Girls Fall Down: An Online Symposium

The Catastrophe of Bodily Living

by Joshua Paetkau

Review: Maggie Helwig Girls Fall Down
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2008, 266 pages.  

Bodies rushing along at breakneck speeds through underground tunnels; impersonal and unattached they come and go in steady even streams. As if they formed a sort of modern analogy of Epicurean materialism, bodies raining down evenly through the plumbless void. What could cause them to break their eternal movement of incessant isolation? What could cause this solitary congregation to turn its attention outwards?

For Epicureanism the answer was the clinamen, the unpredictable deviation of falling atoms that causes them to form a world. Regarding this phenomena Jason E. Smith writes:

“The soul is the clinamen of the body. It is how it falls, and what makes it fall in with other bodies. The soul is its gravity. This tendency for certain bodies to fall in with others is what constitutes a world”.1

Following this definition of the soul I am tempted to suggest that Toronto’s Maggie Helwig offers us, in her novel Girls Fall Down, something akin to a geography of the soul. The novel gathers its world in the wake of a fallen body, the body of a young girl. Here, at the beginning, it is not predetermined what sort of world this will be. Concern, confusion, and callousness all mark this first encounter, this initial collapse.

The theme of falling, and of bodies, continues to dominate the novel in a decided yet ambiguous way. As one character falls deeper and deeper into the delusions of paranoid schizophrenia the subjective states of other, allegedly normal, characters are called into question. Revealing the petty fixations and obsessions that are, in many ways, minor landmarks of modern psychological geography Helwig challenges the ghettoization of mental illness. Bioterrorism, or epidemics prey on the minds of all giving rise to a fear of bodies and a disintegration of the body politic. The distinct manifestation of some of these social fears, in particularly that of bodily contamination, in individuals with mental illness is treated by Helwig with keen insight.

At the same time the reflexive capacity Helwig’s schizophrenic character, marked with obsessions, is such that he is incapable of responsible action. The obsessive paralysis found here, however, mirrors that found in the public and intimate lives of the other characters and, indeed, of the city itself. Terror begins to breed on the minds of the city’s inhabitants and this fear, of the other, the unknown, of contamination, spreads beyond the realm of the purely political even to the amorous lives of its citizens.  In the end, perhaps, terror or paranoia is itself the spreading sickness that takes on a different form in the imagination of each.

In the end, however, the novel resonates strongly with love. Love, not as sentiment but as resilience, where, against all odds, falling bodies lead not the indifference of passersby, or to the fearful bulwarks of obsession, but to the permanence of a world.

1. Jason E. Smith in  “The Soul on Strike.” In Franco Berardi The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy ( Cambridge MIT Press, 2009), 3.


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