Review | Break.up by Joanna Walsh

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The online world often seems clean and seamless; it doesn’t have any scars to reveal its traumas or accidents. Bodies, on the other hand, appear to be different, yet not all our injuries can be seen. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is constantly rewoven throughout our lives. It’s in this sense that there is no such thing as healing. In advanced cases of scurvy, the lack of vitamin C prevents the body from producing collagen and these old wounds will magically and painfully reappear. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are catalogues of wounds, fissures or faults waiting to open after a tectonic shift. Joanna Walsh’s ‘Break.up’ is the scurvy of the digital age, revealing the Internet’s invisible atlas of wounds and the way we are constantly rewoven by it.

‘Break.up’ can be summarised — despite the phrase’s brevity and common usage — by taking a close look at its title. The insertion of a full stop between the two words starts a sentence that never really begins and doesn’t properly end. It fails to even delineate a breakup, because the full stop divides the phrase into two separate actions undermining its usual usage and rendering the connection between the two words ambiguous. They are left hovering around an anchoring point to which they can never be truly tethered. The two words are cleaved by this small dot, in the way that cleave can mean both to take apart and put back together again.

‘Break.up’, with its full stop, is never used in the novel; it becomes an illusive unseen point that the narrative spirals around but never meets. We join a woman on a peripatetic journey through Europe as she attempts to put space between herself and an unrequited love. In the same vein as the title ‘Break.up’, a sentence that never began, the protagonist breaks up from a relationship that never really started. This figure she attempts to lap on her journey, a nameless man, is the full stop she perambulates around — an ending without a start — who is never fully formed. She does this all while ruminating on life, and in particular, love, in the 21st century. Although this is not her only interest, she spins the city into a delirium of different essayistic topics and aphorisms in the manner of a gritty and less nostalgic W. G. Sebald or Patrick Keiller. But like love, and like the construction of the novel, these essays are severed of their conclusions, constantly in a process of ruin and completion, mirroring the protagonist’s mind set. Disparate fragments of images, quotes and narrative are montaged together, allowing their essences to appear concretely as you read and join the connections. Despite their absence in words, summations do materialise; the book is similar to a ruined building where we are left to imagine the parts that will make it whole again.

In some respects the breakup of her non-relationship is a red herring. The real rupture is that she realises the similarity between being in love and being online, and the delirium of trying to separate and assimilate the two. ‘Love’s not analogue, it’s digital’, as she soliloquies early on. It is this experience that cleaves the protagonist  — the Internet fragments people, puts them back together at the same time, and is often left with, discordantly, more pieces than at the beginning.

It’s commonly thought that analogue technology is more human than digital. The way the voices degrade on a vinyl record is considered similar to the way a person grows old, or our memory of them fades. The digital, however, contains scurvy-like faults that we cannot perceive, and this, for Walsh, is an infinitely more human expression of emotion. The stylus on a vinyl follows a set route in its grooves, but love does not play out along a linear path — it has more in common with a CD that reads and writes data in a nonlinear way.

The digital has no borders, no beginning and no end; it reworks the personas of those that use it, and those that present themselves upon it; it averages out and merges personas into repetitions of similarity; you can never be complete online, the connections are always being reformed; being online is fluid and shape shifting. All of which is like being in love, meaning Walsh’s protagonist can never escape from the source of her heartbreak. Though she may move geographically, she remains static in the inertia of Wi-Fi’s cradle, always hunting out an Internet connection. She can travel to escape, but her journey is a Mobius strip and she’s trapped within its cycles and echoes.

This theme of moving but not moving perpetually reoccurs. The feeling of being ‘still and still moving’, as T. S. Eliot put it in Four Quartets, alludes to the axel in the middle of a carriage wheel (another full stop) that appears not to move, yet vibrates imperceptibly in a multiplicity of directions. It’s a type of travel and movement that chimes with contemporary experience of the world. She ruminates on this being like ‘an airport state of mind’; an airport being a buffer zone between places. She doesn’t, however, seem to realise that this has bled out into the rest of her travels, and she is in the static junk spaces of the internet, unable to out-run the source of her heartbreak. Wherever she connects, she is transposed to the same painful place.

We encounter the example of Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, who was in a similar state to the central character albeit trapped in a less immaterial prison cell. Speer, like the book’s narrator, walked a great distance — eventually ending in America — by taking the correct amount of steps around his cell and prison yard, imaging the rest and never once leaving the confines of his enclosure. The narrator is a reflected and inverted form of this; she is outside, free, but travels without moving from the same place.

The book is littered with examples of being still and still moving. Some pages include pictures of the narrator’s travel destinations. They could be anywhere, however; non-places captured by avoiding the history of the street and leaving only a ubiquitous sky, which sweeps the places clean of their identifying characteristics. The theme throughout the images is one of cables, abstracted structures, meshes, grids and gradients of pixelated dust, all hinting towards the hidden paraphernalia and facilitators of digital environments.

Other descriptions of the places she stalks are often minimal, and buildings veiled in tarpaulin are one of many uncanny repetitions. They signal a separation from the material world, a redaction of the environment, while also showing an environment constantly under construction, similar again to being online or being in love.

For all its existential seriousness, ‘Break.up’ does exhibit some humour. This usually comes in the form of clever word play that first read as textual glitches, something gone wrong: ‘How long have I been travelling? Only a few weeks. Feels like thousands. That’s exchange rates for you.’ Before the montage of illusions quickly gathers into something surreal, funny and profound.

Throughout the novel, Joanna’s Walsh’s protagonist has been waiting, waiting for a glimmer of light to travel along a fibre optic cable and make its way to her computer in the form of email from the object of her desire. In the final pages this immaterial and unseen process is made physical as she waits in train station for him to arrive along another line, on a train. To make the immateriality of the digital a physical construct in the material world appears to be the crux of Walsh’s interest. She wants to trace its edge — its deceitful architecture — so we can have some control over it again. Transplanting it into a disjunction with the material world reveals its weirdness, its wounds and the ways it can damage.

In a time when we are anxious about borders, due to the fact that we know subconsciously we are losing ground to borderless technologies, this is of paramount importance. In the end, however, she cannot trace the border of the digital. She is its ruined and liminal edge: the broken full stop between two deconstructed fragments.

Words by Matthew Turner.

Break.up, Joanna Walsh, Profile Books, £12.99 (hardback). For more information, visit Profile Books.


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