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A Life Unlived

By Grace Campbell

Strange Hotel

Eimear McBride, Faber & Faber, 2020

‘She had no interest whatsoever in France.’ At the opening of Strange Hotel, an unnamed female protagonist has come to a bleak, claustrophobic hotel on the outskirts of Avignon for the second time, although years have elapsed since her first visit. McBride describes the ‘hot dun gloom’ of the ground floor corridor, the ‘radiant torture’ of the courtyard, with its lack of shade and a humid foyer filled with palms evoking an ‘off-Riviera Death in Venice’. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, though invoked ironically by the protagonist, is in many respects an obvious spiritual antecedent to Strange Hotel. Both are slim, compact novels that centre around a solitary, obsessive character adrift in a foreign land. But when we meet him, Mann's fastidious, coolly intellectual tourist Aschenbach is still living in a world he believes to be intact. In Strange Hotel, the protagonist is already living in the aftermath of an unknown emotional cataclysm.

This withholding quality is characteristic of Strange Hotel’s narrative: the protagonist and everyone she encounters remains unnamed, the exact circumstances of her peripatetic existence (what exactly does she do as a job? Where is she ‘from,’ originally?) unstated. Nevertheless, as she moves through the years, a loosely sketched picture of her life slowly emerges in short vignettes, one for each city, each hotel. In her first appearance she is 35 and has, at some point in the recent past, lost a great love, ‘the one and only, as she’d thought of him’. She is someone who has thought a lot about language, who was, or is perhaps, a writer. She drinks, perhaps too much, and falls asleep to porn channels on her hotel room’s television. She has one-night stands. She has a ‘utilitarian persona’, with regards to sex and intimacy, choosing, not always correctly, men with a tacit agreement of their mutual emotional disengagement. She worries about how she looks without her makeup on, without clothes. She thinks about the past and tries not to. ‘Allowing memory, or any of its variables admittance,’ she thinks, ‘is always a mistake’. But still the past asserts itself at odd moments: the man she sleeps with in Oslo reminds her of the unnamed man she's grieving.

In a 2014 White Review interview with David Collard, McBride expressed ambivalence about the idea, put forward by many critics, that the ending of her first novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, contained no redemption: ‘for me […] redemption is about transcendence, of the past, of the situation and of the self, consciously achieved through the will of the individual, all of which does occur by the end’. Transcendence might be said to be McBride’s great theme – how people come to know each other and themselves through coming to terms with what happens to them. In her second novel The Lesser Bohemians, published in 2016, this question of transcendence hinges on what it means to make a life after trauma. Not just any life, but a full life, one with art and sex in it, the ill-considered, risky kind as well as the good, and even love — real love, whatever that is. After your appetite, your autonomy, your delight in yourself as a physical being has been compromised by the violence of others, is such a thing even possible? The high-wire trick of The Lesser Bohemians was McBride granting her characters a happiness that didn’t feel false or platitudinous. Its journey ends with the lovers meeting, concluding with the sentence: ‘we make ourselves comfortable in each other’s arms there, and go to sleep’. After the great sea change in the novel— the punishingly long, sleepless night in which Stephen recounts to the much younger Eily the story of how his mother abused him as a child, and how this led to addiction and the breakdown of his marriage in his adult life— to end with sleep feels significant. In a novel which walks precipitously between a hostility to false consolation and an old-fashioned belief in the transformative power of romantic love, it leaves their story both hopeful and inconclusive. Now they can rest, at least for a time.

In Strange Hotel we are confronted not with a young woman undergoing an awakening but with an older woman for whom sex is a fact of life, a source of pleasure or distraction rather than revelation. The narrator thinks that: ‘physical feeling is not just in her head. It is not just a given manner of processing experience. It is life itself and without which there is none’. Simultaneously, she is conscious of how inhabiting a body means recognising the ‘perpetual fear of how precariously life hangs by its thread’. It is the latter realisation that forms the crux of Strange Hotel, that with embodiment—so vividly chronicled by McBride in her previous two novels—comes the attendant, shadowy knowledge of mortality, the ways in which body betrays and eventually fails us. Despite McBride’s assertion that the body is life itself, Strange Hotel does not deal in meticulously evoked sensuality but rather in shell-shocked introspection. The language has a more detached, flat effect than McBride’s previous books. The syntax is more regular, the tone more ironic, if not cynical, the voice third person instead of first. There is no longer the propulsive energy of youth: the protagonist instead processes her surroundings via an intellectualising which is obsessive, even chilly. She thinks of her earlier trust in language, ‘that empire on which the sun, supposedly, never set’— suggesting both language itself as an empire, as well as the facilitation of empire occasioned by the English language in particular— how its purpose is ‘keeping words as far as possible from the scent of blood and guts. Building cathedrals around them to mask it. Sometimes digging moats’. The protagonist now seems like someone who has lost her faith in the ability of language to do anything but occlude the truth of experience. She considers how the words, which once came easily, now ‘barely carry meaning beyond the literal wattle and daub’.

McBride has always resisted the realist tradition in English language fiction by including a bare minimum of expository detail. She has never been a writer who is interested in the creation of scenes, or the evocation of places. Her interest has always been in how things feel and how they are experienced. In Strange Hotel this takes on a new dimension, as symptomatic of her character’s semi-voluntary withdrawal from the world. A glimpse of rainy cobbled streets in Prague, the quality of the northern sunlight in Norway – we receive only snatches of local colour, witnessed from the anodyne sameness of the hotel rooms. The hotel, a place both private and communal, anonymous and intimate, both here and everywhere, provides the limits of the novel’s world, although it spans years and continents. McBride recalls a long tradition of the hotel as motif for displacement in modern and contemporary literature: from Joseph Roth’s interwar reportage in The Hotel Years, to Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, about the itinerant childhood of the daughter of a German dissident in the 30s. In the 21st century, notable examples include Joanna Walsh’s 2015 Hotel, which used the writer’s experience of working as a hotel reviewer to meditate on the longing for home, and Rob Doyle’s recently released Threshold, a drug-fuelled odyssey through Europe.

In Strange Hotel, the protagonist thinks that ‘once distilled, all hotel rooms are essentially alike, if not the same. A place built for people living in a time out of time— out of their own time anyway’. In Auckland, confined to her room by agoraphobia, she stares at the city from behind her window and berates herself for her inability to muster interest in the outside world: ‘you have arrived at this remotest place and are mostly interested in decoding oblique directives from your feet or lying on that preposterously upholstered bed eating chips? That’s not very good is it?’ The novel figures the hotel less as a space of politicised exile than as a metaphor for grief as a transient, purgatorial space, for the inability to move on despite the cultural directive that, sooner or later, you must.

It is also a place in which we see the protagonist move ambivalently into middle age. She wonders: ‘can she think it afresh? Or only ever think it again?’ After her ‘hard-won victory over the excellent carnage of being young’, is there still life? Or is it, ‘just being again, and always again, as you always were’? Plays and novels—Tennessee Williams and Jean Rhys spring to mind as writers whose protagonists, like that of Strange Hotel, are always checking in and out of hotels and cheap boarding houses— are full of middle-aged woman drifting slowly into dissolution, mourning an irretrievable youth. Strange Hotel both pays homage to and resists this tradition and what it implies about female agency inevitably coming with a price, about ageing itself being a kind of punishment. The protagonist obsessively circles around her youth in memory, yet also pitilessly interrogates this impulse: ‘here lies a whole slab of your life you’ve completely left out in the cold. Not on purpose, out of cowardice or shame. Not, in fact, for any good reason she can name. Except there was youth and then there was later but only youth got to dig its claws in’. She thinks angrily that:

Despite everything, all that’s been accomplished and all that’s been missed and all the accretions of the life that’s been lived, for a woman in her early forties, unhappiness is what’s assumed to be in store. That, and a mandatory belief in a younger face behind her face as the place which is the only place where the possibility of any happiness resides.

But the protagonist ‘does not believe it and objects to the assumption that she ever would’. Her ennui does not come from her ‘thickening waist’; it comes from her grief, which has been displaced, abstracted.

While it is revealed early on in the novel that the protagonist has lost someone close to her, it is only as it progresses that the suspicion dawns, then crystallises, that the woman is an older Eily, from The Lesser Bohemians. It is hinted that the man she is grieving is Stephen, although the narrative never directly confirms this.

And why, in the first place, had she allowed herself to get as far as that? Carrying on as though her life was an isolated incident. As though no one else had ever experienced this, the human condition’s most essential component: knowing someone alive, and knowing them dead. There. Done and dusted and yet…how much she felt it. How much she feels it.

If McBride has aimed to trouble what she regards as the false sense of security that language creates, then what is a firmer refutation of that notion than death? Grief is the processing of one of the few things that everyone knows to be true: that we, and the people close to us, will one day die. But beyond this more general reckoning with her mortality and with the loss of Stephen, the protagonist—Eily— is also undergoing another, belated reckoning with the highly specific nature of their relationship. It is one that, if not necessarily undermining the happy ending of The Lesser Bohemians, certainly serves to complicates it.

There are some writers whose whole oeuvre seems to be in some way interconnected, each book echoing and commenting on the one that preceded it. Strange Hotel makes a strong case for McBride as one of these writers. If the animating force of The Lesser Bohemians was the desperate immediacy of first love, a note of something else—disillusionment? regret?— has crept into Strange Hotel. The protagonist, who may or may not be Eily, ruminates for pages on the night of the man who may or may not be Stephen’s confession, which figures in her memory as a point of no return: ‘if in every life there is a touchstone, this one is irrefutably mine’. The narrative allows and makes space for a range of conflicting feelings. Surveying her younger self, she allows herself tentative regret at her naïveté, her unpreparedness for the gravity of what her dead lover tells her, at that point still under the assumption that she will soon move on to a boy her own age. She does not move on; on the contrary, the story links them irrevocably, they find themselves ‘pinned by the weight of what his words brought’. Years later, her more adult self finds herself marked by it, in ways she’s only beginning to comprehend.

But everything is about afterwards, as I have come to know. After it back then, I remember sitting on his bed, willing myself not to be afraid because I understood that whatever he had done — and been— was just bindings around a person who was really someone and that real someone, in his turn, saw the bindings around me. That we two, regardless of the injunctions of our histories, were about to try to find our way through.

Yet the acknowledgement that her love affair has in some ways defined her whole life, that its overwhelming intensity and subsequent loss have led her to this closed off existence, is accompanied by the conviction that to have lived without it would have been an impoverishment: ‘that to have proved unequal to its offer of everything, every kind of life— including all that terrible love— would not only have resulted in youthful illusions lost, I think it would have made a wasteland of me’. The ‘afterwards’ with which the novel is preoccupied, then, is not just what comes after trauma but also what comes after happiness. It is a vision that does not attempt to smooth over what might be regarded as rocky imbalances of power, nor does it posthumously reframe them as irredeemably exploitative, or see the pain of love’s loss as in some way cancelling it out. Rather it aims to imbue it with a sadder, more adult knowledge: that love, the hard work of knowing another person through their ‘bindings’ is always its own kind of undoing, that far from offering safety, its rewards are always accompanied by risks.

Strange Hotel is never explicitly described as a sequel to The Lesser Bohemians and indeed it would feel incorrect to describe it as such – so what exactly is it? At times, its power as a stand-alone novel feels compromised by its evasiveness—the emotional crux of the novel, the all-important confession that haunts the protagonist down the years, remains vague, even baffling, without familiarity with The Lesser Bohemians. The reader has no connection to the man whom the protagonist spends pages longing for; nor do they have much of a connection to the protagonist. When she tells us that the mysterious, terrible love, and its loss, have enriched her life, there is nothing but her word to go by.

Yet it would be unjust to describe Strange Hotel merely as an extended epilogue to McBride’s previous novel. There is a decisive sense across all her books that she is a writer continually progressing her voice and style, unwilling to become complacently attached to a winning formula. In many respects, Strange Hotel achieves its objective of literalising grief in language; the result is obsessive, repetitive, if ultimately alienating to those looking on. If anything, it feels like a transitional novel, in which a pronounced stylistic departure has not yet fully come into its own.

GRACE CAMPBELL reads for an MSt in English at Balliol. She is a screwball tragedy.

Art by Abigail Hodges


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