Bin the bric-à-brac

Joanne O’Leary

  • A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume
    Heinemann, 320 pp, £12.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 78515 041 8

Sara Baume’s first novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015), took the form of a love letter from Ray, a 57-year-old recluse, to his vicious rescue dog One Eye. Her new book, A Line Made by Walking, is narrated by Frankie, a 26-year-old artist who has a nervous breakdown, and stows away in her dead grandmother’s bungalow ‘on the brow of a yawning valley’ in rural Ireland. Nothing much happens. Frankie lives on the €5000 her grandmother left for the support of an obese golden retriever called Joe. She becomes convinced she’s losing her hearing, but it turns out to be earwax. Her mother reads a book about hypochondriacs – Proust, Warhol and Florence Nightingale – and encourages her to meditate with an aunt the other family members call ‘Buddhist Beth’. Frankie half-befriends Jink, a born-again neighbour who repairs her bicycle (‘It makes me wonder what it is about me that invites conversion’). She gets wasted on gin and shouts at a television documentary about the Sisters of Mercy – ‘I might as well reason with a toaster.’ She plays Björk at full volume.

A Line Made by Walking is a fictionalised account of the months Baume idled away in her grandmother’s bungalow during the recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008. Think of it as Salinger for millennials: Baume christened Frankie after the precocious underachiever in Franny and Zooey, an English major who’s ‘sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody’. Her epigraph – ‘the worst that being an artist could do to you would be that it would make you slightly unhappy constantly’ – is borrowed from another Salinger story, ‘De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period’. But Frankie comes to learn that being slightly unhappy constantly doesn’t make you an artist. Early in her period of seclusion, she begins a grotesque photo-essay: a series of stills of dead animals (robin, rabbit, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog, badger), each of which provides the title for one of the novel’s ten chapters. Many of these grainy photographs are reproduced in the book; Frankie knows they’re not very good. Even the robin – the first in her series ‘about how everything is being slowly killed’ – has to have its brightness restored in Photoshop. The reflection she catches in her grandmother’s living room window is that of ‘a perfectly regular person, definitively not a genius’.

Each chapter consists of scenes from Frankie’s life, framed by snippets in which she ‘tests’ her recollection of works by Marco Evaristti, Cornelia Parker, Vito Acconci (this is a book to be read with Wikipedia open beside you); it has a list of artworks at the back – a glossary of the mental museum Frankie carries around. ‘Now that I am no longer a student of any kind,’ she tells us, ‘I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head.’ About 75 of these interludes punctuate the novel; they look like this:

Works about Validation, I test myself: Jennifer Dalton, What Does an Artist Look Like? (Every Photograph of an Artist to Appear in the ‘New Yorker’, 1999–2001), 2002.

The digressions are part exposition, part confession; the formula (‘I test myself’ paired with an abstract noun) is repetitive. They bring to mind Joan Didion’s reservations about Franny and Zooey: for Didion, the recondite references Franny keeps dropping – she looks down on ‘all poets except Sappho’, and namechecks Manlius while sipping a martini – were proof that Salinger’s writing was essentially ‘self-help copy … for the upper middle classes’. Why is it that unhappy narrators are often know-it-alls? Perhaps Frankie can’t help it. Her intellectual fervour is gauche, but collating facts in her mind – repeating by rote what she does know, when genuine connections elude her – is a way of holding onto the world. Museum labels are her ideal form of communication. She used to work in a Dublin gallery, and she understands what it is to curate, arrange and impose order. This display is her primary means of self-expression.

She reveals most about her own shortcomings when she reflects on other people’s. Thinking about Peter Friedl’s presentation of a stuffed giraffe at the 2007 Documenta show in Kassel, for instance, she registers a worry about her own inability to execute a living likeness:

Works about Zoos, I test myself: Peter Friedl, The Zoo Story, 2007. A stuffed giraffe. Seams wiggly, posture somewhat slack; more giant toy than living animal. He was called Brownie. He was killed in Qalqilya Zoo in the West Bank in 2002. Startled by the sound of gunfire from the advancing Israeli army, he ran into a metal pole and struck his head. He fell down and his heart failed. Because giraffes are not supposed to lie flat, or so I’ve always believed, and if they do, they die. Later on, the local vet, who was also an amateur taxidermist, shoddily stuffed him.

She had been sketching animals earlier that day at the Natural History Museum and admits she’s ‘never been any good at fur’: she ‘just can’t figure out a shortcut to the right effect’. Even when she describes art she admires, a sort of bitterness remains. After she’s torn up her prescription for anti-depressants, she sees a depressed millionaire on a late-night talk show, describing the therapeutic properties of exercise. It’s all too much:

Works about Running, I test myself: every winter, a Dutch performance artist and musician called Guido van der Werve runs 32 miles from an art gallery in Chelsea to Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, upstate New York. Where he lays a bouquet of chamomile flowers at the tombstone of Sergei Rachmaninov … Running to Rachmaninoff, the piece is called, and van der Werve runs because Rachmaninov suffered debilitating depression for three significant years of his life. And running. Ah yes. Is supposed to make depression go away. He brings chamomile because chamomile is Russia’s national flower, but also because it is supposed to alleviate the symptoms of hysteria. From which Rachmaninov, apparently, also suffered.

Rachmaninov was ‘apparently’ depressed too, but at least he was Rachmaninov.

You know from Baume’s first novel not to expect her characters to develop much over the course of the book. There’s a lukewarm epiphany involving a ferry towards the end of A Line Made by Walking – my kingdom for an Irish novel that opts for another mode of transport – but things remain largely unresolved for Frankie, as they did for Ray. What matters isn’t that the narrator undergoes a transformation but that the reader adapts to the narrator’s peculiarities. (It’s almost like real life.) We’ll always be in two minds about Frankie, and we’re never sure how legitimate it is to dislike her. Nor are we sure how seriously to take her backstory. Early in the novel, she explains how her self-imposed exile came about. One evening in her Dublin bedsit, she was watching Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog’s documentary about penguins in the Antarctic. A scientist describes the phenomenon whereby seemingly healthy penguins abandon their colonies: what awaits them on the horizon, Herzog says grimly, is ‘certain death’. Can penguins be suicidal? The idea tips Frankie over the edge. She returns the DVD, reneges on her lease, and leaves the flat she once measured at ‘44 wooden spoons long’.

While we don’t really believe Herzog’s penguin caused her breakdown, we also don’t expect her to admit, late in the novel, that she was fibbing: ‘I have only wanted to believe it was the deranged penguin because this is a better reason for being inconsolable, a so-much-more interesting and complicated and quixotic thing to be disturbed by than the banal reality.’ What really drove her out of the city was a conversation with a very large and probably harmless stranger sitting uncomfortably close to her on a bench. During their chat, Frankie revealed not only where she lived, but that she lived there alone. Later, she realised her mistake. Who was this man? ‘Perhaps the one who used to ride on a Honda 50, perhaps the one who used to loiter around the crossroads on hot days trying to catch a glimpse of my sister and me and our little friends messing about in the paddling pool.’ She dredges up the memory of another frightening encounter, which took place one evening as she drove home from her summer job in an off-licence. A car ‘bearing a portable squad light’ sped up behind her in a gap between ‘two expanses of pine forest’, and flashed its headlights to make her pull over. She tried to keep her driving steady by reciting something familiar. Then, finally, when the densely spaced countryside edged back towards civilisation, the other car doused its lights, did a U-turn, and sped off. She told nobody, and the story became someone else’s when a barmaid was ‘skull-dragged into the road’ by two men a fortnight later, taken in by the light on the car roof. While being pursued, she’d tried to focus on what she felt she held safely in her grasp:

Works about Slow Cars and the Wall, I test myself: Wolf Vostell, Berlin Fever, 1973. A motorised performance piece. Cars in groups of ten driving as slowly as cars can drive along the Wall’s route for half an hour. A protest? The calmest protest.

All those ‘test myselfs’ and weighty names are a form of self-defence.

Frankie is always picturing herself in someone else’s story. She’s Yves Klein hanging in photographic suspension outside a Paris window; she’s lost at sea in a 12-foot boat with Bas Jan Ader; she’s Richard Long, whose A Line Made by Walking gives Baume her title, treading back and forth in a Wiltshire field. Throwing your voice, as much as being yourself, is a cultivated talent, and Baume’s prose is nimble enough to keep the reader guessing, then second-guessing, Frankie’s motives. You want to believe that all her digressions – all her vexing interludes and esoteric references – amount to more than self-absorption. But pretending to be another person won’t necessarily ward off disaster and, idling in the country, Frankie’s self-devised belief system totters. If she can’t guarantee that her facts are right – the performance artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler, she realises, didn’t bleed out after amputating his penis, but ‘died after falling out a window, in a perfectly decent, respectable sort of way’ – what else might she have got wrong? Her faith that ‘cars don’t crash when the days are long,’ that ‘rapists don’t prey in the sunshine,’ that ‘old folk don’t catch pneumonia and expire in their rocking chairs’? The setting Baume has chosen for this dawning of adult scepticism, Frankie’s grandmother’s bungalow, isn’t incidental: it’s never easy to revisit the places you once felt safe after time has intervened and your naivety has been lost. Nowhere is inviolable. Already, an auctioneer is binning the bric-à-brac – ‘a weathered wood St Joseph, a plastic flamenco dancer, a three-legged camel’ – and putting the bungalow on the market.