Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride - review by James Purdon

James Purdon

Rooms with a View

Strange Hotel


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‘The present is more and more the day of the hotel,’ declared Henry James in The American Scene. It still is. We are all hoteliers now, at least potentially. The private two-bed flat competes for custom with James’s Waldorf-Astoria, and the ‘hotel spirit’ – James’s name for the combination of superficial bustle and intense loneliness generated by modern society – has become a general condition. The hotel was, in a sense, the original social medium: a public space from which privacy had been banished to a series of rented rooms, where guests could act out their lives before ‘the footlights of publicity’. Amid the flash and glamour of the open lobby, society came to see and be seen.

It’s not surprising that James, an inveterate lobby-haunter if ever there was one, should have thought of the hotel first of all as a place for public performance. But the hotel has its zones of privacy also, its interchangeable rooms playing host nightly to a varying cast of inhabitants. If the public spaces of lobby and bar encourage promiscuous mingling and passing acquaintance, for a solo traveller like the narrator of Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel, the hotel room’s carefully constructed illusion of comfort and familiarity can trigger reflections, memories, moments of heightened imagination. Like the penitent in the confessional – or the reader of a novel – the hotel guest inhabits a solitude shared with others at one remove.

‘Not all hotels are created equal,’ observes McBride’s narrator; yet ‘once distilled all hotel rooms are essentially alike, if not exactly the same’. She should know: Strange Hotel records an exhausting fictional itinerary of nights spent in, by my count, more than 170 cities, from Dublin to Delhi and further afield. For the most part, these stopovers appear in the simple form of lists, an occasional cryptic ‘x’ denoting, we eventually infer, those occasions when the narrator chooses to forgo her solitude, if not her loneliness, in favour of a casual sexual hook-up. Five rooms, though, come into sharper focus in the novel’s main narrative sections, set in Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland and Austin. Or, more precisely, set in the small and temporarily hospitable space of a hotel room in each city, ‘a place built for people living in a time out of time’.

McBride’s returning readers will have met this narrator before, although she is never directly named, and it takes until nearly the end of the book before her identity is clearly established. That revelation is withheld from the reader with such evident care that it’s hard to justify going into great detail in a review, but it isn’t saying too much to acknowledge that this is a kind of sequel to The Lesser Bohemians, albeit a self-contained one, and that familiarity with the earlier novel, while not obligatory, adds context and emotional resonance to some of the more oblique passages in Strange Hotel. The prose is also a little simpler than in McBride’s previous work. It’s still full of its own lexical and grammatical idiosyncrasies – a sky is ‘velour black, pumped with racket, gored by orange’; distant traffic is ‘audible but not uncomforting in its part as the perpetual route to away’ – but this voice is that of a speaker for whom ‘a good old linguistic knot’ no longer seems the adequate medium, and who finds herself searching for ‘other configurations’ to organise her experiences.

What plays out in all these hotel rooms, these places outside the ordinary flow of time? A great deal of thought and remembering. These are interior pieces, both in their setting and in their compelling transcription of a mind examining itself, its surroundings, its past, its processes of self-reflection and self-deception. Each city brings a different set of conditions – a hot summer night in Avignon, a dark winter night in Oslo – but the wider world appears only in glimpses: a distant circling gull, a church spire. For a different kind of writer, these glimpses might serve as reminders of the public life, the life shared with others beyond the confines of the hotel room; in Strange Hotel they seem merely fragments of a world, the observer of which has become, or wishes to become, indifferent to such possibilities of connection.

Aside from a professionally haughty check-in clerk and a functional room service waiter, the only other characters she encounters in the course of the novel are the few men whose approaches she variously encourages or rebuffs. She seeks sex less for intimacy than as an efficient method of satisfying a purely physical appetite (an early section recounts a humiliating incident in which, having declined a neighbour’s advances, she masturbates to hotel pornography before falling asleep with the television still playing loudly). This is sex as contract: ‘The paths of people uninterested in mess occasionally, anonymously, intersect, then frequently painlessly, re-separate with neither party suffered to lick up any scraps or tend another’s wounds.’

The wounds themselves, left by love and grief, are perhaps the novel’s real subject. Gradually we learn the narrator’s shapes of thought and movement, the feelings to which she compulsively returns and those which she repeatedly avoids. We intuit the presence of a gap in the middle of the story, an emotional chasm which is responsible for her recurrent sense of vertigo. By the final section, that feeling of vertigo becomes overpowering, until at last she allows herself to fall back through layers of memory to a final, remembered hotel room long in the past, where her life might have taken a quite different turn.

There is a certain satisfaction here, albeit of a slightly clinical, psychoanalytic kind: by revisiting the scene of trauma, the damaged psyche is able to repair itself, to resume a healthier form of connection with the rest of the world and with its own desires. Afterwards, the novel concludes with another list of destinations, the telling ‘x’ now indicating a new pattern of monogamy that suggests a happier sort of ending. That seems perhaps a little too straightforward a solution for this self-entangled mind. But then again, why make things more complicated than they need to be? That, after all, is what hotels are for. We make our messes, pack our bags and someone else tidies up.

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