Today I’m taking part in the “blog blast” for Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal (translated from the French by Jessica Moore), which is published today by MacLehose Press.
This is the third novel I’ve read by de Kerangal, after her 2017 Wellcome Book Prize winner, Mend the Living, and 2019’s The Cook. Painting Time resembles the former in the way it revels in niche vocabulary and the latter in that it slowly builds up a portrait of the central character. But all three books could be characterized as deep dives into a particular subject – the human body, gastronomy, and painting, respectively.
The protagonist of Painting Time is Paula Karst, one of 20-some art students who arrive at the Institut de Peinture in Brussels in the autumn of 2007 to learn trompe l’oeil technique. They’re taught to painstakingly imitate every variety of wood and stone so their murals will look as convincing as the real thing. It’s a gruelling course, with many hours spent on their feet every day.
Years later, the only classmates Paula has kept up with are Jonas, her old flatmate, with whom she had a sort-of-almost-not-quite relationship, and their Scottish friend Kate. The novel opens with the three of them having a reunion in Paris. Given this setup, I expected de Kerangal to follow all three characters from 2007 to the near past, but the book sticks closely to Paula, such that the only secondary characters who come through clearly are her parents.
It’s intriguing to see the work that comes Paula’s way after a degree in decorative painting, including painting backdrops for a Moscow-set film of Anna Karenina and the job of a lifetime: working on a full-scale replica of the prehistoric animal paintings of the Lascaux Caves (Lascaux IV). The final quarter of the novel delves into the history of Lascaux, which was discovered in 1940 and open to the public on and off until the late 1960s. Deep time abuts the troubled present as Paula contemplates what will last versus what is ephemeral.
As de Kerangal did with medical terminology in Mend the Living, so here she relishes art words: colours, tools, techniques; names for types of marble and timber (Paula’s own surname is a word for limestone caves). The long sentences accrete to form paragraphs that stretch across multiple pages. I confess to getting a bit lost in these, and wanting more juicy interactions than austere character study. However, the themes of art and history are resonant. If you’ve enjoyed de Kerangal’s prose before, you will certainly want to read this, too.
My thanks to MacLehose Press for access to an e-copy via NetGalley.
Three memoirs remain on the shortlist; three windows onto living with disability or caring for a relative with an incapacitating mental illness.
First up is a visual artist’s account of growing up with spina bifida, entering Disabled culture, and forming a collaborative style all her own.
Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (2020)
“My first monster story was Frankenstein,” Lehrer writes. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation or the Golem of medieval Jewish legend, she felt like a physical monstrosity in search of an animating purpose. Born with spina bifida, she spent much of her first two years in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and would endure dozens of surgeries in years to come to repair her spine and urinary tract and attempt to make her legs the same length. In 1958, when she was born, 90% of children with her condition died before age two. Lehrer’s mother, Carole, who grew up in a family pharmacy business and had worked as a medical researcher, was her daughter’s dogged health advocate. Carole fought for Riva even though she was caught up in her own chronic pain after a botched back surgery that left her addicted to painkillers.
Lehrer went to a special school for the disabled in Ohio. It was racially integrated (rare at that time) and offered children physical therapy and normal experiences like Girl Scouts and day camp. But it was clear the teachers didn’t expect these children to achieve anything or have a family life; home ec classes just taught how to wash up from a wheelchair and make meals for one. One horrible day, a substitute teacher locked a classroom door and hectored the children, saying their parents must have drunk and fornicated and they were the wages of sin.
Between the routine or emergency surgeries and family heartaches, Lehrer grew up to attend art school at the University of Cincinnati and Art Institute of Chicago. Professors (most of them male) found her work grotesque and self-indulgent, and she struggled with how to depict her body. There were boyfriends and girlfriends, even a wife (though in the late 1980s, before same-sex marriage was legally recognized). In 1996 she joined the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and it was a revelation. She learned that Disabled (like Deaf) is a cultural identity as much as a physical reality, adopted vocabulary like crip (a reclaimed term, like queer) and ableism, and began painting fellow artists with dwarfism, prostheses, or wheelchairs.
Becoming a member of the Medical Humanities faculty as well as a visiting artist at two Chicago universities, the School of the Art Institute and Northwestern, gave Lehrer access to Gross Anatomy Labs, where she found in the historical collections – just as she had at the Mütter Museum of medical curiosities in Philadelphia – a fetus in a jar with her very condition. Knowing that she might be the first Disabled person her budding doctors met, she was determined to give them an “inclusive vision” of “the reality of human divergence.” She would have the medical students draw one of the jarred specimens, not as an oddity but as an individual, and give a 15-minute presentation about someone who lives with that disability.
Golem Girl is a touching family memoir delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most of them named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and – what truly lifts it above the pack – a miniature art gallery, with reproductions of paintings from various of Lehrer’s series as well as self-portraits, family portraits, and photographs. “I fiercely wanted to see a gallery filled with portraits of luminous crips,” she writes; “I suspected I was going to have to make them myself.” And that is just what she has done. The “Circle Stories” featured the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and “Mirror Shards” included animal daimons, while “The Risk Pictures” of some of her personal heroes were daringly collaborative: she would give the subject an hour alone in her studio with their portrait in progress and allow them to amend it as they wished. Much of her work has bright colors and involves anatomical realism and symbols personal to herself and/or the subject – with Frida Kahlo an acknowledged influence.
I’ve now (just about) read the whole Barbellion Prize shortlist. For how it illuminates a life of being different – through queerness in addition to disability, engages with the academic fields of anatomy and Disability studies, and showcases the achievements of Disabled artists, this would be my clear winner of the inaugural award, with Sanatorium my backup choice. It is also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
“The hospital demands surrender. You accept the piercing, the cutting, the swallowing of noxious chemicals. You roll over and stand up even when it’s as impossible as flying around the ceiling. Whoever has authority can remove your clothes and display your stitched-up monster body to crowds of young white-coated men. You’re an assemblage of parts that lack gender and those elusive things called feelings.”
“‘Normal’ beauty is unmarked, smooth, shiny, upright; but my gaze began to slip past normal beauty as if it was coated in baby oil. I wanted crip beauty—variant, iconoclastic, unpredictable. Bodies that were lived in with intentionality and self-knowledge. Crip bodies were fresh.”
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
See my introductory post for more about the Barbellion Prize, which is in its first year and will be awarded on Friday “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.”
I will review the final two on the shortlist, The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and Kika & Me by Amit Patel, tomorrow.
Today I have a book of medico-philosophical musings, a triptych of novels about the resonant moments of a Canadian childhood, and a varied collection of ekphrastic poems.
Scattered Limbs: A Medical Dreambook by Iain Bamforth (2020)
A doctor based in Strasbourg, Iain Bamforth offers a commonplace book full of philosophical musings on medicine and wellness from the ancient world to today. All through December I would read just a few pages at a time as a palate cleanser between larger chunks of other books. Most of the entries are under three pages in length, with some one-sentence dictums interspersed. The point of reference is broadly European, with frequent allusions to English, French, and German literature (Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann) and to Greek thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. The themes include memory, overtreatment, technology, and our modern wellness culture. If you’re equally interested in medicine and philosophy, this is a perfect bedside book for you; if you only gravitate towards one or the other, it’s possible that you could run low on patience for the high-brow rumination. My favourite piece was on “panicology,” and two stand-out lines are below.
“Prognostication is where writers and doctors resemble each other most.”
“A proper attitude to death can be a source of life. That is medicine’s only profundity.”
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
The Santa Rosa Trilogy by Wendy McGrath (2011–19)
I’m indulging in one last listen to our holiday music compilations as I write, before putting everything away until a hoped-for ‘Christmas in July’ with family and friends. Yesterday I devoured Broke City, the third novella in Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa Trilogy, in one sitting and treasured all the Christmas and pine tree references: they bind the book together but also connect it satisfyingly back to Book 1, Santa Rosa, which opened with Christine’s neighbour preparing a Christmas cake one summer. That annual ritual and its built-in waiting period take on new significance when the adult Christine’s life changes suddenly.
In this trio of linked narratives about Christine’s 1960s Edmonton childhood, totem objects and smells evoke memories that persist for decades: Pine-Sol, her parents’ cigarettes, the local meat-packing plant. Even at age seven, Christine is making synaesthetic links between colours and scents as she ponders language and imagines other lives. That her recollections – of a carnival, the neighbourhood grocery store, queasy road trips to her grandmother’s in Saskatchewan, a drive-in movie, and Christmas Eve with her father’s side of the family – so overlap with my late-1980s mental flipbook proves not that suburban Maryland and upstate New York (where I grew up and my mother’s home turf, respectively) are so similar to Alberta, but that this is the universal stuff of a later 20th-century North American childhood.
The other night, discussing The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, my book club noted how difficult it is to capture childhood in all its joy and distress. McGrath does so superbly, exploiting the dramatic irony between what Christine overhears and what she understands. Readers know her parents’ marriage is in trouble because she never sees them laughing or happy, and she hears her mother complain to her father about his drinking. We know the family is struggling because a man from the City delivers a box of Spam, standard issue to all those who are out of work over the winter. A simple mishearing (“clatteral,” “brain tuber”; thinking that an abattoir sounds “like a fancy ballroom”) can be a perfect example of the child perspective, too. Meanwhile, the pop culture references situate the story in the time period.
Towards the end of Broke City, young Christine declares, “I shall be unusual.” As we root for the girl to outrun her sadder memories and forge a good life, we hope that – like all of us – she’ll find a balance between the ordinary and the exceptional through self-knowledge. While Broke City was my favourite and could probably stand alone, it’s special to chart how moments turn into memories across the three books. I’d recommend the trilogy to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Tessa Hadley, and Elizabeth Hay. I particularly loved the hybrid-poetry style of the Prologue to Santa Rosa (similar to what Bernardine Evaristo employs), so I would also be interested to try one of McGrath’s two poetry collections.
Some favourite passages:
“he walks at the same time everyday summer and winter
early morning when the day still makes promises” (Santa Rosa)
“Christine thought of herself as a child, with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world. … Christine is the girl that used to live here, but the girl has disappeared. Her ghost is here, existing parallel to the person she is now. How did this happen? There must have been something she wasn’t paying attention to, something she didn’t see coming.” (Broke City)
With thanks to Wendy McGrath and Edmonton’s NeWest Press for the e-copies for review. I learned about the books from Marcie; see her appreciation of McGrath’s work at Buried in Print.
Color and Line by Carole Mertz (2021)
“Ekphrastic” was a new vocabulary word for me – or, if I’d heard it before, I needed a reminder. It refers to poetry written to describe or respond to artworks. Many of Carole Mertz’s poems, especially in the first section, attest to her love of the visual arts. This is the Ohio church organist’s first full-length collection after the 2019 chapbook Toward a Peeping Sunrise and extensive publication in literary magazines. She was inspired by art ranging in date from 1555 to 2019. “Come Share a Glass with Me,” for instance, is a prose poem that imagines the story behind a Van Gogh. I loved the line “The ewer sits expectant” in a short poem capturing The Staircase by Xavier Mellery.
One could look up all of the artworks discussed, but the descriptions here are so richly detailed that I often didn’t feel I needed to. Two paintings in a row depict sisters. A poem about Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist draws on the Bible story, but also on its many portrayals through art history. Other topics include concern for the Earth and beloved works of literature. I particularly enjoyed “The Word in Joseph’s Hand,” a Christmas hymn that can be sung to the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and a haiku about a cardinal, “a flash of bright red / … in the garden”. Below is my favourite of the poems; it incorporates the titles of 14 books, nine of them by Anne Tyler. See if you can spot them all!
Color and Line was released by Kelsay Books on the 2nd. My thanks to Carole Mertz for the e-copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
And, just for fun, put a description of or link to your favourite Bernie-in-mittens meme in the comments.
I ‘met’ poet Carolyn Oliver through her much-missed blog, Rosemary & Reading Glasses. (She’s on Twitter as @CarolynROliver and Instagram as @carolynroliver.) Back in 2017 I asked for her top fiction picks; this year she’s contributed another guest blog listing the best nonfiction she’s read this year. It’s a fascinating selection of memoirs, essays, science and nature, and current events. I scurried to add the ones I hadn’t already heard of to my TBR. Which ones tempt you?
My favorite nonfiction reads from this year (though many are backlist):
The Butchering Art, Lindsey Fitzharris: Fascinating medical history of Lister’s antiseptic breakthrough.
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer: Reflective ecology from the perspective of a Native botanist. Probably my favorite essay collection of the decade.
The Book of Delights, Ross Gay: Just as the title says. Mini-essays on myriad topics. When you’ve finished, pick up his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (poems).
Atlas of Poetic Botany, Francis Halle: Bite-sized excursions into the worlds of unusual flora, with drawings. Meant for adults, I think, but a huge hit with my eight-year-old.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi: Just as the title says. Incisive, eye-opening, necessary.
The Art Detective, Philip Mould: A romp through the art world with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide (Mould is the co-host of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune).
How We Fight for Our Lives, Saeed Jones: The bildungsroman America needs. Beautiful writing.
In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado: The most formally inventive memoir I’ve ever read. Brilliant and necessary.
Coventry, Rachel Cusk: I was entranced by Cusk’s voice, even when I didn’t share her conclusions; reading this collection (with the exception of the book reviews added at the end), I felt I was witnessing the writer’s mind in the act of thinking.
“I don’t want them to look like war paintings, Elsie. I want them to look like heaven.”
When I was offered a copy of this novel to review as part of the blog tour, I was unfamiliar with the name of its subject, the artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) – until I realized that he painted the WWI-commemorative Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, which I had never visited* but knew was just 5.5 miles from our home in Berkshire.
Take another look at the title, though: two characters are given double billing, the second of whom is Elsie Munday, who in the opening chapter presents herself for an interview with Stanley and his wife, Hilda (also a painter), who promptly hire her to be their housemaid at Chapel View in 1928. This creates a setup similar to that in Girl with a Pearl Earring, with a lower-class character observing the inner workings of an artist’s household and giving plain-speaking commentary on what she sees. Upson’s close third-person narration sticks with Elsie for the whole of Part I, but in Part II the picture widens out, with the point of view rotating between Hilda, Elsie and Dorothy Hepworth, the reluctant third side in a love triangle that develops between Stanley and her partner, Patricia Preece.
Hilda and Stanley argue about everything, from childrearing to art: they even paint dueling portraits of Elsie – with Hilda’s Country Girl winning out. Elsie knows she’s lucky to have such a comfortable position with the Spencers and their daughters at Burghclere, and later at Cookham, but she’s uneasy at how Stanley turns her into a confidante in his increasingly tempestuous marriage. Hilda, frustrated at Stanley’s selfish, demanding ways, often returns to her family home in Hampstead, leaving Elsie alone with her employer. Stanley doesn’t give a fig for local opinion, but Elsie knows she has a reputation to protect – especially considering that her moments alone with Stanley aren’t entirely free of sexual tension.
I love reading about artists’ habits – how creative work actually gets done – so I particularly loved the scenes where Elsie, sent on errands, finds Stanley up a ladder in the chapel, pondering how to get a face or object just right. On more than one occasion he borrows her kitchen items, such as a sponge and cooked and uncooked rashers of bacon, so he can render them perfectly in his paintings. I also loved that this is a local interest book for me, with Newbury, where I live, mentioned four or five times in passing as the nearest big town. Part II, with its account of Stanley’s extramarital doings becoming ever more sordid, didn’t grip me as much as Part I, but I found the whole to be an elegantly written study of a very difficult man and the ties that he made and broke over the course of several decades.
For the tone as well as the subject matter, I would particularly recommend it to readers of Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and especially Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me.
Stanley and Elsie will be published by Duckworth on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review. They also sent a stylish tote bag!
Nicola Upson is best known for her seven Josephine Tey crime novels. She has also published nonfiction, including a book on the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld. This is her first stand-alone novel.
*Until now. On a gorgeous Easter Saturday that felt more like summer than spring, I had my husband drop me off on his way to a country walk so I could tour the chapel. I appreciated Spencer’s “holy box” so much more having read the novel than I ever could have otherwise – even though the paintings were nothing like I’d imagined from Upson’s descriptions.
What struck me immediately is that, for war art, the focus is so much more on domesticity. Spencer briefly served in Salonika, Macedonia (like his patrons’ brother, Harry Sandham, to whose memory the chapel is dedicated), but had initially been rejected by the army and started off as a medical orderly in an English hospital. Both Salonika and Beaufort hospital appear in the paintings, but there are no battle scenes or bloody injuries. Instead we see tableaux of cooking, doing laundry, making beds, inventorying kitbags, filling canteens, reading maps, dressing under mosquito nets and making stone mosaics. It’s as if Spencer wanted to spotlight what happens in between the fighting. These everyday activities would have typified the soldiers’ lives more than active combat, after all.
I was reminded of how Stanley explains his approach in the novel:
“There’s something heroic in the everyday, don’t you think?”
“Isn’t that what peace is sometimes? A succession of bland moments? We have to cherish them, though, otherwise what was the point of fighting for them?”
The paintings show inventive composition but are in an unusual style that sometimes verges on the grotesque. Many of the figures are lumpen and childlike, especially in Tea in the Hospital Ward, where the soldiers scoffing bread and jam look like cheeky schoolboys. There are lots of animals on display, especially horses and donkeys, but they often look enormous and not entirely realistic. The longer you look, the more details you spot, like a dog raiding a stash of Fray Bentos tins and a young man looking at his reflection in a picture frame to part his hair with a comb. These aren’t desolate, burnt-out landscapes but rich with foliage and blossom, even in Macedonia, which recalls the Holy Land and seems timeless.
The central painting behind the altar, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, imagines the dead rising out of their graves, taking up their white crosses and delivering them to Jesus, a white-clad figure in the middle distance. There’s an Italian Renaissance feeling to this one, with one face in particular looking like it could have come straight out of Giotto (an acknowledged influence on Spencer’s chapel work). It’s as busy as Bosch, but not as dark thematically or in terms of the color scheme – while some of the first paintings in the sequence, like the one of scrubbing hospital floors, recall Edward Hopper with their somber realism. We see all these soldiers intact: at their resurrection they are whole, with no horrific wounds or humiliating nudity. Like Stanley says to Elsie, it’s more heaven than war.
If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend even a quick stop at this National Trust property. I showed a few workers my advanced copy of the novel; while the reception staff were unaware of its existence, a manager I caught up with after my tour knew about it and had plans to read it soon. She also said they will stock it in the NT shop on site.
Below I’ve chosen my top 12 fiction releases from 2018 (eight of them happen to be by women!). Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep things simple, as with my nonfiction selections, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I’ve also highlighted my three favorites from the year’s poetry releases.
- Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: From the Iraq War protests to the Occupy movement in New York City, we follow antiheroine Gael Foess as she tries to get her brother’s art recognized. This debut novel is a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life.
- Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller: Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. The characters and atmosphere are top-notch; this is an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps.
- The Only Story by Julian Barnes: It may be a familiar story – a May–December romance that fizzles out – but, as Paul believes, we only really get one love story, the defining story of our lives. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity.
- The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die; in the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype.
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. This would make a great book club pick: I ached for all the main characters in their impossible situation; there’s a lot to probe about their personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration and letters.
- The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is an Italian teacher; as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he’d follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts, but along the way something went wrong. This is a rewarding novel about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.
- The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon: A sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Kwon spent 10 years writing this book, and that time and diligence come through in how carefully honed the prose is: such precise images; not a single excess word.
- Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past and finds that they are linked by distrust and displacement. There’s so much going on that it feels like it encompasses all of human life; it’s by no means a subtle book, but it’s an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.
- Southernmost by Silas House: In House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey with Asher Sharp: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace in this beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.
- Little by Edward Carey: This is a deliciously macabre, Dickensian novel about Madame Tussaud, who started life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761. From a former monkey house to the Versailles palace and back, Marie must tread carefully as the French Revolution advances and a desire for wax heads is replaced by that for decapitated ones.
- Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children.
- Florida by Lauren Groff: There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout these 11 short stories, with violent storms reminding the characters of an uncaring universe, falling-apart relationships, and the threat of environmental catastrophe. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant; any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece. (I never would have predicted that a short story collection would be my favorite fiction read of the year!)
- Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan: These poem-essays give fragmentary images of city life and question the notion of progress and what meaning a life leaves behind. “The Sandpit after Rain” stylishly but grimly juxtaposes her father’s death and her son’s birth.
- Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2016 by Rafael Campo: Superb, poignant poetry about illness and the physician’s duty. A good bit of this was composed in response to the AIDS crisis; it’s remarkable how Campo wrings beauty out of clinical terminology and tragic situations.
- The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain: St. Germain’s seventh collection is in memory of her son Gray, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, aged 30. She turns her family history of alcohol and drug use into a touchpoint and affirms life’s sensual pleasures – everything from the smell of brand-new cowboy boots to luscious fruits.
What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up (both fiction and nonfiction).
For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.
Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.
Whereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)
Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.
In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).
A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.
The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.
The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)
With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.