The Trip to Echo Spring, by Olivia Laing

Reviewed by Eileen Battersby

Sat, Aug 24, 2013, 01:00

   
 

Book Title:
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink

ISBN-13:
978-1847677945

Author:
Olivia Laing

Publisher:
Canongate Books

Guideline Price:
£20.00

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.

For To the River her motivation was a failed love affair, or rather a relationship killed off by a geographical stalemate; neither she not her boyfriend was prepared to relocate. This time she feels that, having grown up in a household traumatised by the alcoholic woman who moved in with her mother after Laing’s father had abandoned them when Laing was only four, she knows all about heavy drinking. Laing has had first-hand experience of what is now recognised as a disease. But this does not make her an authority on the subject, and it is not clear why she attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on the Upper West Side, nor why she writes that “it is necessary first to know what a shot of Smirnoff or Scotch does to the human body. Alcohol, also known as ethanol, is both an intoxicant and a central nervous depressant . . .”

The opening sentence leaves little to chance. “Here’s a thing. Iowa City, 1973. Two men in a car, a Ford Falcon convertible that’s seen better days. It’s winter, the kind of cold that hurts bones and lungs, that reddens knuckles makes noses run.” John Cheever and Raymond Carver are about to undertake some urgent early-morning shopping at a liquor store. Laing appears to miss the desperation of the episode. Elsewhere she refers to Carver having pulled himself “out of a self-made hell; a real pigsty of a life”. The use of “pigsty” is outrageous. Such stylistic glibness often surfaces, such as when she describes John Cheever as “the small, immaculately dishevelled Chekhov of the Suburbs”.

The six writers she has chosen provide her with a conveniently sweeping swathe across the United States. From Cheever’s New York she travels by train to New Orleans, so beloved by its adopted son Tennessee Williams. This is a 30-hour journey through some incredible landscape, including that of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. How she could make it so dull defies any reasoning. Jonathan Raban, an instinctive observer with a feel for the eloquence of the American landscape and for the ordinary, could have made this project soar. Instead, Laing meanders through anecdotal material featuring F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway (cue a synopsis of The Great Gatsby), followed by Laing’s frequent summary reports: “But Fitzgerald was too unanchored to be able to tolerate his chosen pace of life. For years, he and Zelda had been reeling hectically around the globe, ricocheting from New York to St Paul, to Great Neck, to Antibes and Juan-les-Pins” – hardly the globe – “trailing wreckage in their wake.”

Buried in amid Laing’s speculations and grand statements is a profound quote from Fitzgerald, as recalled by Laura Guthrie, a woman who worked at a resort in North Carolina where he once stayed: “Drink heightens feeling. When I drink, it heightens my emotions and I put it in a story.” Did Guthrie transcribe their conversations? It is not explained, but Fitzgerald’s stark candour is chilling.


Harrowing memoir
With the tenacity of a ghost haunting a house, it is Cheever who leaves the strongest impression on Laing’s thoughts. She continually returns to him – possibly because, of the six writers she has focused on, it is Cheever who was the subject of a remarkable, harrowing memoir, Home Before Dark (1984), written by his daughter, Susan.

It is a cliche, though, deciding that great American writers are drunks. The depressive Hemingway shot himself, Carver died of lung cancer, Williams choked to death on a bottle cap. Laing could as easily have written about William Faulkner or Robert Lowell or Hart Crane or 100 others – and not only American writers. The human tragedy of John Berryman, the poet and teacher, as described in this casual narrative does achieve flickers of profundity, but The Trip to Echo Spring, its title taken from a Williams play, is at heart a cold, detached work. The six-day trip from Key West, in Florida, to Port Angeles, in Washington, “slogging from the south-eastern corner of America all the way up to its north-western extremity” is an epic here wasted.

Laing does use her sources well in piecing together a portrait of Berryman, who taught at Iowa 20 years before Cheever and Carver were there.

Much has been written about the beauty of Laing’s prose. I don’t see it. Referring to Saul Bellow’s essay accompanying Berryman’s unfinished novel Recovery, Laing notes that “there was a statement about Berryman’s drinking I found hard to swallow”. Elsewhere she concludes that alcoholism allows “some grandiose degenerate, some awful aspect of yourself, take up residence at the hearth, the centre fire”, to rip out the heart of the work. Judging by the masterful writing achieved by the alcoholic writers she quotes, she seems wrong.

Laing proves too brisk a tour guide to lead readers through the immense grief contained in this odyssey of broken lives.