Book Review

The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing

I'm an abyss filling up with regret and alcohol at equal measure, like a really wet martini.

I’m an abyss filling up with regret and alcohol at equal measure, like a really wet martini.

There is nothing to be found at the bottom of a bottle other than a circular piece of glass.

Photo on 05-04-2016 at 00.54

It’s been a while since my last post. I’ve been distracted by many things, one of which is the incessant pull of alcohol, another of which is the many hours of Googling and Wikipedia-ing that Olivia Laing’s spellbinding but simultaneously bleak book, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, has set me on. This is the kind of book I wish I’d written, the kind of book I’d feel like I’d never be allowed to write, the kind of book I love, adore, read voraciously and aggressively, the kind of book that leaves me on the final page waiting for more, wanting more, then running to the nearest Waterstones and buying the author’s latest book with no thought of when or if I’ll ever get round to reading it.[i]

The Trip to Echo Spring is part travelogue, part essay, part biography. Laing travels across the United States of America, using pretty much every known mode of transport at some point. She visits New York, New Orleans, Key West and a small town near Seattle, and bounces between and passes through many smaller towns as she makes numerous literary pilgrimages. For this is a book about books, a book about writers, and a book about alcoholism. Taking as its lynchpins six famous writer-alcoholics[ii], Laing traces the influences and effects of alcohol on their work, as well as exploring the connections between literary careerism and the love of the bottle.

Those writers are:

  • Ernest Hemingway
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Tennessee Williams
  • Raymond Carver
  • John Berryman (The Dream Songs poet)
  • John Cheever (who?[iii])

All of them, bar the last two, drank themselves to death, though both of those who didn’t died youngish as a result of their intoxication. And despite this substance abuse, addiction, all six of them produced works that are broadly considered to be amongst the most significant within the Western canon. Both A Streetcar Named Desire and The Great Gatsby are amongst the best-known fictions in the English-speaking world, and Ernest Hemingway as a pop cultural figure is one of the best known icons of excess and adventurism. In the work of these men there are the obvious external distractions such as bullfighting, deep sea fishing, big game hunting, adultery, travel; but in more than one there is stripped-back, nuanced, prose, elsewhere there is the counterpointed flashy decadence that masks a broken individual; but throughout the work of all six is alcohol as flawed panacea, fixing the mind for a moment whilst opening the self up to greater abuses from within and without than the things one is originally drinking to avoid. It is disease and cure, a temporary solution to a permanent problem.

Laing’s text is full of scientific detail about addiction and the effects of alcohol on the body. She writes with a painful familiarity of the wash of great and grave anxiety that descends about 12 hours after the alcoholic’s most recent drink is consumed, an internal collapse I’m used to fighting on a daily basis. I feel, as things escalate/descend, that the hour of the afternoon where my body first craves a straightener gets earlier and earlier. And the longer I deny the impulse to drink, the harder comes the consumption once I allow myself, whatever time it is when that begins. Today, it’s already begun, but it’s measured (kind of). By that I mean I haven’t cracked open the gin yet.

Laing talks about engagement with literature and alcoholic intoxication as similar impulses. Neither changes the world around the self, neither creates or exaggerates anything, but both muffle. Both act as a dampener between reality and the self. These writers write and drink because they are avoiding the moment they are in, due to unhappiness. Yet alcohol directly causes lower levels of general happiness and thus an increased sense of despair, which in turn it hides by slowing the movement of thought within the brain. I didn’t pay close attention to the science bits, but they are there and they are detailed. Laing has done her research, medically as well as literarily.

The Trip to Echo Spring is filled with quotations and evidence of wide reading. Laing summarises stories, novels, letters and journals; she describes academic debate and she visits obscure places that were fleetingly, and coincidentally, important to multiple members of her disparate cast. As she travels, she explores America, its buildings, its people, its geography and its nature. She also looks into her own past and the influence of alcoholism on her mother’s partner as she grew up. This personal narrative, the historical one, is perhaps the weakest thread of the book. Although the story of a lesbian couple scandalising provincial England through their shared child-rearing in the 1970s sounds quite engaging, this woman’s alcoholism is far less shocking and far less crushing than the abuse and self-destruction that covers every page. Laing’s mother’s partner ends up living sober for multiple decades, happy in the present day of the book, whereas alcoholism seems elsewhere to be something that is truly unbeatable and ever-present. Unless, of course, one joins Alcoholics Anonymous, an organisation that seems more like a religion the more I read about it.

The idea is thus:

Alcoholism, any addiction, can be cured by faith. Not necessarily faith in a Christian god as the Bible describes it, but faith in “a Power greater than ourselves”. It is the power of belonging, I suppose.

Laing repeatedly emphasises the solitary nature of the alcoholic, and I for one have watched my drinking grow in direct contrast to my social life’s withering. I felt, perhaps, this was always inevitable, and having recently skimmed through the first, rough, unhappy, novel I wrote 4/5 years ago, I can see that foreshadowed. I believe there is an emptiness at the heart of every individual, and it is only by burying that we are able to continue. Intoxication is the easiest method, by removing the self from its natural ability to engage or understand its own essence. Writing or reading prose, poetry, drama, is another way. Listening to music. Watching Netflix for a six hour stretch. Driving for ten hours just for something to do. Working relentlessly, all the time. Denying yourself the things that fulfil you, as punishment. Pretending you don’t want to be a drag queen hip hop performer because being a depressed, alcoholic, literary blogger/bar manager is easier and can be done with less human interaction.

I’m digressing. Because that’s what alcoholics do. The blackouts of the nighttime seep into the sober (or soberish) hours, and with that the sense of continuing time ebbs. Chronology falls apart and conversations and arguments become tough, and all these people – especially Tennessee Williams – lost their ability to create perfect prose as time went on, due to the drinking, due to the destructive effects of the booze. And I’ve got all the rot without any of the wonder. I’ve poisoned myself before creating Art, before achieving what I wanted. I haven’t sunk into alcoholism alongside my evolution as a tortured artist, I’ve simultaneously collapsed alcoholically, emotionally and creatively. I’m a wasteland, an abyss filling up with regret and alcohol at equal measure, like a really wet martini. Because I spend my time drinking alone, I’m doing nothing to regret other than the act of doing nothing. Instead I’m left, regretting my inability to polish the novels enough, regretting getting into a position where I could publish my travel book (somehow, having been created with the least effort, it is the least flawed of my works, primarily because it embraces, rather than avoids, a confrontation with my “issues”), regretting the life decisions I made. It is the opposite of nostalgia, a history-centred view that regards happiness as little more than Hope. I have moments of joy now, yes, it is true. There is the puppy, and the few friends I do still see I am able to be cheered by quickly. And there’s the booze. And there’s the creeping sense that all I need to do is change everything for everything to be changed.

The Trip to Echo Spring is about how writing and alcohol are escape routes from depression, but also how they don’t have to be. Laing recounts several trips out drinking during her travels, but none of the evenings become excessive and nothing regrettable happens. Laing writes (and has written since) best-selling, critically acclaimed books, but she isn’t doing so to escape from her own thoughts.

And that, I suppose, is the message that seeps out, slips out, from this gently didactic volume. Life can be pleasant, but one has to believe that it is. Life can be healthy and filled with people and places and gentle, controlled, pleasures, but one must never want an out, one must never need an out. Laing seems to sympathise, or empathise, but never to quite understand. I don’t drink as heavily as I do now that I’m not writing because it’s equivalent, I drink as I do because there is no part of me that grabs me by the psychological collar when I start drinking and screams, “YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DRINK SO WHY CAN’T YOU DO IT PROPERLY”, like there is when I try to write. Too many rejections and not enough effort since, too much work for money when work for the soul was what I needed. Too much time spent, wasted (in both senses), when I should have been recovering from the set backs and trying again, starting again. The writer’s eye, like the liver, is honed by practice, not by depression. Suffering is not the same as learning, diving deeper into the internal mush doesn’t move the self closer to an understood and universal truth. There is nothing to be found at the bottom of a bottle other than a circular piece of glass.

Laing’s book is great, though not quite aimed at people just tipping over the edge of psychological collapse, and thus my reading was too steeped in painful self-recognition to be truly objective. I recognised myself in the scientific descriptions of alcoholism, that is, not in the creation of lauded literature.

A good book. I think.

_______________________

[i] As I’m sure any eager-eyed regular readers of my blog will have already guessed, this is destined to be one of my posts riddled with footnotes, asides and masturbatory self-analysis.

One day last week, in the few hours between waking up and heading to work for another 12/15 hour shift, I tried to find a nice section from one of my old, abandoned novels to post here just to keep things moving, y’know. Even though I spent about two hours (pulling my bald hair out the while) I couldn’t find anything that I could extract as an episodic standalone piece that wasn’t either a) horribly bleak and depressing, b) quite perverse, but with a real sense of revulsion and aggression towards the idea of the sexual impulse – sexuality from a self-hating perspective or c) kinda condoning cocaine use, so I left the house without posting anything.

If I hadn’t been making my search whilst both stressed and under the influence of alcoholic withdrawal symptoms, I’m sure I’d’ve found something eventually (oh, I had one bit from the John the Baptist novel, but it was incredibly blasphemous and my whole issue was the attempt to avoid causing offence) but the failure worried me. I know I haven’t been writing enough recently to use “writing” as a source of self-worth, but until then I’d never considered that maybe everything I wrote when I was spewing out prose at a horrendous rate might have been too influenced by anger and depression to hold any watertight value. Even the shitting scenes have cut away moments of aggressive lust, and that’s the case in both the contemporary, powdery, novel I wrote in my early 20s and the heavy, Biblico/philosopho one I wrote in my mid-20s. Maybe the novel I squeeze out in my late 20s will be the one, the third time lucky, but at this stage it looks unlikely.

I understand my own neuroses far better for this year and a half I’ve spent writing an open diary masquerading (to the blind outsider) as an informative website about books, and I fear that everything I produced in the past is too tainted by them to be successful. Now, without the outlet of supposed creativity, I’ve sunk into quite serious alcoholism and I’ve become convinced that the only thing that can truly save me is an escapist and fantastic experience, such as walking for weeks at a time somewhere far away until I’ve sweated out every drop of booze and formed myself again, my smashed body rebuilding itself better equipped to create, better equipped to read, better equipped to… be.

Sorry, the point I was going to make when I started this footnote was that I currently own about 80 books I haven’t read, because even though my reading has slowed and my writing has stopped, my compulsion to purchase books has not abated. As is illustrated in this still relevant YouTube video:

[ii] All of whom are dead, white males, which is a little bit disappointing in the 21st century, particularly given that two of them aren’t household names, whilst three are blockbuster forced-reading-at-school type figures and the sixth is, well, somewhere between the two. First term undergraduate text figure, maybe final year of school. I dunno. (I’m talking about Raymond Carver.)

[iii] I first heard about The Trip to Echo Spring when I was in my hallowed year as a postgraduate student (another alcoholic trope is love of nostalgia). A few of my classmates (friends, really, though that’s a word I hasten to avoid nowadays) and I went to see a reading at a book shop cum members’ bar in Soho, at one of Faber Social’s events. I don’t remember what lured us in, but it was a reading given by Olivia Laing and a novelist who’d once been a bartender (how I hoped, nay, expected, that one day I’d be stood in a similar space in front of similar middle class whites saying the same thing), and Laing stood out as the better writer. In her speech, an extract from this book (then newly published), she mentioned six writers as if they were of equal importance. I’d read something by all of them except Cheever who, to be frank, I’d never heard of. At least one other person I was with had also never heard his name, and in the two or three years since that reading, I’ve encountered mention of him on literally one occasion, and my response then was “oh, it’s that alcoholic writer Olivia Laing spoke about who I’d never heard of.” Laing sells him well, though: she writes at great length about several of his works, and ‘The Swimmer’, a short story she returns to again and again, sounds truly mesmerising and is something I feel I should go out of my way to read. But, then again, do I need the books of another dead white male on my leaning pile? Not really, no.

4 comments on “The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing

  1. Flavius D

    Drink causes depressIon. It has a massive neurochemical effect. If this is an issue for you, go to your gp and get referred to booze counselling. It was the best thing I ever did. I still drink, but not as much. I wasn’t able to cut down until I got support. years ago now. Huge difference to mood and concentration.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrea W

    You can get a podcast of Cheever’s Swimmer on the New Yorker for free – Anne Enright reads it.

    Like

  3. Pingback: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver – The Triumph of the Now

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