Saturday 29 February 2020

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride     {Reviewed by THOMAS}
To ‘stay’ in a hotel (as opposed to ‘staying’ home) does not mean to remain but merely to await departure. A hotel is not a home away from home but is the opposite of a home, a place where, as McBride puts it, “nothing is at stake,” a place where action and inaction begin to resemble each other, a place where the absence of context allows or invites unresolved pasts or futures to press themselves upon the present without consequence. There is no plot in a hotel; everything is in abeyance. The protagonist in Strange Hotel is present (or presented) in a series of hotels — in Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland, and Austin (all hotels are, after all, one hotel) — over a number of years in what we could term her early middle age. She spends the narrated passages of time mainly not doing something, choosing not to sleep with the man in the room next door, not to throw herself from the window as she waits for a man to leave her room, not to stay in the room of the man with whom she has slept until he wakes up, not to meet a man at the hotel bar, not to let in the man with whom she has slept and who she almost fails to keep at the distance required by her rigour of hotel behaviour. Her ritual self-removal from the stabilising patterns of her ordinary existence — about which we learn little — in the hotels seems designed to reconfigure herself following the death of her partner without either wearing out the memory she has of him or being worn out by it. Slowly, through the series of hotels, she becomes capable of reclaiming herself from her loss, moving from instances where even slight resemblances to experiences associated with her dead partner close down thought (as with the speaker in Samuel Beckett’s Not I) to a point where memory begins to not overwhelm the rememberer, when the hold on the present of the past begins to loosen, when the path to grief loses its intransigence and coherence and no longer precludes the possibility that things could have been and could be different. McBride’s linguistic skill and introspective rigour in tracking the ways in which her protagonist negotiates with her memories through language is especially effective and memorable. Language is a way of avoiding thought as much as it is a way of achieving it: “Even now, she can hear herself doing it. Lining words up against words, then clause against clause until an agreeable distance has been reached from the original unmanageable impulse which first set them all in train.” Her self-interrogation and her “interrogating her own interrogation” “serves the solitary purpose of keeping the world at the far end of a very long sentence,” but as her ‘hotel-praxis’ (so to call it) starts to erode the structures of her ‘grief-taxis’ (so to call it), language is no longer capable of — or, rather, no longer necessary for and therefore no longer capable of — buffering her from loss: “I do like all these lines of words but they don’t seem to be helping much with keeping the distance anymore.” At the start of the the book she feels as if she has “outlived her use for feeling” and clinically observes that, in another, “sentiment must be at work somewhere, unfortunately”; in Prague she observes of the man whose departure from her room she awaits on the balcony: “She hadn’t intended to hurt his feelings. To be honest, she’s not even sure she has. His feelings are his business alone. She just wishes he hadn’t presumed she possessed quite so many of her own. She has some, naturally, but spread thinly around—with few kept available for these kinds of encounters.” By the end of the process, though — “to go on is to keep going on” — the possibility of feeling begins to emerge from beneath her grief, the present is no longer overwhelmed by actual or even possible alternative pasts, and she begins to sense that she can “turn too and return again from this most fitly resolved past that was never really an option — to the life which, in fact, exists.” 

>> Read all Thomas's reviews.

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