Ostentatiously Unfamiliar

Jessica Payn reviews Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel

Eimear McBride, Strange Hotel.
Faber and Faber, £12.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

In Essayism (2017), his playful but lucid engagement with essayists, style, sentences, fragments, melancholy, and attention, Brian Dillon wonders: “Is there such a thing as a happy list in literature?” He points to the runaway fastidiousness of the instinct to list — the impulse to collect, to set down and set down again, to gather a sum of items in verbal proximity much as you might pack a suitcase — suggesting it is “evidence of some vexation”. Lists, whether an attempt to neutralise “a scouring anxiety”, or improve a “cumbrous melancholy”, are, he contends, “all examples of compensating control”.

As a closely introspective account of an unnamed, middle-aged woman’s hotel movements throughout several years, Eimear McBride’s third novel, Strange Hotel, begins with, ends with, and is four times interrupted by lists. From the first page, her protagonist appears to be cool, composed, confident in her likes and dislikes, and grandiloquent in her internal musings. Yet, as the novel follows her visits to hotels in Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland, and finally Austin, we come to be familiar with the pattern of her attempts to assert control over her past, observing the forms of circling and stasis with which the novel is preoccupied. The lists themselves assert the passage of time between these discrete episodes, in which action — other than the permutations of thought — is almost totally suspended. They vary in length, but share the same structure and organising principle: a vertically aligned catalogue of place names, next to which an enigmatic “x” (a crossing off? a kiss? the mark of an encounter?) sometimes appears:

London?

Paris x

St Petersburg

Budapest x

Bratislava x

Warsaw x

Cracow x

Haworth x

St Austell

Beijing x

Tokyo x

St Petersburg x

By nature restless and anxiously enumerative, a list is ponderous for a reader to follow: McBride’s opening here tumbles the reader into the vertigo of travel, the global stretch of destinations, such that we can only focus on a handful of cities at once — working out their relationships, rather than trying to assimilate the whole. The effect is of being caught between places — held between movement and fixity — and in a state of puzzlement, trying to infer a plot from a limited tally of information. (Why did she travel from Cornwall to Beijing?) The list calls to mind Robbie Moore’s observation that “hotel time is experienced not as an unfolding plot but as a series of disconnected incidents”, instantiating a structure of detachment, suspense — a logic of asyndetic parataxis.

This distance from the narratives of memory and home is what McBride’s protagonist is seeking in her continual visits to hotels: “absences of consequence”. What she reveals reluctantly over the course of the book, via oblique “grammar-frantic” circumlocution, is her wish to run from remembrance, from the knowledge of who she has been and who she has been left without. We are left to infer the loss of her son’s father; she only obliquely shares her grief.

“Consequence” might be both a repercussion and the glue itself of cause and effect; in both cases, the “laboratorially contained” site of the hotel room prevents such leaps of connection. Their status as, in Moore’s words, “places of transience, plasticity and disposal, flirtation rather than attachment”, means they offer an ideal space in which to escape the narrative expectation of a past and a future. “Each hotel room is a now, but each now disregards the next”, writes Wayne Koestenbaum in Hotel Theory (2007). McBride’s nameless protagonist wills herself to participate in the erasure both of the past and of the possibility for new memories, following the dominant instinct in her life: “the now all-important imperative to forget”. Evading the clutches of habit, she decides: “Familiarity is not the ambition. Never at all, of late. In fact she’d say she has been at pains to let nothing embed”. That flicker of a pun is characteristic of the book’s arch humour — to bed, perhaps, but not to let the experience embed.

It is from this perspective that a collocation such as “strange hotel” might seem pointedly tautological: the over-inflation of a sense of unbelonging and otherness. “Strange” derives from the Latin extrā, meaning “outside” or “without”. As a public-private space that commercialises the domestic, the hotel is a site of both exile from home and an uncanny revisiting of homely experience. In Freud’s terms, the homely is a concept that contains its own opposite: heimlich means, on the one hand, “what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight”. Likewise, as Joanna Walsh points out in her blend of memoir and cultural analysis, Hotel (2015), a hotel “is for staying in, but it is a kind of staying that includes its own opposite: leaving”. Hotel rooms are places of fugitive rest or pleasure, defined by their readiness for vacancy: the fantasy of an elsewhere, the opposite of a dwelling. “We know our stay there is temporary, so we do not think to build our futures there”, Walsh adds.

A “strange hotel” is, then, ostentatiously unfamiliar. Acutely mannered, self-reflexive, it announces itself as a stage for confrontation with ghosts, guests, sex, and memory, and the apparent spookiness of the Faber dust jacket participates in the same display. There is something to be said here about self-consciousness. McBride’s protagonist acknowledges her own taste for the dramatic: “Having come so far, with so little delight, she embraces this brief performance of her magnified distaste for delay.” Verbose, grandiose, alert always to her own self-representation even when only in conversation with herself — a spectacle neatly contrived by McBride’s agile indirect narrative style — she creates an environment of ruminative discomfort, the opposite of homely ease. In contrast to McBride’s previous two novels, Strange Hotel is slyly funny; and in one memorably humorous episode, the protagonist turns on the TV:

Primarily pinkly personelled pornography. Popularly, perseveringly and — periodically perceivably painfully — protractedly pursing previously private perspectives of perfectly pumped penii practically pummelling professionally pruned pudenda and precisely depilated, purely pert or — more pedantically — patently pedestrian posteriors alike. Period — as in Full Stop, and not of the bleeding kind.

Latinate and stoppered with ps: the satirical proliferation of plosives speaks for the unwillingness of the “critic in her head” to admit to pleasure in the spectacle of fucking. And try as she might, she can’t quite succeed in isolating herself within the syntax of “a good old linguistic knot”. “Thinking her way carefully around every instant” is her typical strategy:

Grammatically and logically constructing it. Even now, she can hear herself doing it. Lining up words against words, then clause against clause until an agreeable distance has been reached from the initial, unmanageable impulse which first set them all in train.

Such self-referential thinking is part of the book’s knowing claustrophobia, yet it is also an exploration of how to put language in the way. How to use it to obfuscate and obstruct, to sculpt a syntax that maintains a distance from “the scent of blood and guts”, from pain and feeling, or feeling anything other than the ephemeral gratification of alcohol, cigarettes, and brief contact with an unknown body, “keeping the world at the far end of a very long sentence”. “She’s doing it now, and now, and now, and now…” McBride is adept at modulating the rhythm of a sentence to shape the movements of a mood, creating the impression of obstinacy, hesitancy, or reluctant self-reckoning with neatly judged commas and careful repetitions: “She doesn’t imagine she will but, were she so inclined, she might admit that the thought of jump had occurred to her most days, for maybe a year and a half – the thought that she could, or that she even might.”

By way of these stylistic modulations, McBride elliptically gives voice to a protagonist who is highly self-aware at the same time that she is highly evasive. Although she names the different parts of herself — “her will”, “her shallows” who “ride in with their traditional counterattack”, the “no one [who] wakes in her ear” — she does so to push them away. Only in the book’s culminating episode, which is titled “Imagined room”, does she shift to the admissions of first-person narration and broach a less guarded confrontation: “But tonight I am in a strange hotel and, therefore, an ulterior me.” Despite hotels being places “for those who understand performance” (“ghosts, actors, women”, as Walsh says), here in this imaginary, original hotel — the hotel the protagonist did not go to one fateful evening in her youth — she can begin to uncover herself, can intervene in memory and its “insist[ence] on a future her past has already generated”. Up to now, earlier chapters have dealt in congestion and contortion, following the refusals of a mind to accept the possibility of forward movement: “Because lately going anywhere… translates to a kind of despair” (that rhyme neatly rueful, an assertion of the failure to progress). Here, though, we witness the echo chamber of the narrator’s deliberations losing its circularity, flexing into increased momentum, creating chronology. There is an irony in this: it is only when the protagonist allows herself, fully, to get “in bed with the purely speculative” that her internal equivocations recede from view. When she does, and mediates between past pain and her present fear of feeling, she succeeds in reaching a point at which consequences and, hence, relationships might again be found.

Such acceptance of the human need for connection is, cleverly, once more, both emotional and grammatical. The book ends with another list: a long inventory of cities, as before, but with a difference — every time that “Austin” appears, an “x” is marked, a record of growing intimacy, until finally, it skips directly from “Austin x” to “London x”. From chance to choice, the list’s changing shape is a surrendering of its claim to aloof control: instead of an aimless haunt through isolated incidents, a pattern emerges, the desire for and privileging of one person. The final message of McBride’s absorbingly subtle, often uncomfortable inspection of a lonely mind, it seems, is that we cannot trust in our instinct to itemise, to separate ourselves off. Connection is preferable to the vacant pleasures of strangers. This final list is a happier one.

About Jessica Payn

Jessica Payn is an editor, ghostwriter, and freelance critic based in London. She holds an MPhil in Modern and Contemporary Literature from the University of Cambridge, where she wrote her thesis on the cuteness of Stevie Smith.