JANICE Galloway doesn’t write about Janice Galloway – except when she does, but on those occasions the books are titled This Is Not About Me and All Made Up. In interviews she disdains the notion that authors should be at the heart of their fiction, drawing from their own life. This aversion to using her own experiences is hard to understand. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Subject or plot mean little in good literature so where’s the harm in pinning a story to a real event or using one’s own experience as a jumping-off point? Consider the Confessional Poets of the 1950s and ’60s, and how much poorer the canon would be if Sylvia Plath had expressed her anxieties through science fiction, or if Anne Sexton had turned her hand to thrillers. They used their lives as raw material, and why not. ‘What would Shakespeare have done if it’s all about our life?’ asked Galloway recently. It’s true, there would have been no Verona or Elsinore, but if he’d lived an exceptional inner life, as the Confessional Poets did, as any decent writer must, then he might have done all right.
Perhaps she’s wary of being pegged a woman’s writer. We’re familiar with the tiresome refrain that women write about themselves, the emotions, relationships and child-bearing – the so-called small stuff. Yet Galloway tackles this with a bold, salty fearlessness. It’s hard to understand her antipathy to the reasonable assumption that her work is autobiographical given that she always writes on the domestic, on themes of love, sex, anxiety, motherhood and female friendship. With these themes constantly provoking assumptions, her latest book, Jellyfish, a collection of 14 short stories – two of which cover just a page and a half, whilst another almost stretches into a novella – seemed to promise something new. Physically it’s different from her other volumes, which sit on the shelf in shades of pink, purple and soft greys, natural hues of the body or the earth. Jellyfish, however, has a startling dust jacket of neon yellow and sherbet blue. As for the title, can we imagine any living creature more alien to us, anything which less resembles a human being, than the jellyfish? With many of Galloway’s other titles – Blood (1991), The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (1989), Clara (2002), Where You Find It (1996) – referencing names, love, bodily fluids and breath, this book’s livery and title immediately distance it from what she has produced previously. It is the opposite of human, the opposite of intimate.
Thus disappointment was inevitable on opening this collection to find that it’s not daring or different. We’re on the same familiar Galloway territory here, as the publisher acknowledges, even celebrates, insisting that she ‘scent-marks’ her fiction. In returning us to a woman’s hospital, exploring the anxieties of motherhood, relationships, sex and jealousy, Galloway’s writing is not so much scent-marking as circling the same damp lamppost. The inspiration for the book is a quote from David Lodge: ‘Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round.’ It’s easy to take issue with that idea when we consider the huge number of fine novels with children as first-person narrator or chief protagonists: What Maisie Knew, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, I’m the King of the Castle, The Catcher in the Rye, and much of Dickens. The list goes on, and so, instantly, this quote has set the book askew. If its aim is to bring the business of children, of their birth, rearing, guiding, teaching and loving to the fore, then, as with the themes therein, it’s hardly breaking virgin ground.
But hasn’t everything in fiction been ‘done’? Can there possibly be a plot or a setting which hasn’t been used? Surely not, and so no-one can blame Galloway for revisiting, here, the psychiatric ward; the beginning of a relationship; luscious evocations of sex; cruel break-ups; the liberating effects of music; the fraught nature of motherhood and even, in ‘fittest’, giving us a vision of a damp apocalypse, something she already wrote about in ‘After The Rains’ from Where You Find It. She can’t be censured for having favourite themes, but she can be blamed for not developing them.
If the settings and themes are the same, the voices have altered, and not for the better. What was spiky and sarcastic in her novel Foreign Parts has here become bitter and complaining, and the dreadful pain of The Trick Is To Keep Breathing has curdled into self-pity. Monica, the protagonist in the story that gives the collection its title, is on a day trip to Millport with her young son, Calum. It’s a fraught, powerful tale of maternal love, of how she’ll soon have to watch him grow up and become independent of her. But self-pity weighs it down, and the mother’s voice is whining and self-indulgent. Even the breezy adventure of the day trip is pared back by Monica’s sad complaints. It’s her son’s last before he starts school, and she imagines he’ll bound off into new experiences and friendships whereas she’ll be resigned to ‘folding his orange and lime green tee shirts, nestling them away in a drawer as souvenirs’. No-one is resigning Monica to that Stepford existence but herself. She is too focused on pining for what she may be about to lose that she cannot enjoy the present moment on the fresh beach, and almost resents Calum for not appreciating this. And when she reflects on his father, who is with another woman, the narrative slips into free indirect speech spiked with bitterness: ‘The new girlfriend was pregnant, rotten with morning sickness. Or so she had heard. These days Calum’s dad had a lot of new things on his mind. It was what moving on meant.’
The female narrator of ‘fine day’ is equally resentful at being left. In it Galloway uses the same technique of having the protagonist mock her partner’s platitudes by pockmarking her dialogue with italics. ‘It’s not even called separation any more. It’s called moving on or redefining one’s priorities or conscious uncoupling god help us.’ But the mockery fast evaporates, leaving a sour residue. The fact that the men are using these rehearsed phrases, so open to derision, suggests they have at least considered the break-up and tried to instigate a clumsy kindness. It is the women, left behind to deride and sneer, who appear as slight, petty figures, not the men with their new-age relationship-speak. Whilst there is nothing intrinsically wrong with recounting stories of such women it jars. At this stage in Galloway’s career, it seems she has veered away from creating the funny, sarcastic, vivid and damaged women who featured in her earlier work and replaced them with others who are slouching, fearful and weak.
The strongest story is ‘and drugs and rock and roll’. Set on a psychiatric ward, it describes how a woman called Alma has voluntarily sought admission to help her cope with the aftermath of an abortion. There is self-pity in this story too, with another patient, Rhonda, chiding her that ‘one is a mistake….not a habit’ while her boyfriend urges her to leave her unnecessary seclusion. Does Alma merit a place on the ward, or is she wallowing in self-indulgent grief? It hardly matters, because she is struggling with something else entirely: ‘The horrible daily business of knowing your own life. Answering to it. Knowing who you were.’ Here Galloway excels, using one tiny detail to evoke the whole. Alma’s pain is not revealed through a debate on abortion, or a meandering midnight conversation with another patient, but through a depersonalized description of her weeping in bed: ‘Water ran from her eyes and into her hair, wove cold little trails inside her ears.’ The rights and wrongs of why she is on the ward become unnecessary.
Galloway is skilled at selecting well-
chosen details to illuminate a character. Just as we feel the cold dampness of Alma’s tears, so we instantly know the stress of the person who has a ‘pile of bills toasted curly on top of the microwave’. Fretfulness stacked them there, then a gradual loss of hope became a dangerous nonchalance in simply letting them accrue. And there is an occasional joyous, humorous use of language, as with Lola in ‘opera’ having what she imagines is a decadent bath in preparation for a night of seductions. But the gaudy clash of scents imply her ablutions are performed with the cheap supermarket stuff, whilst her sensual image is dented by an empty box of Jaffa Cakes lying on the damp mat. ‘The bath foam is kiwi fruit, macadamia nut and lime. Fruit juice bubbles slick her hips, insinuate a frothy track between the crack of her buttocks.’
Overall, Jellyfish is in need of a sharp-eyed editor. It is littered with typographical errors and the lack of quotation marks leads to confusion between dialogue and narrative. The absence of capital letters in the titles is likewise an irritant. Meanwhile, each story is preceded by an illustrated page on which there is a break-out quotation. What purpose this gimmickry serves other than to add heft to the collection is unclear. Jellyfish might appeal to readers unfamiliar with Janice Galloway’s work but those who are should prepare for disappointment.
Freight, £12.99, ISBN 978 1 908754 950, PP240