Through a friend, I recently discovered the Scottish writer Janice Galloway and her first novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989). Sometimes books make their way into your brain at exactly the right time. I had my copy for a few weeks but happened to start reading it on a day when I needed something completely distracting, something that would absorb me fully for a few solid hours. As luck would have it, this was the perfect book for that.
This is one of those books I love writing about because it falls outside of “conventional” writing and so I find it harder to describe, harder to pull apart. The Trick is to Keep Breathing has very little story, its timeline jumps and twists and inverts, it introduces characters at random and with no explanation, and even the formatting runs askew all over the page. All of this makes for concentrated reading. The overall effect is very intense. Since some of those descriptions could sound negative, let me say how much I loved the book.
It is a grief story and it’s also very much an internal monologue/dialogue. I say dialogue because a lot of the book works as a conversation that a woman is having with herself and with the universe. The kind of conversation a person finds herself holding in a moment of pure panic. Except this is panic that lasts, that just goes on and on. And effectively, the narrator, Joy, is writing from a place of deep trauma. I won’t give any details about the root of her trauma because one aspect of the book’s interest is seeing how this is revealed.
Galloway sets up the book to look at this trauma in a unique way. Joy writes:
I can’t remember the last week with any clarity.
I want to be able to remember it because it was the last time anything was in any way unremarkable. Eating and drinking routinely, sleeping when I wanted to. It would be nice to remember but I don’t.
Now I remember everything all the time.
There are two things about these deceptively simple lines. The first is the word “unremarkable” – such an easy word, but in the context of the novel practically shouts. Because of what has happened, life’s easy bits now take up too much space. Eating, drinking, sleeping. These are no longer a given. These actions are now remarkable. And then that last line is, to me, where the book’s entire premise lies. It signals that Joy’s world has lost its sense of order. She states this quite calmly, Now I remember everything all the time. But just imagine the force of this kind of constant remembering. What this really means is that Joy cannot get beyond that “everything” (which is both one single moment and her entire lifetime of memories) and so the next 230 pages take up the task of showing exactly what this actually feels like.
Much of what I’ve read about the book deals with Joy’s experience in clinical terms—this is what depression looks like, for example. The book certainly does do this, and there is a quite eviscerating criticism of health care practices surrounding mental illness to be found in these pages, but I couldn’t help thinking more how The Trick is to Keep Breathing does something much simpler and more profound at the same time. I most admired the novel because it does not shy away from depicting the messiness of strong emotion. And in particular a woman’s strong emotions. There are so many people throughout the book who want Joy to pretend to be handling things better. Who don’t want her emotional overflow. She wants this too, at times. But the depth of her feeling is just too strong. This is highly inconvenient to everyone about her. Especially as she does awkward, dangerous, discomfort-producing things. She puts people off, because she just feels too much. And ultimately she isn’t fit for “society” and must “go away” for a time in the hopes of finding her way back.
Finally, the oddness of the prose suited me immensely. I love this kind of close interior narration, even when the subject is dark and sometimes difficult, and especially because Galloway does such a good job of showing Joy’s erratic movement through thought and feeling. It’s all very raw, and confusing in the best of ways. To finish, here is just a small sample, from one of the novel’s most important scenes:
The first symptom of non-existence is weightlessness.
The second is singing in the ears, a quiet acceptance of the unreality of all things. Then the third takes over in earnest. The third is shaking.
I knew it couldn’t be me.
I didn’t exist.
The miracle had wiped me out.