsh’s stories explore elements of dystopia that inhere in daily life. But as she immerses her reader into her various puns, paradoxes, and absurdities, Walsh also shows how words, books, and language texture an individual’s experience of the world. These stories, which often resemble prose poems, follow unnamed narrators who introduce readers to uncanny settings, as they pepper these strange situations with brilliant moments of empathy and insight that invite readers closer. Through short conversations between narrator and reader, Walsh explores how language makes a world of its own.
Worlds from the Word’s End resembles Walsh’s previous book, Vertigo (Dorothy, a Publishing Project, 2015). The stories in each collection run around the same length, and focus on the experiences of unnamed, usually female narrators. Walsh embeds herself in their perspectives, bringing out the exquisite details of each narrator’s experience. But Worlds also shows traces of Walsh’s more recent project, the interactive narrative Seed (Editions At Play, 2017). Meant to be read on mobile devices, Seed lets readers follow meandering paths (gorgeously illustrated by Charlotte Hicks) as they unfold Walsh’s narrative. While the story’s digital form invites an exchange between reader and narrator, Walsh also employs a constrained writing technique to construct her narrative. In this regard, she shows a debt to the group of experimental writers Oulipo that carries over to her latest book. While she has commented on Oulipo in reviews and draws from their literary experiments, Worlds from the Word’s End shows Walsh taking Oulipian techniques in her own direction. Whereas members of Oulipo seem content to explore and write their way into language’s “potentialities,” Walsh is concerned with what it would be like to live in a world where we viscerally experience Oulipo-esque literary experiments. If we practice this constrained writing technique, use this pun, or tell a story from this point of view, what happens to this world and how do we live through it?
This exploration begins subtly, almost anxiously, in Walsh’s opening story, “Two.” As the narrator describes her life as a roadside vendor, waiting to sell her sole companion — a vaguely described statue of two figures nestled together — “Two” (like many of Walsh’s stories) becomes more about the way it is told than its actual narrative content. It’s enjoyable to get lost in Walsh’s winding, meandering sentences, even as they express the narrator’s building anxiety: “I must be careful describing the seasons as they may also be mistaken for metaphor, and I would not like to lay down some kind of mood setting I didn’t at all mean.” Worrying that her words will be misinterpreted, she proceeds hesitantly, winding together long sentences and adding superfluous words to each phrase. While “I didn’t at all mean” says roughly the same thing as “I didn’t mean,” they each “mean” in a slightly different way. Even as they make her meaning vague, these additional words do so in a way that invites readers into this narrator’s life, familiarizing them to the peculiarity of her world.
Rather than write about waiting, Walsh captures the experience of waiting. Her narrator simultaneously recounts the situation that has brought her here and agonizes over what will happen after her waiting ends: “Of course this will mean that I will not be able to come here, every day, to offer them, not for them, not for just anyone who might want them. But that’s okay because finally it’s time.” She pauses and asks, “For what — ‘goodbye’? There is no what.” Both agonizing over her farewell and denying its existence, the narrator exists indecisively, wanting an end to her waiting but worrying about what comes next. She reflects her indecision through her style, refusing to say anything directly. Her persistent use of the vague pronoun “they” betrays the extent to which she imagines her inanimate statue as an animate companion. At the story’s end, she catches herself:
They cannot love me.
(I mean, it cannot love me.)
But looking into their little wooden eyes, I must believe it can.
Walsh’s switch back and forth between “they” and “it” reveals her narrator’s ambivalence, as she both accepts the inanimation of her statue, but, by blurring pronouns, opens the possibility that “it/they” might love her yet. Even as her narrator remains vague, Walsh shows an astute focus on individual words, making even simple pronouns vivid and meaningful.
Walsh’s meticulous attention to detail is hardly new to her fiction. In her previous collection, Vertigo, Walsh turns her narrators’ gazes to their surrounding culture and environment, as women live with the confines of travel, motherhood, and sexuality. In the collection’s title story, a woman on vacation becomes increasingly introspective:
At the turn of the road, willing the world to continue a little space, there is a man, a woman, and a child. They are not tourists: there are few here. From the outside, the man is greater than the woman, who is greater than the child. The child is brighter than the woman, who is brighter than the man. Of their insides, we know nothing, because we cannot understand the words that turn those insides out. I grasp at words in this language with other languages I know, languages other than the one I mostly speak, as though one foreignness could solve another.
Her piercing gaze exhausts all that it can discern “from the outside.” The narrator turns this same gaze on herself and becomes increasingly discomfited by her own foreign presence, as she settles on her failings in and through language. Language becomes a sign of her own insurmountable difference, preventing her from further analyzing the people that she has clearly understood so far.
In Worlds from the Word’s End, Walsh brings this same attention, but language often plays a different role. In Vertigo, language is something her narrators use and examine; but in Worlds, language exerts its own force, impacting their narrative flow. Language’s intrusion becomes apparent in the story “Femme Maison,” which opens: “You wanted to look different for him. You wanted a change of a dress. You wanted a new dress you had never seen before. You wanted to be someone else, someone neither of you knew.” Walsh’s opening pun crystallizes the story’s central concerns, as she meditates on the intersections of domesticity, clothing, and class status: in a new dress, the narrator might attract this man, who can move her to a nicer house, where she will not have to worry over the details of her previous “a[d]dress.” A simple pun catapults her into a world of desire and escape.
Puns work similarly in the story “Dunnet,” where an encounter with a dead bird (a sparrow-like dunnock, outside the Scottish village, Dunnet) becomes an occasion for a run of punning connections: “Whodunnit didn’t matter, whether it was I, said the sparrow, or the snowy, or the barn — hoo-ever. Who would lay the blame on top of each other like that hand-slapping game for two? There’s never a winner. Pull the bottom one out — the whole thing beetles over.” These puns don’t take us anywhere in particular (they move aimlessly from a murder mystery to a children’s story to an enumeration of types of owls to the sound they make and so on). Instead, their fleeting connections afford a sense of itinerancy not allowed by straightforward syntax of logical metaphors. Walsh proceeds with the ingenuity of a surreal Sherlock Holmes, but rather than deduce any culprit, she accepts death’s absence (and hatches one last bird pun): “When something’s gone it’s gone. I’m only winging it through here.”
Walsh’s style shows how absurdity, ambiguity, and indeterminacy are invitations to intimacy. When her narrators and speakers don’t quite say what they mean, they invite others closer in order to understand. Each pun and joke means something, but not in a clear-cut manner. They let all sorts of other meanings seep into the text, texturing it, as readers gain a greater appreciation for each world by unfolding its meaning. Walsh’s polyvalent puns invite a model of rereading that reflects itself on her stories as a whole. To catch every possible meaning, each story invites several readings: either passing swiftly through the stories or slowly savoring each one’s subtle layers and then doing so all over again. In this process of rereading, readers spend more time with each story, extending the intimate connection between narrator and reader in real time.
Throughout the collection, Walsh introduces clever puzzles, asking, “What if?,” then explores her ideas’ potential. In “Reading Habits,” she imagines what a literary community might look like without any of the, you know, literature. Revolving around an author called “H,” Walsh tells us very little about any actual books or authors but instead traces how the reading habits of the characters, each specified by another initial, relate only to those of other characters. She paints an oddly intimate portrait of these readers’ lives: “F, who is married to S, reads the same kind of books as S, but not at her instigation.” This instance cuts through the tension in a marriage, without telling anything about these characters beyond how they choose their books. Indeed, reading is of paramount importance to these characters, but Walsh spends more time exploring para-literary factors — like the role of taste and the physicality of reading — than developing any straightforward intertextuality with other authors. Through this approach, Walsh reaches insights that rival the best literary critics and theorists, while also constructing works of fiction that are refreshingly unique.
In the magnificent “Bookselves,” Walsh introduces her book’s best pun to describe an imaginary figure that lurks in each of our bookshelves — and has actually read everything on them. This “bookself” seems initially intimidating, but after it consumes the “ill-judged gifts from well-meaning relatives” and “has been through the charity bag,” Walsh’s narrator becomes grateful that she can practice restraint in her reading. Beyond its humorous effect, Walsh deftly uses her pun to recreate our world. A “bookself” seems both impossible — who would actually read every book they own? — and immediately recognizable — who hasn’t imagined the time when they will have actually read them? The form of the pun lets this impossibility and recognition occur simultaneously, cramming language’s infinite affordances into two syllables.
Walsh’s experiments work best in Worlds from the Word’s End’s title story, in which the narrator walks a distant lover through a society that stops using language. She begins haltingly, “We need to talk,” before explaining her paradoxical situation, “I’m writing to you so you’ll understand why I can’t write to you anymore.” As she tries to explain a wordless world, this narrator ironically has to do so through language: “In the shop that was no longer called COFFEE, you couldn’t ask for a coffee any more, but that was OK. You could point, and the coffee tasted better, being only ‘that’ and not the same thing as everyone else had […] For the first time, whatever it was, was your particular experience and yours alone.” In explaining wordlessness, she falls back on opposite strategies. She resorts to precise deictics, like “that,” which point to the now-ineffable coffee. But in another approach, she also winds language around itself, producing wordy phrases like “the shop that was no longer called” or reducing an experience to a phrase like “whatever it was.” With this latter tactic, by referring to nothing directly, Walsh suggests that her language might leave room for the intense and visceral particularity that characterizes individual experience.
Whereas this narrator begins distantly from the addressee of her unwritable letter, she tries to surmount their separation. As her narrator recalls past nights, spent in pubs and walking a silent city, Walsh reveals just how much language affects our world, shaping how we experience restaurants, laundromats, and public transit. It is the narrator’s tie to wordlessness that eventually cements her and her lover’s separation: “We’re in different places. I’m dead to the word, and you don’t have a care in it. You’re on top of it: it weighs heavy on my shoulders. So I won’t go on. I love you and I’m not aloud, won’t allow myself to say it any more. There’s no future in it.” Walsh’s wordplay punctures this lovers’ goodbye. These puns express the relationship’s hopelessness while also subverting it, showing that this relationship could be repaired if either person could change. Their being in different places becomes mere indifference, and she claims that she’s not “aloud” to love him — while saying so aloud. Walsh shows how words (or lack thereof) are, paradoxically, both the most effortless and the most insurmountable things that come between us.
Walsh’s great achievement is not to reveal the way language distorts the world. Instead, she guides her readers to the world as it exists outside of and escapes from language’s depiction of it. What’s more impressive, she does this through language itself. But Walsh doesn’t do so alone. In most instances, Walsh’s revelations occur through the way her narration predicts and plays off of the reader’s presence outside her book, in the way that puns always anticipate the appreciation (or dismay) of the person hearing them. From the roadside vendor in “Two,” who assuages her loneliness by captivating us readers with her winding sentences, to the bookself, who reflects us as we imagine we could read, these short stories are acutely attuned to the act of reading that brings them into being. In an intimate dialogue between writer and reader, this is the world we find at the word’s end.
Adam Fales is a manager at Book Culture in New York City and has written for the American Antiquarian Society’s Past is Present, the Journal of the History of Ideas’s blog, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.