By Max Dunbar
A decade or so into his career as a bestselling novelist, horror writer Stephen King ran into problems. He was drinking constantly and taking cocaine, banging out novels in his study with toilet tissue stuffed up his nose to stop the bleeding. He never went to bars, because “the only drunk asshole I could stand was myself” and he also employed what he called “the Hemingway Defence”:
Although never clearly articulated (it would not be manly to do so), the Hemingway Defence goes something like this: as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give in to their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.
In The Trip to Echo Spring, her psychogeographical study of alcoholic novelists, Olivia Laing mounts a pitiless cross-examination of this defence. Papa himself would be quaking in the dock and grassing up his best friends under Laing’s prosecutorial zeal. Laing lived out a chaotic childhood in a family of alcoholics, so she knows what life is like for the majority of substance abusers who do not have the literary and artistic gifts of Raymond Carver or F. Scott Fitzgerald. She has also done her neurological homework. Booze, Laing writes, “works by interfering with the activity of neurotransmitters, the chemicals by which the central nervous system relays the information round the body […] when alcohol is ingested, it interacts with the receptor sites of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA, mimicking its effects. The result is sedative, reducing its activity in the brain […] These sedative effects are what makes alcohol so adept at reducing tension and anxiety.”
This de-stressing element of alcohol is part of what motivated the novelist John Cheever. He was an outsider posing as an insider, a bisexual struggling under marriage and propriety, who wrote that: “It was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.” Part of the strategy was to ensure that his natural shyness did not overwhelm him at important social engagements. Prepping for a particular stressful occasion, he related afterwards that “I bought a bottle of gin and drank four fingers neat. The company was brilliant, chatty and urbane and so was I.”
Laing combines a clinical analysis with the novelist’s gift of empathy. It may seem a stretch on the reader’s heartstrings– in mid-recession Britain –to sympathise with a bunch of hard-drinking blue-blooded rich boys; but when she tells of the bullied childhood of John Cheever, or the terminal anxiety of Tennessee Williams, you can’t help but feel for them. As a young man Williams suffered panic attacks in an age where such disorders were unlikely to be diagnosed, let alone accounted for. On a trip to Paris Williams “began abruptly to feel afraid of what he called the process of thought, and that over the weeks of travel this phobia grew so intense he came within ‘a hairsbreadth of going quite mad’.” At a cathedral in Cologne Williams had a transcendental experience: “He had the uncanny sense of being touched by a hand: ‘and at the instant of that touch the phobia was lifted away as lightly as a snowflake though it had weighed on my head like a skull-breaking block of iron.’ A religious boy, he was certain he’d experienced the hand of Christ.” The benediction did not last: within a week the attacks returned; and Williams would fight them all his life. From Laing’s glimpse of the Bird’s later years:
On it went: up, then down, then down again. A loving phone call with Frank, from one European city to another. A panic attack in a cinema, stemmed when he staggered into a bar, pale and terrified, and knocked back two double Scotches in quick succession. A few weeks later, in Sicily, he sat in his friend Franco’s bar till closing time and then walked with him down the main street, reassured by the music drifting from a nearby club. But when he turned for home alone, the club had closed and panic rose in him as he strode faster and faster down a road that seemed to stretch on endlessly, his chest constricted and his breath coming in gasps.
The subtitle of Laing’s book is Why Writers Drink but trawling through her catalogue of suicide, psychosis and broken homes, the reader is faced with a chicken-egg question: do people drink to excess because they are fucked up or are they fucked up because they drink to excess? The cruelty of alcohol’s relationship with mental illness is that drink offers short term relief while feeding greater demons. Those who have journeyed into the darker reaches of mental distress may be familiar with the term depersonalisation – literally, when you are so hammered by hungover anxiety you actually doubt your own existence. Of Cheever, Laing writes that
Sometimes he’d feel he was being swamped by the past, and sometimes, frighteningly, that he’d lost his place in time altogether: ‘I am not in this world; I am merely falling, falling.’ Cheever captured this feeling of disassociation in his story The Swimmer where the drunken suburbanite protagonist, fresh off a garden party in his neighbourhood, decides to walk home through the back gardens of his neighbours, taking a drink at every barbecue. When he finally reaches his house, he sees that the locks have been changed, the lights are off, no one lives there – and no one has lived there for a long time.
If Laing’s book has a fault it’s that she comes very much from the AA model of total abstinence, and fails to acknowledge that most people who drink do not develop problems with drink. Talent doesn’t come out of a bottle but I would argue that the delirium of the senses that alcohol provides, can help us develop the imaginative empathy and perspective required for telling stories and taking the reader to other worlds – which is the main job of a fiction writer. That said, addiction all but guarantees a shorter lifespan: just about every bad thing that can happen to the human body can happen through alcohol abuse and, if you want to write great novels, the first thing you need is a pulse. As Hunter S. Thompson said, possibly not at his most sober, but certainly at his most reflective: “The Edge […] there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
Olivia Laing, The Trip to Echo Spring (Canongate, May 2014) 978-1847677952, 352 pages, paperback.