For all that Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing might present itself as a standard novel on a surface level, within its first few pages it has already laid out a plethora of typographical experimentations that begin to subvert the traditional ‘novel’ form. In a book that on so many levels deals with the nature of facades and playing up to roles within society, Galloway’s typographical meandering between established conventions and more outré divergences presents a narrative that is often unsettling in both form and content. Not content merely to describe protagonist Joy Stone’s state of mind to us, Galloway places the reader directly within that mindset, and through a variety of techniques, attempts to enable us to see the world through her eyes.
In a book where drowning plays such a prominent role, there is the notion of drowning within the physical text of the novel on more than one occasion. Going against established formulae for numeric chapter headings, Galloway instead inserts an enigmatic ‘ooo’ as a placeholder throughout the novel. Without a steadily increasing chapter number to guide the reader through the novel, the reader is effectively lost within the chronology of events, with no pointers to guide their way – instead they are submerged straight into Joy’s life, without any introduction as to who she is or her situation. It is only through sustained exposure to Joy’s way of seeing things that we begin to unravel her state of affairs; as she begins the novel: ‘I watch myself from the corner of the room’ – the reader also finds themselves watching Joy, from the depths of her own perspective.
This essence of drowning within the words (or more specifically in this instance, the lack of them) reaches its pinnacle on page 188 which is bare apart from a single bereft ‘oops’. In the novel format, where the reader thrives on the continued digestion of text, the shocking absence present on this page comes as a jolt, a physical shock akin to the processes of breaking down and falling apart present in Joy’s own existence. In addition, the ‘oops’ acts as a kind of continuation, or rather full realisation of the ‘ooo’ of the chapter titles, a kind of startled admission of Joy’s inability to function properly in the ‘normal’ world. By subverting regular textual norms in this manner, Galloway achieves a similar effect, alienating the book from literary standards in much the same way Joy feels alienated from societal standards.
The theme of the capacity of the ‘o’ to convey meaning is also employed by Galloway to effectively book-end the novel. Early on, Joy – in one of the many italicised ‘flashback’ scenarios – describes the discovery of Michael’s dead body: ‘A group of men stand in a rough O, staring with their eyes down. Water drips from their arms.’ Here, Joy’s extraction of meaning and shock from the scene stems from the visual input of the ‘O’, which here equates to the shape of the men gathered around Michael’s lifeless body. Joy’s mind is repeatedly shown to operate in a highly image-based manner, from both the transformation of a group of people into a singular textual mark on the page to the image of water, which reoccurs throughout the novel. A counterpoint scene is presented in the closing passages of the novel: ‘His mouth is a wide 0, eyes open to the sky… I am entirely alone on this ship, churning on through foreign water’. Here the ‘O’ of the encircling group of men has morphed into the ‘0’ of Michael’s mouth, a grim death-mask of a facial expression that seems not only to emphasise his own loss of life, but Joy’s loss of the man she has loved; the numeric value of ‘zero’ is harsh in its brutal finality. The resurfacing of the water symbolism serves to back this up, Michael’s death ‘churning’ Joy’s life up into turmoil and leaving her alone in ‘foreign waters’.
The incidence of Michael’s death is employed by Galloway as a kind of separation between the past and present of Joy’s life, neatly separated in textual terms by relegating the ‘flashback’ scenes – Joy’s memories of the death – into italics as opposed to the regular text the rest of the novel is composed in. This has the effect of holding up the past memories as different, as important, scenes of almost lyrical, chorus-like reoccurrence within the novel. It is telling that Joy returns to these memories so often, and it is established that in many ways they represent the crux of her ‘problems’, as her doctor asks her: ‘Tell me from the beginning what you think is making you feel bad… tell it in your own words.’ Galloway’s novel is the result of these words, and when she aligns ‘My mother walked into the sea’ and ‘He drowned’ in the centre of the page,she signifies – through the application of layout – the central role both Michael’s death and the death of Joy’s mother plays in Joy’s own life. Indeed, as Joy points out after relating these two incidents: ‘Something was happening to my stomach.’ – everything is centralised, right down to the heart of her own body. If the text is taken as the aspect of Joy’s life presented to the reader, it corresponds that the placing and presentation of that text within the novel bears relevance to how these relative concepts hold meaning to her as a person.
Another instance where Joy’s world, both before and after Michael’s death, is thrown into contrast is early on in the novel where she describes the numbers on the door of their house:
The first of the numbers is presented as larger and in italics, a potential allusion to the italicised memories of Michael’s death; that these memories present the enlarged aspect of Joy’s as lived alongside Michael. The second number is much smaller and presented in straight font, representative not only of Joy herself and the bulk of her narrative, but reinforcing the fact that she is ‘smaller’ without Michael, her life less fulfilled. Returning to the house after Michael’s death, Joy removes both sets of numbers so that all that remains are ‘four little holes’. The emphasis here is on removal and loss, not just in the trivial sense of the door numbers themselves, but in what they represent; Joy and Michael’s life and home together. Just as there are now only holes in the door, there are also holes in Joy’s life where Michael’s death is felt most keenly, as well as literal ‘holes’ in the text such as the almost blank page discussed above. For Joy, whose ongoing life has become defined by Michael’s death, the door number ‘13’ is an unlucky reminder of everything she now no longer has. Once it signified the place she and her lover called home – now, just like her relationship with Michael, the numbers have diminished to nothing.
The door numbers are not the only unusually presented typographic intrusion of a sign into the text; one of the most obvious examples is the ‘VISITORS MUST REPORT TO THE OFFICE’ presented within a border and at a jaunty angle on page 11. Printed in uniform capitals, the sign interrupts the regular flow of the text and issues a firm command to both Joy and the reader; leaping from the page it reaffirms the inescapable accoutrements of the ‘official’ and strict order of modern daily life. Used to similar effect is the ‘SOME OF US HAVE WORK TOMORROW’ employed on page 90, a harsh outburst from angry neighbours directed at Joy. Again, it reeks of the regimented processes of nine-to-five working life, a world bound by normality, the language of the work environment. In both instances, these all-capitals inserts are an intrusion – both literally and visually – into Joy’s life, and in the latter case highlights how even within the walls of her own home, she is not entirely secure.
Equally though, there is a kind of comfort in these signifiers of ordinary life – they provide Joy with a means to grasp onto a world she so often seems to be fading from. For example, when she goes shopping she specifically states that she is going to ‘TESCOs’, again employing capital letters to mark out the shop’s neon sign in the way it appears to her. This notion of brands entering into the substance of life and helping to provide it with consistency is furthered in the kind of catharsis she experiences idling through the assorted elements of the supermarket: ‘I can spend hours among the buckle-wheeled trolleys, fruit and fresh vegetables, tins of blueberry pie filling, papaya and mango’. There is a sense of comfort in the familiar, highlighted also in the scene where Joy is presented a betting slip with ‘St Elmo’s Joy : Chepstow’ written on it in gothic script:
St Elmo’s Joy : Chepstow
Galloway seems keen to emphasise the rituals that are individually important to people, that we all have aspects of Joy’s ‘quirks’ to ourselves. There is a pleasure in the process of setting out one’s own font on a betting slip, a sense of imbued luck that juxtaposes with the unluckiness of Joy’s door number ‘13’. As Joy points out: ‘most of the men like to write their own [betting slips]… They are regulars.’The essence of the regularity and the small enjoyment that can be garnered from instances like this appears to hint at exerting a kind of control over life, in much the same way we might choose which supermarket or brand to purchase. In the disparate elements of the ‘routine’, in whatever form it might manifest itself – betting, shopping, working – Galloway’s characters are shown to find comfort in regularity; and by association, we – the readers – find discomfort in the irregularity of the various typographical techniques employed.
The concept of the routine also forms the focus of one of the early interplays between Joy and a health visitor. Galloway initially sets out the components of the ‘tea routine’ in a specifically determined page layout with every item: ‘Tray / Jug / Sweeteners / Plates…’ on its own line. To this degree, Joy protects herself behind the various individual parts of the tea routine and gives herself ‘time to think’. Confronted with an ‘intrusion’ into her house from a person in an official capacity, the routine acts as a kind of armour or facade of normality to protect the real Joy, who is clearly ill at ease. Just as Joy previously seeks solace in the items found in a supermarket, she now associates herself with the objects of – and in the role of – a housewife. The theme of the facade is continued as the health visitor offers the opening remark of ‘Well!’, delineated within a comic-book style speech bubble:
Here, the processes of trivial speech are set within boundaries, in essence a character playing at being a character. Laid out here within the speech bubble, the health visitor’s words are cheap and disposable, dialogue cut off and isolated both from the rest of the text and Joy herself. The theme of acting up to prescribed roles and the presentation of speech reaches a head in the subsequent page where the dialogue between Joy and the health visitor now takes on the layout of a play script. Here, Joy is safe behind her facade, reduced to a nameless, ambiguous ‘PATIENT’. The conversation may seem impersonal and forced, but by playing up to a role – significant when her job as a drama teacher is considered – Joy is able to assert her own control and values over her life. With her dialogue clearly allocated and set apart from the health visitor in the play script format, Joy may be acting up to a part society has given her, but this affords her the capacity to shelter the far more vulnerable ‘real’ version of herself.
One of the most unusual layout techniques used in the novel in fact emerges when Joy is at her most vulnerable, underscoring the fragility of the person behind the carefully maintained public facade. As readers, only we and Joy are privy to the snippets of incomplete text that appears in the margins of many of the book’s pages – it is here that we see Joy’s mind at its most frustratingly chaotic and fractured. These intrusions, like the numerous in-capitals signs that intersperse the text, serve to disrupt the flow of narrative-proper; is the reader supposed to read these snippets as relevant to the main body of text they appear next to, or are they a kind of largely irrelevant supplementary side-text?
If these intrusions are to be seen as directly relevant, the most obvious example comes on pages 174 and 175 where Joy is ‘raped’ by Tony. Here, the margin intrusions reach newly prolific levels; six across the space of the two pages, almost as if Tony’s physical intrusion into Joy is being manifested textually on the paper of the novel itself. In the case of the even-numbered pages, the reader is enticed to peer right into the central crack of the book, to seek out the words that are seeping – drowning even – in the centre. We want to apply order and logic to these intrusions, to fit them into the wider narrative, even as they serve to further the image of Joy’s mind as increasingly chaotic. Piecing together the fragments, the following message can be made out: ‘…ignore the warnings… when the worst happens we can only blame ourselves’; indicative of something Joy has likely read in one of her women’s magazines pertaining to rape. Also of note is the fact the margin intrusions are presented in a smaller font size, the same that is employed for articles Joy reads in magazines: for example the agony aunt piece on page 45 or the diet tips on page 39. And so, even in the worst, most horrible of scenarios, Joy’s life becomes defined by the limits of what she has read in magazines.
Whether it be the name of a supermarket, an office sign, angry neighbours or magazine articles, The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a novel littered with the by-products of everyday life. By rendering all these disparate objects in a variety of typographical and layout-based means, Galloway increases both the novel’s sense of reality and viscerality. In a world that is more often than not highly fragmented and unreal, these elements of the ordinary let us empathise with Joy and break through the barrier she so clearly seeks to erect between her past and present. As a textual and uniquely textured creation, Galloway’s novel becomes more than just a novel about an individual’s fractured mentality, it assumes that mentality itself.
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Jackson, Linda, Exchanges: Reading Janice Galloway’s fictions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Review, 2004)
Jones, Carole, Disappearing Men: Gender Disorientation in Scottish Fiction 1979-1999 (London: Rodopi, 2009)
Schoene, Berthold, The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007)
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Wallace, Gavin, The Scottish Novel Since The Seventies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)
The List (2005) [http://www.list.co.uk/article/2819-janice-galloway-the-trick-is-to-keep-breathing-1989/] (accessed 11/03/12)