In Review: Seed by Joanna Walsh

It’s become a bit of a trope to claim certain novels as “unfilmable” – that no matter what extraordinary efforts a director exercises, Blood Meridian, for example, will never be displayed on the silver screen. I’d always viewed these claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. We have a version of Cloud Atlas, after all, and Watchmen, and countless other narratives that in their structure and concepts resist the temporal linearity and visual language of film. Still, I admit I had an analogous response when I first read through Joanna Walsh’s Seed online. I became simultaneously aware of two separate convictions: that the interactive form was incredibly well-suited to the story Walsh was telling, and that the story would never be publishable in print.

From a narrative synopsis alone, it might not be clear why I was so convinced on these points. Seed is the account of a first-person narrator remembering – or perhaps, embodying, as the story largely runs in the present tense – a summer of her adolescence in a small English town in the 1980s. The external dramatic action of the work is largely focused on the narrator’s relationship with another teen, Rosemary, and the world the two of them share for those four months. Though there is plenty of specific social commentary – the novel is studded with thoughts on class, feminism, as well as events like the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease and AIDS – Seed is in many ways a familiar and universal coming of age story, an investigation of innocence and harm. Our narrator is patient and observant, equally capable of describing the botany of the valley as the awkwardness of her body or her sartorial considerations. Underneath these descriptions are currents that remain unsurfaced; she seems uncomfortable with her burgeoning desire, and repeatedly gives us lists of words unspoken, “Things I do not talk about.” She lists some after a “Dinner with the grown-ups,” where she feels she has failed to keep up with the conversation:

“Things I don’t talk about:
There are tears running down my face I don’t know why. They ask me why and I say I don’t know.
I don’t want to hurt them by telling.
I don’t want to hurt myself by telling.”

There’s something immediately recognizable in these moments, in the narrator’s sense of uncertainty toward the adult world and her place in it. But while the narrator and her growing pains might feel familiar, Seed complicates this material with a truly transgressive structure. The novel consists of short chapters, spread across four larger sections, each corresponding to one of the months. Its original online implementation comes with a menu, in which different “vines” can be selected; these vines, which focus on topics such as “Work,” or “Land,” isolate the specific chapters relating to that topic, as well as certain paragraphs or lines of text within those chapters. For example, with the “Inside,” vine selected, the first chapter, “Opening,” begins: “I must stop doing it. When I started I didn’t know the name for it.” With the “Land” vine selected instead, the chapter opens, “In the fields the yellow spreads across. It is inauthentic.” By default, all vines are selected, and the text of all the relevant paths are interwoven, so that “Opening” instead shows:

            “I must stop doing it.

            In the fields the yellow spreads across. It is inauthentic.”

Excepting some italicization and similar small edits, it is this version with all of the “vines” that has been compiled and published by No Alibis Press, a small publishing company in Belfast. My reading experience of this print edition was markedly similar to my first interactions with the online version, shifting between excitement, confusion, and contemplation as I moved through the work. In both versions, there is little in the way of hand-holding, and no suggestions are provided for how to approach Seed. At first, it’s easy to be lulled into a sort of trance; Walsh writes with a consistent tone throughout, with short, simply constructed sentences that are dense with nouns particular to that time, place, and age. The braiding of the text then sometimes creates passages that are less directly representational but nevertheless unified in their overall effect, as with these alternations from “Touch”:

            “Wash your hands at the end of the cattery session.

            Cinquefoil, forget-me-not, marsh orchid, Sorrel, red clover, quaking grass.

            Wear the yellow rubber gloves for clearing out the litter trays. Wash your hands after.
            A gunshot. The noise of the automated scarecrow.

            Wear the pink rubber gloves for clearing out the food trays. Wash your hands after.

            The hawthorn blossom gone, the bramble blossom gone.

In a way, this structure feels like a natural advancement from the typical slice-of-life, where individual episodes accrete into a larger picture. In Seed, even these episodes have been further atomized and layered, and at its best a larger impression emerges not from compiled anecdotes but from the richness of the language itself.

However, this almost impressionistic, incantatory effect is difficult – maybe impossible – to maintain across the two hundred-some pages of Seed. It is a novel, after all; readers want a story, and a beautiful, complex one still lives at the center of the work. As I approached the climactic action, I found that I was manually separating out the relevant text as I read, my eyes skimming over italicized paragraphs as I pursued the two main characters. After I had finished, I went back to the online version and reread the “Rosemary” vine – I needed to be sure I had understood.

This is not to say there are no advantages to the print edition; wonderfully organic artwork by the author herself grace the covers and section dividers, and the separated “vines” do seem to be available as part of a limited edition boxed set. Perhaps most compellingly, the physical copy provides readers with the opportunity to immerse themselves in Walsh’s language far away from any phone, tablet or laptop. For fans of experimental fiction, this might be a necessity; you’re going to want to give Seed your undivided attention.

(No Alibis Press, Novel, June 3rd 2021)

You can keep up with Joanna Walsh’s work at her website or on Twitter @badaude.

Jefferson Lee is a Korean American, born in a small town in Western New York called Canandaigua. He’s written short fiction for Maudlin House, non-fiction for The Rumpus, and is a student at the Writer’s Studio. He lives and writes in San Francisco. His Twitter handle is @jlee4219.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.