The Trip to Echo Spring, by Olivia Laing
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink
Arguably the finest work by the great Italian innovator Luigi Pirandello is his absurdist satire Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). It is very funny in a way that Olivia Laing’s second book is not. Yet, reading her opinionated and irritatingly haphazard narrative, Pirandello’s title reverberates. Laing sets out to explain why writers drink, and fails – but, then again, why does anyone drink? Why does anyone do anything? In hindsight she may have been more successful in attempting to explain why writers write. That is a dense and complex question, and one worth considering, although it does not appear to concern Laing.
Very quickly in The Trip to Echo Spring, with its breezy mix of biography, travel, pseudopsychology, extracts of fiction, snatches of science, personalised literary criticism and even authorial memoir, it becomes clear that Laing is an author in need of a subject.
The book also reveals a great deal about a reader’s voyeuristic curiosity – and with regard to that I bow my head in shame. How I regret reading it! Yet why would any reader not want to know more about major American writers such as John Cheever, Raymond Carver and, most specifically, the enduringly tragic poet John Berryman? Also included are the brittle, self-destructive F Scott Fitzgerald and the swaggering Ernest Hemingway, both of whose bones have already been picked clean by biographers far superior to Laing, while Tennessee Williams, the doomed playwright of fragile dreams, has long since yielded up the contents of his soul, revealing everything there was to tell.
In short there is nothing fresh or original in Laing’s observations and her chatty, conversational tone, with its occasional literary flourishes: the line, for example, that New York “impressed itself on me by way of a repeating currency of images, a coinage of yellow cabs and fire escapes” merely highlights the randomness of the narrative, which reads as if intended for a series of articles.
Suburban travel writing
Despite all the banal details about coffee drunk and showers taken by Laing, whose previous book, To the River (2011), followed the course of the Ouse, the grave chosen by Virginia Woolf, she approaches literary history with the intrepid demeanour of a detective investigating an unsolved mystery. There is an obvious problem: the absence of any mystery. Laing’s zigzag methodology relies on well-trodden material. The result is suburban travel writing teamed with her apparent preoccupation with her personal quest, which isn’t compelling enough to drive the story.