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Fighting for Emotional Liberty in Joanna Walsh’s “Break.up”

Two or three days like the beginning of love […]
To go further would be to enter the realm of jealousy, suffering and anxiety.

— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

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AS JOANNA WALSH’S Break.up opens, the author, who is the meta-narrative’s protagonist, is well into a period of mourning a love that never quite happened. The premise of the “novel in essays” is simple: Joanna and an unnamed, emotionally unavailable man met and, while living in different cities, carried on an intense online romance. They saw each other only a few times In Real Life before he pulled away and she began to obsess over what went wrong. As she’s unraveling the affair, Joanna plans a trip across Europe with the hope that the liminal state of travel will offer room for meditation and recovery.

That isn’t to minimize the relationship. Often, those affairs are the trickiest: the ones that strand us, unable to name what that was, but ultimately leave us changed people. On her multi-city pilgrimage, Walsh is prepared to explore every angle of the romantic action and eventual fallout. And she does so skillfully, weaving the concrete details of her travels and life into an in-depth study of love and connection in the 21st century. Break.up works as well as it does in part because Walsh provides room for the reader to examine these topics alongside her, in turn accomplishing what the best essays do: stir up more questions than answers.

So much of Walsh’s writing is caught up in the emotion of travel, how we deal with back there while we’re temporarily here, and a specialty of hers is exploring grief, or the onset of grief, while on the move. In her 2015 book Hotel, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, Walsh flees her ending marriage by taking a job reviewing hotels for a new travel website. Though she isn’t paid for the pieces, her stays are free, and the time away from everyday life allows Walsh to begin to process the confusion and pain she’s left with following the relationship’s dissolution. Vertigo, published by Dorothy in 2015, reveals a writer grappling with the complexities of marriage, frequently during travel, as she attempts to decide what kind of woman she wants to be while watching a daughter outgrow her childhood talismans and a husband turn into a stranger.

But it’s in Break.up that Walsh fully realizes this aspect of her art. Joanna knowingly throws herself into the pace of travel to be at once busy and quiet, as travel often is. Sketches of scenes play out in her mind. “I wasted my time with you,” her fading lover says. “I didn’t,” Joanna responds. These vignettes often bubble up as Joanna is doing something else (crossing every bridge in Budapest only once, for example), and they cast a foggy specter. Were these words spoken in actual conversation or made later as notes, marred remembrances of a promising involvement turned sour?

How or when these words were spoken really doesn’t matter. The collaging of ghostly memories, conversations real and reimagined, and philosophical investigations of the nature of love allows what could have been a straightforward narrative hinged on a literary trope to become a rambling hybrid essay that urges the reader to dig deeper, too.

Walsh deftly uses these ghosts from the immediate past to examine the long game of life. While in Budapest, Joanna remembers visiting the city with her then-husband when they were first married and both very young. Walsh writes,

And now I’m repeating that stop in time to grasp at who I was that time in Budapest before — so many years ago I might have been a different person in a different city — but it’s something like trying to hold onto a smell, or a color, or the feel of a string of beads passing through my hand. There are no adjectives to describe time’s passage. It can pass slower or faster, like a volume dial can turn louder or quieter, but no more than that: it has no texture, no timbre.

This meditation acknowledging the essential formlessness of time and self centers the novel of essays. As Walsh reminisces about her past marriage, she sees an entirely different version of herself, signaling to the reader that she knows this is just one story in a line of stories and that, unlike travel, life and love aren’t linear, a truth we’d all do well to remember.

Starting at a London train station, Joanna’s trip takes her through France (twice), Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, and the Netherlands, and she’s packed lightly to leave room for intellectual baggage. Prepared to at least attempt to demystify love, she’s brought with her an arsenal of books on the topic: Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, and André Breton’s Mad Love and Nadja. Excerpts from these and other titles litter Break.up’s margins.

Her travels are both immediate — sitting in a cafe in Athens, she notes when a young girl comes up to touch her computer — and intellectual — watching a young couple kiss from a park bench in Sofia, she falls into a meditation on the physicality of love, the Soviet statues that once littered the city, and the boredom that inevitably accompanied her romantic entanglement. Walsh writes,

A love story comes only after the end of love, whether it ends one way, or the other, and, until the story’s told, love is a secret, not because it’s illicit, but because it’s so difficult to tell what it is.

Joanna is continuously reminded that, though the story is complete in one sense, allowing her to tell it, an uncertainty remains. Because so much of the affair happened online — through text and email, Twitter and Facebook — the connection is lost only when the wi-fi is down, leaving the relationship perpetually unresolved.

The nature of Walsh’s narrative draws the reader into Joanna’s relentless waiting game. As she enters the cafe in Athens, she’s eager to see if he’s contacted her. By this point, the reader has been told enough about the unnamed man that his silence feels like the healthier outcome, but as Joanna rides the line between obsession and erasure, what she desires becomes less clear. Luckily, spotty wi-fi gives her generous amounts of time to wander, and she takes the reader inside her jumbled, mourning mind as she passes through markets in Sofia, attends readings in Paris, and perches on a rock overlooking the Mediterranean in Nice, cigarette and wine in hand.

Break.up is as much about the loss of emotional liberty in a world that relies more and more on digital connection as it is about the loss of love. Joanna is trapped in a holding pattern — “Come to Prague,” the man writes — and the claustrophobia the online world evokes in her underlines just how difficult disappearing has become. With a few sleuthy moves, anyone can be teased out from the digital dustbin: childhood crushes, lost college friends, a one-night stand, that guy you danced with once at a Halloween party. As a result, a new anxiety has formed around allowing oneself to connect in the first place. In Break.up, Walsh shows the reader the aftermath of an exquisite falling: thinking only of immediate happiness without considering the potential for pain and disappointment, Joanna revealed herself — at least her digital self — to the fullest.

Nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, in an essay/chapter titled “Sofia/Boring,” Joanna briefly loses focus on the man she’s attempting to excise as she immerses herself in the strangeness of Bulgaria’s capital city. The lost love is still referenced, but a shift has happened as Joanna becomes wrapped up in the boredom and stagnation of travel, of what it means to carry oneself from place to place, killing time. She begins to allow herself the room to disengage.

Because of the care Walsh has taken to create both a sound investigation and a narrator strong enough to carry the reader through the book’s experimental structure, Break.up maintains its momentum to the end, even as the novel-in-essays, predictably, meanders — between past and present, obsession and distraction, love and pain. Joanna hits each city on her list, but it’s never the place that matters so much as what she experiences emotionally and mentally (and digitally) at each destination.

As Joanna finally pulls back into London, she and the reader are unsure of what awaits her. She’s returned a person distanced from the pain she felt at the book’s beginning, but the ubiquitous nature of digital contact has left her without closure. Imagining scenarios of how her disembarking could go — who might meet her at the station, what life will look like upon returning home — Walsh, defiant, declines to tie up the story, writing, “I refuse to finish this book. There is no end to love. Now, where were we?”

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Melynda Fuller is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The RumpusLitHubA Women’s Thing, and Poets & Writers, among others. She’s a graduate of the New School’s MFA writing program and is currently at work on a collection of essays.

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