Last year for a Christmas present I received a copy of Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking. Now that this year’s Christmas vacation is here, I’ve finally found time to read it (aren’t gifted books like wedding thank-you notes? One year to get around to them?). It’s quite good—Laing, a British writer, travels the US on a route that traces the haunts and tortured careers of six American writers of the last century: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway (pictured above), John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. All of these writers also happened to be professional alcoholics, and Laing digs deep to find the roots of their drinking in their pasts, as well as its manifestations in their art. I’m more than halfway through, and so far it’s excellent. Laing's gaze is unflinching, neither glamorizing their drinking nor celebrity status, and in its ability to connect the dots among the six protagonists, the book reminds me of another of my favorite multi-person biographies: Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which presented the interconnected lives of the last century’s most influential American Catholic writers: Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O’Connor.
I’m coming up for air midway through Laing’s book because a line from John Cheever’s journals resonated with my thinking on the importance of stories and storytelling.
The tonic or curative force of straightforward narrative is inestimable. We are told stories as children to help us bridge the abyss between waking and sleeping. We tell stories to our own children for the same purpose. When I find myself in danger—caught on a stuck ski-lift in a blizzard—I immediately start telling myself stories. I tell myself stories when I am in pain and I expect as I lay dying I will be telling myself a story in a struggle to make some link between the quick and the defunct.
In that last sentence I imagine that Cheever is using “quick” in its archaic sense, meaning “the living.” What he means is that stories, at the end of his days, will be his attempt to connect life and death, this side of the curtain with the darkness beyond. He will have practice in that art from his own youth, which, as he says, received stories as a way to “bridge the abyss between waking and sleeping.” In a separate letter Cheever wrote to a friend, he claimed that he became a fiction writer “to give some fitness and shape to the unhappiness that overtook my family and to contain my own acuteness of feeling.” Storytelling, in his estimation, naturally arises from suffering and the very human need to make sense of our pain.
Cheever’s words here speak to the deep connection between storytelling and faith. Both require a leap from one thing to another (sleeping, waking, living, dying), and function only through some transcendent coherence that is not contained in either of those things but in the relationship between them. The sense of a narrative emerges only when three things are present: beginning, middle, and end. Stories require a jumping from one event to another, from one incident to the next, all the while holding in mind what has come before and what might come after, and leaping off from any one moment into this larger arc to render the moment meaningful.
A decade ago in graduate school I wrote a paper on faith and narrative in King Lear that I delivered at a conference in Ireland. The whole thing was, in part, a scheme to get my school to pay part of my airfare to see my girlfriend (now wife) who was living in London at the time. But write and deliver the paper I did, and looking back on it now, I see it as a real turning point in my thinking about literature, away from the en vogue Deconstructionist critics and towards a humanism more amenable to faith. My whole argument in the paper was that, in Lear, perhaps the bleakest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, characters’ attempts to escape their suffering always involve told fictions. This is especially true in the case of Edgar as he cares for his blind father in the storm. Much like a parent would lie to a small child in a traumatic situation (e.g. "everything will be okay"), Edgar deceives his father about his own identity (he does not tell him he is his son) and their surroundings. I tried to argue that the play shows us that the most natural way to alleviate our suffering is to tell and hear stories, even if they involve outright deceit. Our imaginations are necessary to ease our pain, to live any kind of meaningful life in the face of suffering. As a way to wrap up my point, I drew upon the British scholar Frank Kermode, who, in A Sense of an Ending argued that “it is not that we are connoisseurs of chaos, but that we are surrounded by it, and equipped for co-existence with it only by our fictive powers.” Cheever would concur.
Laing chases this thread of writing fiction to make sense of pain, and connects it with the theme of her book—the authors’ consumption of copious amounts of hard liquor. (Drinking beer, according to this book, didn’t qualify as real drinking for these writers. Hence Fitzgerald could claim that he hadn’t had a drink in months while guzzling a dozen or more beers a day). Here’s Laing starting to twist the two threads together:
A sense was building in me that there was a hidden relationship between the two strategies of writing and drinking and that both had to do with a feeling that something precious had gone to pieces, and a desire at once to mend it—to give it fitness and shape, in Cheever’s phrase—and to deny that it was so.
I haven’t finished the book, and I’m interested to see where Laing goes with the idea of writing and drinking as linked responses to suffering. When it comes down to it, aren’t they both attempts to relieve the self of the burden of making meaning? A story, as I tried to explain above, connects isolated incidents in linear sequence, and in this relationship of incidents something a bigger, more meaningful picture emerges. Laing explains how much of these authors’ fiction attempted to work out motifs from their childhoods (e.g. fathers who failed or even committed suicide), and in that sense their storytelling is an necessary endeavor—a way to transport their pain from the confines of memory and place it into a larger chain of events, where, to use Cheever’s words, it could gain “fitness and shape.”
A character in a story is at the mercy of this larger chain, and thus unburdened of manufacturing his or her own significance. This submission of will to something beyond the self is, in my opinion, the lynchpin of faith and fiction. As I wrote in an article last year for the Catholic website Aleteia,
Narrative readies us for inner transformation by demanding that we submit, if only for a time, to being carried along in a larger design. In doing so, it reveals itself to be something like the fabric of the spiritual life. To surrender to Christ is to inhabit his narrative—the most meaningful one, we believe.
As the self disappears in a larger story, the self also disappears in the act of drinking. You don’t have to be a pickle-livered drunk to call to mind the effectiveness of the bottle in easing pain or worries. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Christ’s first miracle on earth was changing water into wine, and good wine, at that. I’ve always heard that Gospel story explained as Christ communicating the joy of eternal life, and rightfully so. It would not contradict that explanation to say that the miracle at the Wedding at Cana shows us Christ’s desire to ease our pain in a very real way, to let the barbs of our mind dissolve into the water of life, whether it be whiskey (usquebaugh)or wine. Come you who are burdened, I can hear him saying, listen to my story. Tell me yours. Have a drink.