Tag Archives: Olivia Laing

Books to Look Out for in June 2018: Part Two

Cover imageWhereas there was no contest for my first June selection’s lead title, two novels jostle for that position in the second. Tim Winton wins by a whisker with The Shepherd’s Hut. Jaxie Clackton has long since put home behind him when a dramatic event leaves him with nothing, catapulting him into a journey across the arid Western Australian wilderness. ‘Fierce and lyrical, The Shepherd’s Hut is a story of survival, solitude and unlikely friendship. Most of all it is about what it takes to keep hope alive in a parched and brutal world’ say the publishers. A new book from Winton is always something to look forward to for me.

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City met with tidal waves of critical acclaim in 2016 and deservedly so. Crudo is her much-tweeted-about first novel. Just turned forty, Kathy is coming to terms with the idea of a lifelong commitment against a backdrop of mad Trump tweets and post-referendum Britain, wondering if it’s worth the effort. ‘A Goodbye to Berlin for the 21st century, Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic peripatetic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker . . .’ say the publishers somewhat intriguingly given that Acker died in 1997.Cover image

The protagonist of Caoilinn Hughes’ debut Orchid and the Wasp also seems to be dealing with personal and global crises. The daughter of a wealthy dysfunctional family, Gael is finding her way around the London club scene and New York’s art world as the Occupy movement gains momentum. ‘Written in heart-stoppingly vivid prose, Orchid & the Wasp is a modern-day Bildungsroman that chews through sexuality, class and contemporary politics and crackles with joyful fury and anarchic gall’ say the publishers which sounds a little frenetic. Hughes is an award-winning poet which is always a lure for me.

Winding back to the scorching Los Angeles summer of 1965, A. G. Lombardo’s Graffiti Palace follows African-American graffiti artist Americo Monk as he tries to make his way home through the race riots sparked by the arrest of Marquette Frye. Monk maps his route using the intricately depicted identity tags on the streets, recorded in a notebook that both cops and gangs are eager to get their hands on. ‘Bursting at the seams with memorable characters – including Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, sewer-dwelling crack dealers and a legendary Mexican graffiti artist no-one’s even sure exists – Graffiti Palace conjures into being a fantastical, living, breathing portrait of Los Angeles in 1965’ say the publishers a little dramatically but perhaps justifiably so.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this selection of June titles as it began with another author whose books I’ve enjoyed. Rupert Thomson’s Never Anyone but You is based on the true story of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore who meet and fall in love in early twentieth-century small town France. Moving to Paris, they immerse themselves in the world of Hemingway and Dali, producing a series of avant-garde photographs. On the eve of war, they flee to Jersey where their anti-Nazi propaganda puts their lives in danger. ‘Never Anyone but You explores the gripping true story of two extraordinary women who challenged gender boundaries, redefining what it means to be a woman, and ultimately risked their lives in the fight against oppression. Theirs is a story that has been hidden in the margins of history’ according to the publishers which sounds fascinating.

That’s it for June’s new titles. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more and if you missed the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

 

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Cover imageI was attracted to Olivia Laing’s new book partly because of its setting – that old New York lure – partly because I’d enjoyed her exploration of the relationship between writers and drink, The Trip to Echo Spring. In The Lonely City she explores loneliness through the work of four artists – Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Andy Warhol and Henry Darger – prompted by her own descent into chronic loneliness after a love affair collapsed leaving her untethered.

Laing applies the same forensic research skills to her artists as she did to the four writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, videos and the artists’ works. Anyone who has ever seen a reproduction of Nighthawks will understand why she chose Hopper as one of her subjects. Warhol may seem a less likely choice given the incessant party that seemed to surround him but, as she persuasively argues, that was a symptom of his loneliness. Both David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger were new to me although when I googled him I was struck by the familiarity of an image of Wojnarowicz, lips stitched together as part of his work as an AIDS activist. You may recognise the svelte young man shot at various New York locations wearing a Rimbaud mask which seems to be his best known work. Darger’s art seems the most strange with its watercolours depicting children rebelling against their enslavement by adults. Darger spent much of his life as a janitor and was almost certainly mentally ill. His paintings were found by a neighbour just weeks before he died. Woven through her studies of these four are Laing’s own experiences and her exploration of urban loneliness in the modern age.

I remember being struck by Laing’s graceful writing style in The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City is marked by the same elegance of expression – her descriptions of some of the artworks make you want to get on the next plane to see them. That said, this is not an easy book to read: it’s intensely cerebral at times but that’s not the reason. Laing’s own experience of loneliness is raw and painful, and her eloquence makes it all the more so. She unflinchingly articulates the shame loneliness makes us feel, the assumption that only the pathetic are lonely despite statistics which suggest its increase in modern society. Her exploration of loneliness during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s is particularly affecting – the isolation of both the bereaved and those stigmatised by the ignorance of others, starved of touch or company, is heartrending. As she points out her observations on our love affair with connectedness via the internet and its effects on our increasing physical alienation may not be original but they’re no less persuasive for all that and her exploration of its history is fascinating, if hair-raising, with its descriptions of internet entrepreneur Josh Harris‘s willingness to put every aspect of his relationship online. Laing concludes her study with the observation that ‘loneliness, longing, does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive’ – comforting words for those who need it and wise ones, too.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for Laing’s book you might like to read an extract and the feature it prompted in the Observer a week or so ago.

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why writers drink

Cover imageOlivia Laing’s book opens with a vivid anecdote about two men, both visiting lecturers at the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One is a well-established author with many accolades under his belt, the other soon will be. Both of them are in deep trouble: they’re on their way to the liquor store – it’s nine o’clock in the morning and they’re already drunk. The writers are John Cheever and Raymond Carver, two of the six authors through whom Laing chooses to explore the relationship between alcohol and writing. The other four are Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Berryman. In her introduction Laing explains that it’s something about which she’s long been curious but that she also has a more personal interest – she grew up in family where alcohol was a problem.

Drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, biographies and the writers’ work, Laing examines their problems with drink in forensic detail. She decides that the best way to make sense of her extensive research is to take a trip around the States, following in her subjects’ footsteps. She travels to New York, New Orleans and Key West, then to Port Angeles in the far North West and it is in the passages describing her journey that her own writing sings out. Some of her descriptions of the landscape she travels through are quite lovely, and her observations of fellow passengers are sometimes funny, always astute. She visits a therapist, goes to an AA meeting and delves through medical analyses of alcoholism, weaving her experiences into the lives of her subjects and quoting from their writing extensively. It’s an impressive piece of work written with empathy and insight but I have to confess that towards the end I found myself skipping through some chapters, particularly after reading about John Berryman whose struggles with drink are particularly bleak. The final chapter holds out some hope – Laing begins it by telling us that her mother’s partner, now friend rather than lover, has been sober for twenty-three years and that both Cheever and Carver won their battles, much-needed good news after the two suicides (Hemingway and Berryman), string of broken marriages, ill-health and breakdowns that have come before.

And the title? It’s a reference to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which one of the characters says ‘I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring’, a nickname for the liquor cabinet named after a brand of bourbon. Laing interprets it as ‘the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.’ Well worth a read but not for the faint-hearted.