Dave Butler

Seed by Joanna Walsh

Seed, Joanna Walsh, No Alibis Press, pp. 220, 2021, £14.99 (hardcover)

There’s been a remarkable flowering over the past twenty years. This flowering is apparent not only in the sheer quantity of women’s fiction being published in Ireland, but also in the variety of voice, approach and intention of the writers. Much of the healthy variety is down to the proliferation and consolidation of independent presses on the island as a whole: Stinging Fly, Tramp, Doire Press, Arlen House, Lilliput, Banshee, Blackstaff, No Alibis; and indeed to a new willingness among British presses to publish non-traditional representations of Irishness – Anna Burns’ Booker winning Milkman would be a case in point.

While media attention – that most fickle spotlight – has recently been turned onto the millennial coming-of-age or campus novel written by the likes of Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Louise Nealon, and Eimear Ryan – one of the more interesting aspects of contemporary Irish writing, both male and female, is its restlessness in regard to form. Without in any way disparaging the above novelists, or any novelist (like myself) who chooses to write a so-called traditional novel, a different kind of exploration of what it means to be a twenty-first century human, and a female, is apparent in such authors as Eimear McBride, Sara Baume, Claire-Louise Bennett, Jan Carson, Alice Lyons, Anna Burns, Doireann ni Ghriofa and Joanna Walsh.

While it would be reductive to suggest that these writers constitute a school or movement, there’s little doubt that they read and admire one another, occasionally penning endorsements and reviews, and appearing together on panels in literary festivals. On an island like ours, it would be remarkable if this wasn’t so. But the overall impression is that each is sui generis, a solitary explorer above all of the unstable interaction between language and identity that has long been a staple of modernist literature. Think of the jagged, fragmented prose of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing; of the disappearance of the letter ‘O’ with the mother’s death in Oona; of the movement and interstices between two languages, and ages, in A Ghost in the Throat; of the blackly comic proliferation of circumlocutions in Milkman.

There’s a venerable line in women’s writing exploring the nexus of language and identity running back to such pioneers as Dorothy Richardson, Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. That said, the touchstone in Irish fiction has always been that Lord of Misrule, James Joyce, whose point, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, is surely the degree to which the various discourses (that noun so beloved of academia) that surround us are formative of character – myth, song, ballad, catechism, street slang, sound-bite, newspaper headline, political speech, advertising jingle. One would imagine, given the generic restlessness of Ulysses in particular, that were he writing in the twenty-first century, Joyce would happily embrace all forms of media, including social media in all its manifestations and the gamut of possibility represented by hyperlinks. Joanna Walsh’s Seed, it seems to me, can be usefully approached precisely in terms of the proliferation and pressure of different types of discourse about the impressionable subject.

Like Alice Lyons and Sarah Baume, Walsh is a visual artist in addition to being a writer. For all three this background informs the writing and helps structure it. When it first came out as a digital publication in 2017, Seed, which began as a self-generating image entitled ‘Thicket’, exploited some of the features of an online interactive app to generate an ‘aleatory’ text, one whose point of entry and sequence is to some extent governed by chance. Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel Rayuela (‘Hopscotch’) had attempted something similar, but without the possibilities offered by the internet. To an extent, the publication this year of Seed as a traditional print copy by Belfast’s No Alibis Press is a return from the virtual realm to the world of fixed objects. To borrow from the discourse of quantum physics, the probability distribution wave collapses on observation into a particular manifestation.

So what is the novel ‘about’? Beckett famously said of Joyce, ‘His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.’ Seed too must be experienced, not paraphrased. That said, certain themes emerge. A female narrator is growing up in the 1980s in an ethnically white English valley. A series of anxieties in relation to contagion – post-Chernobyl radiation, mad cow disease, the AIDS epidemic -impinge on her consciousness. This sometimes takes the form of italicised extracts of ‘official discourse’: ‘The four most harmful radionuclides spread by the disaster were iodine-131, caesium-134, caesium-137 and strontium-90 with half-lives of 8.02 days, 2.07 years, 30.2 years and 28.8 years respectively.’ Set against these, in first-person narrative fragments resembling diary entries, is a awareness of her attraction to Rosemary, a neighbouring girl, in a selection of shared sensory-physical experiences: eating with Rosemary’s father and step-mother; swimming/floating in a nearby river; toying with ants on a bridge; comparing the sensation of duvets.

Review by Dave Butler.

Seed is available from No Alibis Press both as a ‘standard’ novel and as a limited edition slipcase, one of 100, also containing six illustrated chapbooks, each with ‘a disentangled narrative vine from the novel’, together with a limited edition print. For more information, click here.

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