I fell in love with Olivia Laing’s writing when her The Lonely City convinced me that in writing “about alienation” for forty years I had probably been writing about loneliness, and the loneliness had probably been my own.
Laing is a real writer: that is, someone who loves the work and its relation to the subject matter. She also seems to me to have engaged and merged two important problems, how you relate writing to living (how the writer avoids becoming trapped by the discourse, so that the lived always grounds the written, not the other way round); and how you connect writing to politics–how the writer sites herself at the heart of politics yet remains a writer.
Prior to reading her new book, Everybody, I re-read her essays. Collected from the art magazine Frieze and elsewhere, they settle easily under the title of her Frieze column, Funny Weather. They cover more than art. Even when they cover art, they cover more than art. Her goal is to look for art’s reparative relationship with the world’s recent Gibsonian emergencies–emergencies that are here but, like the future, still in the process of being evenly distributed.
Everybody is a multiple superposition of the physical body, the cultural body, the body of history, the body of art, the body politic, charting, as Lisa Appignanesi puts it, its “pleasures and pains, its fragilities, and endurance in the long 20th century”. It’s about what tied us up and how we tried to free ourselves, personally and socially; and what we gained and lost in the processes we chose. From a writerly point of view, what leaves me as bemused as ever is Laing’s ability to make imagery and argument at the same time, entangling the two so that neither seems to have the primacy and they run one through the other like seams of ore. Which is which? Figure and ground: here, the body flickers constantly between the two. This is what lies at the heart of the best contemporary nonfiction writing–the art of interleaving history, science and poetry, the observed personal and the political, the literal and the metaphorical–and I wish I knew how to do it.