Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Fractals" by Joanna Walsh: Short Story and Giveaway

When people ask me what I like to read, the first word out of my mouth is usually "nonfiction." My reasoning is simple: I like to read about what I like to write about, namely physical appearance and its intersection in women's lives. And the open-minded part of me cringes to admit this, but: I've tended to believe that fiction isn't the place for this. Sure, the occasional piece might illuminate an aspect of women's stories, but on the whole, I'll stick with my nonfiction shelf—Wolf, Berger, Sontag, Etcoff, Steinem, and so on.

Had Fractals, Joanna Walsh's new collection of short stories from 3:AM Publishing, been published earlier than this October, my answer would have changed earlier as well. I'd mistakenly conflated nonfiction with truth, entirely forgetting that fiction allows us to tell a different sort of truth—particularly about internal experiences. Like how, as with Walsh's characters, we might keep ourselves groomed for an absent beloved we privately know will never arrive, or how we make silent bargains about our looks ("The man with the steak looks at my legs which gives me permission to look at the message he is typing into his mobile phone. I cannot see it as the glass reflects. I feel cheated."). I knew from my first encounter with Walsh's work—an illustrated look at five female authors, and how their self-presentation plays into their reputation—that she was as intrigued by beauty as I was. Fractals expands her thoughts on the matter, with a direct focus on how the rituals of womanhood affect not only how we're seen by the world, but how we see ourselves. Her characters are keenly—sometimes painfully—aware of how they present themselves visually, treating clothing as a talisman, as a reaction to life events, as a confirmation of who they think they want to be.

When I asked the U.K.-based Walsh how she tailors her own choice of clothing to her state of mind, she had this to say: "I haven't, so far, done any sort of public appearance (and I love doing readings) in a skirt or dress. I feel more authoritative in androgynous clothes, which I know is not a very worthy feeling as it's got to be to do with kowtowing to the way I intuit 'feminine' and 'masculine'-looking people are perceived. But there's also an element (another anxiety) of making writing look like 'proper' work—manual work even. I occasionally wear a boiler suit to read, and I always feel very comfortable. I think of the Surrealists in their suits: artists and writers who refused to look 'bohemian', who refused to make the distinction between what they did and less 'artistic' jobs. So when working at home I rarely stay in pyjamas. However I do own, and wear, a variety of pretty dresses..."

Enjoy "Fin de Collection," one of the stories from Fractals, below—and leave a comment on this entry to enter to win a copy of the collection from 3:AM. Winner will be chosen by random number generator; leave a comment by 11:59 p.m. EST November 12 to enter.

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A friend told me to buy a red dress in Paris because I am leaving my husband.

The right teller can make any tale, the right dresser can make any dress look good. Listen to me carefully: I am not the right teller.

Even to be static in Saint Germain requires money. The white stone hotels charge so much a night just to stay still, just so as not to loose their moorings and roll down their slips into the Seine. So much is displayed in the windows in Saint Germain: so little bought and sold. No transactions are proposed that are not so weighty for buyer and seller as to be life-changing. But, for those who can afford them, they no longer seem to matter.

The women of the quarter are all over 40. They smell of new shoe leather. I walk the streets with them, licking the windows. Are we only funning that we could be what is on display? It is impossible to see what kind of women could inhabit those dresses but some do, some must. Nobody here is wearing them.

Amongst the women I am arrogant. I retain my figure without formal exercise. I retain my position as a wounded woman like something in stone, infinitely moving and just a little silly. In order to retain my position I must be wounded constantly. This is painful, but it is a position I have become used to.

We turn into Le Bon Marché department store, the women and I, Vogue heavy in our shoulder bags.

There is nothing like Le Bon Marché if you are rich and beautiful. But if you are not rich or beautiful, it doesn’t matter. The store has its own rules. It is divided into departments: fashion, food, home. It is possible to find yourself in the wrong department but nothing bad can happen here and, although you may be able to afford nothing, it costs nothing to look.

Le Bon Marché is always the same and always different, like those postcards where the Eiffel Tower is shown a hundred ways: in the sun, in fog, in sunsets, in snow. It may look different in Spring or Autumn, at Christmas or Easter, but the experience it delivers is always the same.

There are no postcards of the Eiffel Tower in the rain but it does rain in Paris, even in August. And when it rains, you can shelter in Le Bon Marché, running between the two ground-floor sections with one of its large orange paper bags suspended over your head (too short a dash to open an umbrella).

Inside is perpetual summer. Customers complaining of being too hot are forced to take off their coats beneath the stencils of artificial flowers that bloom across midwinter walls. The orange paper carrier bags are not made for real weather, either. Once wet their dye leaks onto hair, coats, and leaves orange stains on pale carpets, clothes, floorboards...

Fin de collection d’éte. In Le Bon Marché it is already Autumn. The new collections are in order. They do not privilege experience. With time they will deteriorate, unbalance, as each key piece sells out, leaving a skeleton leaf of basics, black and grey. One can commit too early of course. A key piece bought nearly in style will merely foreshadow the version available when the style is at its height.

In 35 degree heat, we bury our faces in wool and corduroy. We long for frost, we who have waited so long for summer. To change clothes is to take a plunge, to holiday. Who cares if we cannot afford to leave Paris. In the passerelle, the walkway between the store’s two buildings, a tape-loop breeze, the sound of water, photographs of a beach...

There is something about my face in the mirrors that catch it. Even at a distance it will never be right again, not even to a casual glance. Beauty: it’s the upkeep that costs, that’s what Balzac said, not the initial investment.

Je peux vous aider?

The salesgirl asks the fat woman with angel’s wings tattooed across her back. She mouths, Non, and walks, with her thin companion, into the passarelle, suspended.

The first effect of abroad is strangeness. It makes me strange to myself. I experience a transfer, a transparency. I do not look like these women. I want to project these women’s looks onto mine and with them all the history that has made these women look like themselves and not like me.

From time to time I change my mind and sell my clothes. I sell the striped ones and buy spotted ones. Then I sell the spotted ones and buy plaid. Does it get me any closer? At the checkout, the thin girl in her checked jacket looks more appropriate than me, though her clothes are cheaper. This makes me angry. How did her look slip by me? I was always too young. And now I am too old.

I cannot forgive them. I forgive only the beauties of past eras: the pasty flappers, the pointed New Look-ers. They are no longer beautiful. They cannot harm me now. These two are not even the beautiful people. It’s more that they’re so much less unbeautiful than everyone else. Please remember, we are in Le Bon Marché. Plunge into the metro if you want to encounter the underground of the norm.

Even your other women seemed tame until I saw them through your eyes, until I saw the attention you paid them. I no longer know the value of anything. And if you do not see me, I am nothing. From the outside I look together. I forget that I am really no worse than anyone else. But how can I go on with nobody, with no reflection? And how, and when, and where can I be inflamed by your glance? I can’t be friends with your friends. I can’t go to dinner with you, don’t even want to.

But why does the fat woman always travel with the thin woman? Why the one less beautiful with one more beautiful? Why do there have to two women, one always better than the other?

Je peux vous aider?

Non. There are no red dresses in Le Bon Marché. It isn’t the dress: it’s the woman in the dress. (Chanel. Or Yves Saint Laurent.) Parisiennes wear grey, summer and winter: they provide their own colour. I have learned to imitate them. Elegance is refusal. (Chanel. Or YSL. Or someone.) To leave empty-handed is a triumph.

In any case come December the first wisps of lace and chiffon will appear and with them bottomless skies reflected blue in mirror swimming pools.

To other people, perhaps, I still look fresh: to people who have not yet seen this dress, these shoes, but to myself, to you, I can never re-present the glamour of a first glance.

To appear for the first time is magnificent.


Joanna Walsh is a writer, illustrator, and artist. She draws and writes for The Guardian, The Times, Metro, The Idler, FiveDials, 3:AM, Berfrois.com, Necessaryfiction.com, and The White Review, amongst others. She has created large-scale artworks for the Tate Modern and The Wellcome Institute and has developed immersive theatre/games events in collaboration with Hide and Seek and Coney Agencies, as well as games she runs herself. You can read her blog at Badaude, and follow her on Twitter here.

Photo: Wayne Thomas

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hi Honey, I'm Home: Makeup and Cohabitation

I only needed one of these to move my makeup collection, mkay?

So, yes, I moved recently; only days ago. Specifically, I moved not just apartments but living situations—my gentleman friend and I decided to move into a new apartment together. I’ve lived alone for 12 years, so while this was a decidedly positive development, there’s also an element of adjustment going on. I’m not used to having someone else in the space I call my own, except for specific, defined periods of time—dinner, drinks. Even a lazy afternoon is just that, an afternoon, not an indefinite stretch in which ever-elastic time is shared with another. That’s exactly why most of us move in with someone, actually—you want to spend more time with them, or you want your downtime to include more of them, or something like that.

But when we talk about moving in with someone, the words we use imply not time but space. And—news flash, folks—sharing a space with someone means...you have to share. I don’t have a problem with this on a theoretical level, but on a practical level it means recognizing that you can’t just use your space however you see fit; if your intended use of space encroaches upon what a reasonable roommate might call “their” space, you’ve gotta make concessions. And here I am talking about the bathroom.

I recognized early on that I’d have to pare down my beauty products (this after I’d done what I believed to be a “thorough purge” a couple of years ago, ha!); our new bathroom has somewhat less storage space than my old (and crammed) one, and my beauty-product : non-beauty-product ratio is roughly 8:1. As I went through my bathroom, I started asking myself on products I was waffling on, “How would I justify this to my boyfriend?” Not that he’d ask me to justify any of my stuff—it was more of a weeding technique. If I can’t justify any particular beauty product to the person whose space I am about to share, I probably don’t need it at all, right? Despite my best efforts, though, I’m guessing that 90% of the bathroom is full of my crap. His grooming accessories: two bottles of cologne, an electric razor, and a stick of deodorant. (And a shampoo three times as expensive as mine, thankyouverymuch.) Mine? Well, are we counting only the daily-use stuff on the cabinet shelves, or are we counting the “extras” stored beneath the sink, or are we going whole hog and counting things like the velcro curlers and glitter eye pencil I can’t make myself get rid of? 

Still, that’s just the concern of space. Truly, the adjustment that living together takes is indeed about time, or perhaps division of time. I’m used to time being clearly delineated: Time in public means time out of my home, time in private means time in my home. Sure, there are plenty of spaces that straddle the two—going to friends’ homes, for example—but maybe that example just illuminates how skewed my idea of public vs. private has become. Private time for me in the past 12 years has meant not just time out of the public sphere but time away from anyone except myself. Living with someone means an adjustment to that line of thinking.

Enter makeup: For me, one of the primary functions of makeup has been to delineate the public from the private. Virtually every time I leave the house, I’m wearing makeup, and if I’m not, it’s because the space I’m entering is something I consider a mental extension of “home”: the grocery store, for example (it’s just around the corner!), or the gym. And for the most part, that means that I’d be putting on makeup before seeing my boyfriend. I mean, he’s seen me plenty of times without makeup, but the default is certainly mascaraed. Despite the fact that he’s enough of a “home” for me to want to create a literal home with him, being with him still gave me enough of a toehold in the public sphere that I’d want to put on makeup, even if I was just having him over for the evening.

So now that one particular form of public-private life—my intimate life, my partnered life—is more fully anchored in the private sphere, makeup could fall by the wayside, according to the personal logic I believed I’d been applying. And yet there I am, every day before he comes home from work, dabbing it on, prettifying, beautifying, cosmetizing. (It could be more extreme, I suppose: I’ve heard tell of the woman who wakes up before her partner so she can scurry to the bathroom to get made-up.) Me being me, I’m sure I’ve put far too much thought into this, but there it is: I’m not fully comfortable admitting that I make a point to put on makeup before he comes home for the day, and I can’t help but wonder what it means that I’m using makeup in this manner. Is it a form not of delineating public from private but of delineating me from us—a way of making sure I don’t lose myself in the glory of The Couple?

There’s actually some shreds of evidence for that line of thought: Unmarried, cohabitating couples are more likely than married couples to have spaces in the home that are designated “alone” spaces. (Well, they were in 1974, and while cohabitation has drastically changed in social meaning since then, I do hear this concern more from unmarried friends who live with partners as opposed to married couples.) But we live in New York, and while our apartment is comfortable, the idea of “alone spaces” is nearly laughable. We have a room whose main purpose is for me to work in—still, one can technically be out of sight in a New York dwelling, but one can never be out of earshot, even olfactoryshot at times. My makeup collection is a way of carving out a physical space of designated “alone” time, sure, but it may also be a way of drawing a boundary of sorts around a mental space that’s wholly mine. Not for his benefit, but for mine: For as I write this, my boyfriend is at work, and I am without a drop of makeup, without shoes, without contact lenses. No music is playing; no other creature is in this space. When he gets home this evening, I may still be working and writing, but things will look different. I’ll be made up, glasses off, hair brushed; the sounds of his existence will flow through this space. His sounds aren’t distracting per se, but they are not sounds of the solitude I’m used to when I work. I wonder if the makeup serves as an external notification to myself: You are no longer alone. It will take time to learn how to not be alone, after more than a decade of being able to be wholly alone at any moment I choose, simply by going home. And as it has done for me before, makeup may help me through a personal transition.

I wonder how this will change as time goes by and living with someone else becomes my mental default, not a new playdate. And yes, I’m aware that for all my talk of boundaries and solitude, makeup also helps us look better, and I’m talking about my boyfriend, not a roommate—I want to look my best around him. Especially now, I admit—now, before the natural rough edges of cohabitation begin to reveal themselves. I’m not yet annoyed by any of the things that may annoy me a year from now: shoes laying about wherever he feels like taking them off, that sort of thing. And in turn, to my knowledge none of my little things have crept into his brain: inability to get anything totally clean, 12 different kinds of flours in the cupboard (down from 15, so it’s an improvement). He’s under no illusions that I’m perfect in any way, including looks-wise; it’s not like he believes my eyelashes blacken themselves. Maybe that’s exactly why I’m drawn to wearing makeup at home now, in his presence anyway: It’s not an illusion at all, but an expression, an articulation of my desire to start off this whole living-together thing at my personal best. Sometimes my personal best will mean a laser-like attention to other things (most notably work), and in those times makeup may well fall by the wayside. Right now, though, my personal best isn’t so lopsided. She writes, she edits, she exercises, she researches, she reads, she cleans. And right now, she does it looking the way she wants.