Review: Anna MacDonaldon Olivia Laing

Some Devoted Act of Seeing: Crudo by Olivia Laing

I had forgotten the fizzing insomnia that accompanies reading the work of Olivia Laing: the nights of accelerated thought, something akin to over-caffeination or blue light exposure. The kind of agitation that leaves ripple marks in sedimentary rock, the insinuation of weather from another time and place. I had forgotten the seams of uncertainty that disrupt the self and any attempt to describe it. But, reading Crudo, it’s all coming back to me now.

I first came across Laing’s work in 2011 when her debut book, To The River, was published. At that time I was living in a small village in Warwickshire, spending the mornings writing at a makeshift desk, drafting a novella in which I re-imagined the attempted suicide of a woman and the accidental death of the man who jumped into the Thames from Hammersmith Bridge to save her. In the afternoons, my mind slick with thoughts of drowning, I walked the Avon canal, sometimes towards Stratford but more often in the opposite direction, past the stables and over the Edstone Aqueduct until I began to tire and turned towards home. When I needed a change of scene, I took the train to London and the British Library where I called up Virginia Woolf’s letters and notebooks, scanning drafts of what would become Mrs Dalloway. So, when I stumbled upon To the River and read on its jacket Woolf, walking, the River Ouse from source to sea, I thought, yes please, and added it to the pile of books I kept handy to the sofa and dipped into in the evenings.

But I didn’t read it then. When it was time to leave the village, I packed To the River along with the other books I had collected during my stay, paid the excess baggage fees and returned to my flat in Melbourne, where I found a home for it on bookshelves that were thick with dust after my time away.

In 2013, when Laing’s second book, The Trip to Echo Spring, was published I picked it up from the bookshop where I was working, took it straight from the United Book Distributors box it arrived in and carried it home at the end of a late shift. En route, stopping for afters at the bar across the street, I read the epigraph from John Berryman’s ‘Dream Song 36’: ‘Easy, easy, Mr. Bones. I is on your side’. Flicking through the pages, I skimmed the seven indications of alcohol dependence as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM-IV-TR), and paused each time I came to a photograph. I lingered over Hemingway with his father; and Fitzgerald standing among a clutter of books and household objects, Zelda kneeling, smiling up at him, two children keeping their distance from the domestic nightmare, but facing the camera, holding it to account; and Tennessee Williams in profile, utterly and unexpectedly beautiful; and Carver, a fish in one hand, a fishing rod in the other; and, most of all, Cheever, caught in motion on his bicycle, something intoxicating about his beaming face, the privacy of the moment of being in a moving body in a swiftly moving world. But after I had drained my glass I put the book in my bag and on the train home I looked out of the window, watching for the river crossing when I might otherwise have read. The next morning, before returning to the shop, I placed The Trip to Echo Spring on the shelf alongside To the River. And there they stayed.

Until 2016, that is, when a sales rep gave me an advance copy of The Lonely City. It is difficult to say for certain now why it was that, finally, I opened this book and began to read. I have always been captivated by cities and their particular ways of being. At that time, I was teaching an undergraduate course about literature and the city, introducing first year students to the figure of the urban walker, encouraging them to take the temperature of places they more often moved through without thought. Then again, years before, in what has come to feel like someone else’s life, I had worked as a curator of contemporary art and found myself increasingly drawn to a number of the artists with whom Laing is also fascinated, in particular Nan Goldin whose Heartbeat (2000-2001) I went almost daily to see at the Centre Pompidou in 2006, when I fled to Paris alone to get my thirtieth birthday out of the way and in private. (Incidentally, the same Pompidou show included Andy Warhol’s Ten Lizes (1963) which I worked to avoid on my way to Goldin’s room. Warhol, I thought, yawn. Laing has since changed my mind about his work, among other things, but more of that later.)

This experience of Goldin’s Heartbeat – which I would come to associate with Laing’s prose and is as much a testament to the trust and intimacy that can blossom between a work of art and its viewer as it is of the bond between Goldin and her family of friends – confirmed in me a growing frustration with works that shut down this space for intimate connection, and led me first to curate an exhibition, Intimacy (2008), at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and then, almost immediately, to depart from the professional art world. In 2016, although I was no longer working directly with visual art and artists, the potential for art – whatever the medium – to create a space for either intimacy or alienation continued to preoccupy me. Perhaps it was this that drew me to The Lonely City. Or, as Laing herself might say, perhaps not.

Whatever the cause, the effect was ecstatic. At the end of another night shift I hustled latecomers out the door, shut up shop, crossed the street and took up my window seat with a glass of wine. I began to read:

Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.

I read of Laing’s move, for love, from England to New York, and when love failed to keep its promises, of her experience of being cast adrift, clinging to the city as a shipwreck survivor might cling to the body of a raft. I read of her other love, for images, and her growing attachment to ‘the people behind them’ – Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Klaus Nomi, Nan Goldin, Greta Garbo, Jean-Michel Basquiat and others – ‘people who had grappled in their lives as well as work with loneliness and its attendant issues’. On the train home, blind to the river crossing, I continued to read. And in my flat, I read on into the night and early morning.

When I woke, it was to the image of Garbo, who spent her long retirement walking the streets of New York – ‘striding around the city in men’s shoes and a man’s trench coat, taking no shit from anyone, out solely for herself’ – and to the bitter aftertaste of Ted Leyson, the paparazzo who stalked her for the last eleven years of her life. Something worried me about the dynamic between Garbo and Leyson – one of those sedimentary ripples I have come to associate with Laing’s prose – and it wasn’t Leyson’s ‘dehumanising, … meat-making’ male gaze. Or at least, it wasn’t only that. Leyson believed that his stalking of Garbo was an act of love and admiration. From his perverse point of view, his gaze – mediated by the camera lens, one of the technologies Warhol cherished as a means of encountering while keeping his distance from others – was an intimate one. But what of Garbo, who rejected that intimacy and who was, potentially, alienated by it?

Laing’s analysis of Garbo and Leyson, which is part of a larger consideration of what it means to be a woman walking alone and unable to escape the male gaze, is riveting. She writes of Garbo’s refusal of the constrictions of femininity and her ‘radical self-possession’, even as this refusal, this self-possession, this denial of the intrusive gaze is captured in photographs taken by Leyson as he lurked outside her apartment building and stalked her through the city streets. Among these photographs is the final one taken before she died, which Leyson shot

through the window of the car that was taking [Garbo] to hospital, her long silver hair down around her shoulders, one veined hand covering the lower portion of her face. She’s looking at him through tinted glasses, her expression a queasy combination of fear, scorn and resignation; a gaze that should by rights have cracked the lens.

To look at a person in a private moment of being; this is, surely, part of the appeal of art. It is also part of the appeal of auto/biography, the genre in which all of Laing’s work, including her recent novel, Crudo, can be situated. This way of looking was one of the things that drew me back to the Centre Pompidou day after day to sit with Goldin’s Heartbeat: to bear witness to the intimate lives of others. Goldin’s photographs couldn’t be more different from Leyson’s. Heartbeat and the Ballad of Sexual Dependency are devoid of the grubby voyeurism that taints Leyson’s pictures and the viewer can therefore look without feeling that their gaze is intrusive. Laing’s work has the same quality. Her passionate reading of the lives and works of, say, Woolf, Berryman, Darger and others, but also, importantly, her refusal to moralise about them, means that she is able to capture aspects of her subjects’ private lives without shattering the privacy that maintains their sense of self. Laing has a gift for stitching her own story to the biographies of the artists and writers to whom she is drawn. It was this, among other things, which kept me transfixed as I finished The Lonely City and took down from its shelf first To the River, then The Trip to Echo Spring.

It is my habit, once hooked, to return to the beginning and read an author’s work chronologically. My mother tells me it’s the historian in me, and I’d be happy to concede the point, but I’m beginning to wonder if this impulse has more in common with a biographical approach than it does a strictly historical reading. And I’m disturbed by it, because I’ve always been suspicious of overly biographical readings of art. And yet, back in 2011, reading Woolf’s notebooks and letters alongside her published works (chronologically, of course), I was also noting her preoccupation with bodies of water and watching for clues of what I knew was to come. And on that morning after reading The Lonely City when I awoke to the image of Garbo looking back and shattering the lens, after I’d made coffee and taken To the River down from its shelf, I think I knew that in returning to the beginning (as I then thought) I was also looking for pieces of the puzzle from which a self is composed. The interior world and its armoured exterior, the psychic and the physical geographies of love and loss, intimacy and alienation: these were the coordinates by which I was learning to find my way through Laing’s prose. And it was a shock when, like Garbo, I found Laing looking back and shattering the lens of my retrospective reading.

Associated with Laing’s practice of auto/biography is a keen awareness of the limitations of the genre; limitations that are symptomatic of the fundamental difficulty of human communication, of being an individual and a citizen, one member of a community. Reading The Lonely City, I noted again and again references to ‘the essential unknowability of others’, ‘the precarious, imperfect means by which we express our interiors’, and ‘the silences [as described by David Wojnarowicz] of the inner life’. In To the River, I read – with an ‘outsider’s greedy eye’ – details of Virginia Woolf’s private and public lives and the personal events that led to Laing’s walk along the River Ouse, conscious all the while of ‘how alone man is, though he can touch and talk and gaze on others of his kind’, because ‘no one but he will ever see [the picture theatre within his head] played, and there is no medium on earth that can accurately catch its luminosity or speed’. In The Trip to Echo Spring, I read of the intimate connection between a writer’s life and work, and of the problem of ‘the common or garden issue of literary biography: that while a writer may draw very deeply on events they’ve experienced or felt, what they make of them is never straightforwardly factual and cannot be treated as such’.

‘It’s not always possible to plot where something starts’, Laing writes in To the River of her search for the source of the Ouse. And yet, in auto/biography we seek to excavate the beginning of a narrative, to find the source and from it, with hindsight, to elaborate a pattern of cause and effect. Laing goes back to the beginning – of, say, Darger’s difficult childhood – she discovers patterns – in, say, the suicides of Hemingway’s and Berryman’s fathers and their subsequent alcoholism – but, importantly, she writes against the unnatural way in which hindsight can flatten a life as it was lived. Here she is on Woolf, and the temptation to read her work in light of her later suicide:

Some patterns can only be observed at great distance, it’s true, but in order to view life in this way something else must be sacrificed, for when we look with hindsight from the final outcome back, we see events inflected with a meaning that the one who lived them never grasped. I don’t believe there is a single person who’s not troubled sometimes in the course of their days by a sense of occlusion or tenuousness, a sense that their actions occur within such a great expanse of darkness on either side that they might prove at the last incoherent and devoid of sense.

Thus, for all that Laing shines a light on the events lived by her subjects, she remains at a remove from the theatre of their inner lives at the time of living. Even as she reads their archives and published works, as she looks – in ‘some devoted act of seeing’ – into their lives of art she is (necessarily) still an outsider looking in, doing her job as ‘scrutiniser and witness’.

In Crudo, Laing’s most recent book and her debut novel, the ground has shifted again. She is still an outsider – this is, for Laing, the natural position for an artist – but her point of view – an auto-fictional eye, principally narrated in the third person, who borrows from the life and work of Kathy Acker – is directed towards the inner life and the picture theatre of the mind. As it must be for a citizen, this theatre is concerned with the world stage, in particular the events of the northern summer of 2017: wildfires across Europe, the conflagration at Grenfell Tower, threats to the NHS, the calving of the Larsen-C ice shelf, the rollback of Obamacare, the sacking of James Comey, the flight of young men from Mosul, a woman who liveblogs her rape on Instagram, North Korea’s threat to bomb Guam, far-right rallies in Charlottesville, the resignation of Steve Bannon, the removal of confederate statues across the US, Sinéad O’Connor’s breakdown on YouTube, floods in Houston, North Korea’s detonation of a sixth nuclear bomb, further threats to the NHS, the development of facial recognition software, further threat of nuclear war. ‘Kathy hated it, living at the end of the world, but she couldn’t help but find it interesting, watching people herself included compulsively foul their nest.’ Despite her anxiety that ‘she might exhaust the present and find herself out at the front, alone on the crest of time’, ‘[s]ince there’d be no end to it she might as well consign it to paper’. Kathy records everything in her notebook, she trawls the internet, in particular ‘her scrying glass, Twitter’, and captures in the ‘nearly right now’ of the summer of 2017 the inner life at the end of the world, living in the glare of global events, of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, in ‘the permanent present of the id’.

Alongside the public events of May to September 2017 is a private occasion. Crudo begins: ‘Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married.’ And the novel’s countdown to the end of the world is also a countdown to marriage; a portrait of the radical shift from a life lived solo to one that is shared. This is not an easy adjustment to make. It has unlooked for effects upon the inner self and its relation to the outside world. ‘You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone,’ observes Kathy, ‘but you don’t, you believe you are a calm untroubled or at worst melancholic person, you do not realise how irritable you are, how any little thing, the wrong kind of touch or tone, a lack of speed in answering a question, a particular cast of expression will send you into apoplexy because you are unchill, because you have not learnt how to soften your borders, how to make room.’ But how do you learn to make room, as a private individual and a citizen, how do you soften your intimate borders at a time when young men trying to escape Mosul are tortured by Iraqi security forces who suspect them of being IS combatants, when ‘fire and fury’ are brewing between the United States and North Korea, when the UK is fortifying its borders against Europe, when everywhere borders are being strengthened against refugees for whom no government, it seems, will soften and make room?

Kathy rails against the policing of geopolitical, personal and aesthetic borders. Just as  ‘she barely regard[s] herself as female’, she barely regards her fiction as novelistic. The novel is a ‘hopeless apparatus of guesswork and supposition, with which Kathy liked to have as little traffic as possible. She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and readymade’. Adopting a method that is reminiscent of her description of Woolf’s work, Laing (which is also to say, Kathy) experiments with memoir and biography and has composed a fiction that ‘contain[s] elements of each’. ‘Writing, she can be anyone. On the page the I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly.’ In Crudo, gender and genre are equally unstable: ‘Transitioning, [Kathy] loved the word, with its sense of constant emergence and zero arrival.’

Transitioning – that state of perpetual emergence, which refuses the falsely fortified borders between here and there, mine and yours, male and female, fact and fiction – might also offer a mode of obfuscating the forward thrust of time. (Or, perhaps not. Kathy is getting older. Cruelly, transitioning doesn’t appear to accommodate the constant emergence of youth, the zero arrival at middle age.) Is it this that gives Crudo the impression of the permanent present (even as it is principally narrated in the past tense), that rare quality of capturing the experience of living personally and politically in the ‘nearly right now’? Kathy meditates upon the problem of historical representation in a way that recalls Laing’s consideration of hindsight in earlier works. Looking back at New York in the 1980s, at the ‘epicentre of the epicentre’ of the AIDS crisis, which is, also, the epicentre of The Lonely City, Kathy observes:

This was the problem with history, it was too easy to provide furnishings but forget the attitudes, the way you became a different person according to what knowledge was available, what experiences were fresh and what had not yet arisen in a personal or global frame. … She was trying to reconstruct attitudes, to understand ambient levels of prejudice and fear.

Crudo is, among other things, a rollcall of the attitudes, prejudices, and fears that coloured the northern summer of 2017. With that luminosity and speed which, in To the River, Laing found wanting in any attempt to communicate the picture theatre of the mind, Crudo captures the relentless newsreel of the global frame and the experience of living within it: the shifts in Kathy’s person in light of fresh knowledge and the context of current events.

To read Crudo is to live inside the skin of one of the archives Laing reads so passionately in To the River, The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City. A novel that captures without containing a single summer, it is already out of date and unlikely ever to become dated. Archives show their age in curious ways; they are at once as old as the time they document and render that time perpetually now. As such Crudo embodies, par excellence, constant emergence and zero arrival. Kathy may struggle to soften her borders, but in her first work of fiction, Laing has found a way to make room for the intimate connection that can exist between art and its audience so that a reader may look, without shattering the lens, onto the picture theatre of an inner life.

Works cited:

Olivia Laing, To the River: A journey beneath the surface, Cannongate, Edinburgh, 2011.
—The Trip to Echo Spring: Why writers drink, Cannongate, Edinburgh, 2013.
—The Lonely City: Adventures in the art of being alone, Cannongate, Edinburg, 2016.
—Crudo: A novel, Picador, London, 2018.