Break.up by Joanna Walsh

Break.up: A Novel in Essays (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents) BY Joanna Walsh. Semiotext(e). Paperback, 272 pages. $16.
The cover of Break.up: A Novel in Essays (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)

Joanna Walsh’s recent novel, Break.up, is motivated by a recently ended—or is it still current?—relationship. In order to forget about her on-again-off-again lover, the narrator, also named Joanna, decides to embark on a solo journey across Europe. Traveling by train, bus, and on foot, she makes her way from London’s St. Pancras Station through France, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Holland, Germany, and back again. Joanna seems intent on tiring herself out, hoping to banish the thoughts that keep her up at night. In the meantime, she houses these thoughts in a book, a tactic that also alleviates her self-imposed loneliness. “You’re never alone with a book,” she says, “particularly when you’re writing one.”

But her nascent book isn’t the only thing keeping her company on her travels. The relationship she seeks to outrun—which has been primarily conducted online through emails, texts, and social media interactions—is nearly impossible to avoid in our increasingly-connected world. As she crosses into the continent and her cell phone goes out of service, she claims, “From now on I will be less connected.” Still, Joanna is powerless to resist the subtle lure of free wifi found throughout the cities she visits, and continues to check in on her pen pal. She attempts to maintain some semblance of control by tracking his replies and managing her responses.

Although her elusive correspondent has invited her to visit him in Prague, Joanna has decided against it. In Joanna’s view, visiting him would be giving in to his wishes and mean losing control of the relationship—a relationship that she maintains is over, anyway. The decision haunts her throughout the journey, and near its end she is still plagued by questions of whether she made the right choice. “Come to Prague. Well, why didn’t I?” And two pages later, “Come to Prague. Do I regret not saying yes?”

The past tense is employed to describe the relationship, but she continues to write to, check in on, and think of him. These behaviors make the titular “break up” feel less like the premise of the story and more like a future intention. In a hostel in Rome, she attempts to regain the upper hand: “I want to hook you with a story, then slip from your grasp, if only to make you want me again.” The desire to reignite his interest, to continue the illusion of intimacy, is hinted at alongside evidence that the attraction has neared its limits. On the second stop in Paris, Joanna recalls the words of a friend: “Next year . . . you won’t even remember his name.” And so it appears the writer Joanna has forgotten, or at least wants to, for he is addressed only as “you” throughout.

But if this journey was not to visit him, then what exactly is it for? For Joanna, the longing, waiting, boredom, and emptiness found in her travels is an alternative to her disappointing relationship, and offers her the room for self-investigation that her erstwhile lover does not. The trip is not for pleasure, nor escape—it’s an attempt to replace the thoughts of her lover by inundating herself with foreign stimuli. “That’s what I traveled for, to fill myself up with new things . . . to travel so fast I disappeared.” But a meander through the slightly less thrilling than expected Bulgarian capital Sofia leads to a meditation on the inevitable evolution of desire and excitement into boredom. “A city bored by its own history, Sofia’s waiting for something to happen.” As is she, as are we.

Alongside the story of Joanna’s own affair, Walsh threads quotations and ideas from some of her favorite texts—a mixture of poetry, philosophy, and psychology—offering a literary investigation into the nature of human relationships. Notable names jump from each page—Descartes, Freud, Anne Carson, Susan Sontag—but the story relies most on André Breton’s Nadja. A fitting parallel, André, also named after the books author, falls swiftly and madly in love with the woman of the title. Fearing she will eventually disappoint him by not living up to his unrealistic expectations, he retreats, preferring to engage in a memory of her instead of her corporeal form. And so the reader may ask is Joanna Nadja? Or is she André?

In the end, it is not so important whether the titular break up has occurred, is occurring or will occur. As Joanna continues to wait, she reflects on past conversations and arguments with her pen pal that are enough to leave the reader hoping for the relationship’s demise. A purchase of Dior lipstick prompts him to condescend, “How’s that going to help the revolution?” Her recollections of comments such as “don’t take it personally . . . “but you’re just not my type” are enough to wonder why the narrator is still holding on to the relationship. As fantasy gives way to reality, it becomes harder to keep the fire burning. Joanna is growing tired of the scant memories, but is reluctant to let go entirely, for what would that say about her. “I wanted to deny that you bored me . . . that to find someone boring would be a failure of my own imagination.” And so she keeps the fantasy alive a little longer.

Ruby Brunton is a New Mexico-born, New Zealand-raised writer, editor, poet, and performer who lives between Brooklyn and Mexico City. Find her on twitter @rubybrunton.