By William Tham
Two books by the British writer, Olivia Laing, are curiously offbeat in their fusion of travelogues and memoir, which are best read back-to-back. The Trip to Echo Spring takes the uniquely American form of the road trip, to the Deep South and eventually the shoreline of the Pacific Northwest, filtered through her very British perspective, passing through towns and cities where writers ranging from Fitzgerald to Hemingway and Carver to Tennessee Williams drank away for a multitude of reasons. Very much like her first book, To the River, which weaves in a walk along the River Ouse and the stories associated with it, including the suicide of Virginia Woolf, Echo Spring contains elements of memoir, touching on relationships and a damaged childhood.
But it is in the third book, The Lonely City, where Laing’s fusion of facts and memoir is most concerted. She draws parallels not just between artists and the loneliness, but also her own sense of isolation in the wake of a jagged end to a relationship that left her alone in New York. For her, “[l]oneliness is personal and it is also political.” Her subjects, more focused and intimate than in her previous book, come to life in the pages. Through the text, she weaved together artists from various points of the 20th century, all of whom moved through New York at one point or another. Her biographical subjects – Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Edward Hopper and Klaus Nomi to name a few – all of whom battled loneliness in some form or another, amplified by the city.
The sense of isolation imposed by cities is curious, despite the fact that they crush people together. There is a facelessness to uninterrupted architecture, filled with people who have either call it home or are just transient visitors or newcomers. It breeds an aloofness that prevents the formation of the necessary human bonds that tie us together. We can be physically close but a psychological separation remains. Perhaps this is why Laing’s book hits so hard. I bought a copy of the book on a street that I had walked along for years, yet I never knew anything about the people who lived and worked on even the short stretch where the bookshop stood. And in an age of instant communication and digital media, of fleeting attention spans and the shallowness of online dating, Laing’s meditations on the counterintuitive sense of separation that the Internet imposed struck especially hard.
There was a curious sadness woven through the course of the narrative, which itself was interspersed with almost voyeuristic snatches into Laing’s own life as she navigated lost love and an escape from her own loneliness. Was it a temporary state? An endless trap with no way out?
Perhaps it was necessary for her to be temporarily alone to learn how the human heart and human nature operated. For her she arrived at two cures: “learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.”
William Tham is a Malaysian author of two books, Kings of Petaling Street, and The Last Days.