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A loosening and tightening knot: Eoghan Smith on the artistry of Joanna Walsh

Seed|Joanna Walsh|No Alibis Press| 2021|Limited Edition Set|ISBN: 9781838108113

by Eoghan Smith

Seed, by the acclaimed multidisciplinary writer Joanna Walsh, was first published by Visual Editions in 2017 as a digital interactive app.

The relatively straight-forward narrative, described as a ‘queer coming-of-age story about sex, adolescence, class, fear and contagion in the 1980s’, is narrated by a young woman from a small, unremarkable, suburbanising town in a valley in England. Pop cultural references to The Smiths, Queen and Banamara place the action in the 1980s. Over the course of four summer months, she thinks about going to university in the autumn, reads Shakespeare, visits a cattery, and hangs around with her friends Rosemary and Rosemary’s sister. The action charts her friendship with and attraction to Rosemary, the narrator’s complex, burgeoning sexuality, and her relationships with her family, friends and others around her. 

Reading Seed on a mobile phone generates a different kind of physical reading experience to a book. Obviously, the reading-object has less weight and size. Perhaps even more disorientating is that apart from the necessity of side-swiping, there is, at least initially, comparatively little sense of the traditional movement through text from left to right, nor of the diminishing number of pages, which is a crucial element of the psychological calculation of both the time-investment for a reader in a book and in the prediction of plot development.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the digital version of Seed is that it offered seventeen different starting points for the reader. Read in this way, the traditional relinquishment by the reader to the author-controller gives way to a more aleatory unfolding of the story. Consequently, the digital format opened up new possibilities by transforming how we receive, interpret and understand the idea of story.

One of the many revelations of the digital version of Seed is that it compels a re-evaluation of what is understood by narrative progression.

In Seed, it is random and puzzling; a reader can make mis-steps and there are gaps to be filled in. Reading the printed version of Seed, then, creates a more traditional ordering, sequential experience for the reader, although it should be said that linearity and chronology were still important features of the digital version. And yet, none of the essential thematic power, formal innovativeness and linguistic brilliance of Walsh’s story has been lost, and perhaps it has even been enhanced. 

cover design Stephen Connolly

The narrative lays meticulous emphasis on sensory experiences of both the narrator and the world around her. She is highly self-conscious and is acutely attentive to the surrounding environment, to plants and flowers, to rivers, to animals and insects.

This sensitivity to nature is offset by her understanding that other things around her are ‘not natural’, such as everyday items of domestic consumerism and artificial materials like chemicals and concrete, but also the sudden yellow colour of rape in the fields, or even the fibres in a carpet. Inevitably, she is conscious of how she is seen by others: she grapples with how to wear her clothes, with her own body-image, with bodily processes. She is alert to the superficial insistences of pornography, fashion magazines and the cosmetics industry. Her intense self-awareness is conditioned by the patriarchal oppressiveness of 1980s neoliberal Britain, which is keenly felt through interactions with older businessmen. She cannot imagine a woman, we are told, ‘being serious’. 

The overall sense of anxiety in the novel is not just limited to the narrator’s sense of her own identity; instead, there is a much greater sense of external existential threat, for example, when the worried townspeople mistake a chlorine test alarm for a warning of nuclear attack, or when there is an outbreak of CJD.

In this way, fears about the destruction of the world around her are internalised.

Everywhere in Seed things are under the threat of violation: nature is being destroyed by humans; the narrator herself is subjected to the sexual advances of a man for whom she babysits his children; her home is burgled while the narrator herself takes to stealing petty objects. Everywhere too there are judgements for transgression: the narrator excruciatingly feels the pressure of her peer-group to wear the right clothes, to have sex, or to drink alcohol at a party. She herself finds herself on jury service over the summer with the power to make judgements over others. 

Yet there is no clarity in any judgements because nothing can be accurately perceived, or rather, the authentic character of things is either obscured by the act of looking or does not exist. The very act of observing an object violates its truth: ‘even by seeing something’, the narrator says, ‘we are spoiling it already’. At times her own awareness of her physicality is nauseating and debilitating; elsewhere, she is a passive observer of it: ‘my hand strays on me. Like it’s not mine’. She refrains that there are ‘things we do not talk about’ and that there are many things she does not know. There are, the narrator opines, limits to knowledge: ‘nothing of our lives here can be known. Or the knowledge has no use, or maybe no value’. These repetitions, announced as statements of phenomenological fact, are an important dimension of the narrator’s youthful personality. At the same time, they point to a greater impenetrability of the reality of things. In this, there is rich irony in in the feeling of inner inertia and even stillness in the narration as objective time inexorably passes and summer turns to autumn.

A central tension in Seed – between what is subjective experience and objective truth – is self-reflexively alluded to throughout.

Walsh draws attention to the artificiality of art: if England is also ‘not England’, as we are told, it is because there is both the England of one’s own impressions and the textual England that is being created for us. Visually, the text is fragmented and full of spaces. Paragraphs can be carefully-punctuated single sentences or ungrammatical stream-of-consciousness non-sequiturs.

Reading Seed is like loosening and tightening a knot at the same time; it as if everything could fall apart at any moment and yet everything is bound together in the ownmost, indivisible experience of the narrator. As the end of the summer approaches and the young woman’s relationship with Rosemary reaches its dénouement, the feeling is that beneath the things that cannot be said or known something definite and irreversible has happened. 

Seed is at times impressionistic and yet has the unsentimental clarity of absolute reality. It is poignant and moving without ever becoming nostalgic. As a depiction of female adolescence in 1980s England, it is unsparing. And even without the experiments in digital storytelling, the printed version of Seed further exemplifies how Walsh’s work is among the most formally, stylistically and linguistically interesting at the moment, sitting alongside the work of other boundary-pushing contemporaries such as Eimear McBride and Claire Louise Bennett. She is an artist of the first order.

Eoghan Smith
is author of The Failing Heart (Dedalus Books) and A Provincial Death (forthcoming, Dedalus Books).