You don’t expect to interview the author of The Lonely City in an 18th-century walled Suffolk garden. Olivia Laing hit a literary zenith in 2016 with a book that wove her personal tale of solitude in New York into a voyage through the city’s art scene. The result was a candid yet poetic hymn that enshrined her as a praise-singer of urban isolation.
Yet here we are sitting on the patio of a house named after a magnolia tree that — alongside medlar and mulberry trees, forget-me-nots, fritillaries and myriad other choice botanicals — creates an enchanting pocket of English pastoral.
Laing’s new home — she and her husband, the poet Ian Patterson, moved to the picturesque village last August after a stint in Cambridge — is not the giant leap it might appear. “I’m a life-long gardener,” she tells me when I ask why she traded city life for this charming but high-maintenance Arcadia.
Her bond with the natural world goes way back. Born in 1977, Laing grew up in the south of England. By the late 1990s, her passionate eco-politics saw her join the road protests against projects such as the Newbury bypass. At one point, she lived in a tree house, an experience she describes as “utterly amazing, like Swallows and Amazons with apocalyptic anxiety on the side”. A degree in herbal medicine, which she later practised, ensured her expertise in botany.
Those experiences planted seeds for her new book. Entitled Everybody: A Book About Freedom, it is an investigation into the body, both as a private source of pleasure and pain and a public vehicle for suffering, resistance and change.
Laing navigates her journey through Everybody via the lives of public figures, from Weimar-era Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich to civil rights activist and musician Nina Simone. Each one has experienced their bodies in ways that resonate with her conviction that “the political world can make bodies into prisons but that bodies can also reshape the political world”.
Finishing a manuscript about the body in the early spring of 2020, as Laing did, put her at risk of being overtaken by events. In truth, although Covid is barely mentioned and the most recent discourse around racism following the murder of George Floyd is absent, Laing’s key idea — that the right to physical health and safety is intrinsic to liberty, and that collective bodies can effect political change — is, if anything, even more relevant.
Would she change much if she wrote it now? “I would probably come to the same conclusion that freedom is an ongoing labour,” she says, her rapid-fire delivery the sign of a woman who speaks as fast as she thinks, yet remains lucid and layered in her analyses. Indeed, Laing is a bundle of genial contradictions: sweet-tempered yet super-smart, radical in her politics yet gentle, curious and open-minded.
Nevertheless, she does note that “Covid has brought about the revelation of physical vulnerability” about which many in “the rich part of the world” remained unaware. “So trying to convey that pre-Covid felt urgent in a way that perhaps now it doesn’t.”
In The Lonely City, Laing nailed US governmental neglect as responsible for killing millions of Aids sufferers. Now she points out that the rapid creation of a Covid vaccine speaks volumes about “which bodies are valued and which aren’t”.
Although her gamine elegance suggests being comfortable in her own skin, Laing’s sense of the body as a source of danger and possibility is rooted in her own bones.
Growing up in what she describes to me as “a lesbian and alcoholic family in the 1980s”, Laing admits that the situation was complicated: “Two layers of secrecy, two layers of closet.” Most probably, she continues, it accounts for her “fascination with complexity”.
She exhibits nothing but affection for her parents. Her mother, a freelance journalist, “had a lot of moxie” and was a “very good role model for daughters”. Her father — “an investment analyst covering healthcare” — was a constant presence, “though I never lived with him. Our relationship was founded on talking about gardens and plants.”
Inevitably, there were challenges. Today, Laing describes herself as “non-binary” though she remains laid-back with regard to pronouns. “Oh, ‘her’ is fine,” she says, adding that it’s kind of me to ask what she prefers to be called. In Everybody, she writes that in her youth she was, “if anything [ . . . ] a gay boy”.
Any internal dissonance she felt was intensified by the homophobia that swirled through British society. Laing grew up in the 1980s when Thatcher’s adoption of Section 28 legitimised discrimination against queer people.
By 1999, Laing writes, she was “rigid and stiff” when anybody touched her. “Something was stuck and I wanted . . . to work it free.” Working with a psychotherapist who specialised in massage, among other remedies, Laing found some relief. The experience confirmed for her that the body could be “a storage unit for emotional distress”.
Fast forward to “around 2015, 2016” and Laing is conceiving Everybody, thanks to the imperfect storm of “the refugee crisis, Trump, Brexit . . . a sense that freedoms were being limited drastically all over the world”, she says. “I wanted to [ . . . ] look into questions such as [ . . . ] why are different kinds of bodies considered so threatening? Why is sexuality so hard? Why is race so hard? I got very tired of instant answers to everything.”
Reich, whose story begins the book, offers no easy solutions. A protégé of Freud, he coined the phrase “sexual revolution”. In his early years in Vienna and Berlin, Reich did radical work on the notion that his patients exhibited emotional pain through their bodies. Furthermore, he realised that social and economic factors played a role. Or, as Laing puts it, “he yoked Freud and Marx into productive dialogue”.
Reich died in 1957 in a US prison after an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration. His crime had been to create a machine that, he claimed, would cure those who sat in his boxlike contraption of mental and physical ailments by harnessing positive sexual energy.
Laing is the first to acknowledge this was a bonkers notion. But in a world polarised by either/or opinions, she is a rare example of a writer who loves to delve into nuance and paradox. That attitude allows her access to thinkers such as Reich, who many have written off as too problematic for consideration.
Others to feature prominently in Everybody include radical feminist Andrea Dworkin — who thought heterosexuals should take a break from sexual intercourse completely — and the Marquis de Sade, who saw sexual violence as a road to liberation. Laing’s analysis reveals that these two apparently inimical forces, separated by two centuries, in truth share a conviction that power and sex are inextricably linked.
When I ask her how she chose her case studies, Laing reiterates her championship of chiaroscuro truths. “It felt really important to me, in this culture of purity, where people either have to be brilliant or they are cancelled, to talk about people who are difficult but have really rewarding ideas,” she says.
She was also seeking figures whose “lives intersect”. That Reich finished in jail made him the perfect conduit to the discussion of imprisonment and protest, which is the bedrock of the second half of the book.
Here Laing weaves the stories of Philip Guston — “utterly appalling” is her judgment on the Tate’s decision to cancel the avowedly anti-racist painter’s show because of his paintings of the Ku Klux Klan — Malcolm X and Nina Simone into a narrative of the American civil rights movement that also allows her to elaborate on her conviction that sexual, racial and political freedom are entwined.
Her conclusions offer few comforts. She writes that she is “devastated” by a world in which bodies are seen as a “brutalised, limitless resource” and by the knowledge that — “being capitalism” — this situation is gruellingly “difficult [ . . . ] to change”. Our planet is “like a prison”, she continues, when it should be “like a forest”.
Indeed, Laing has lost none of the passion of the teenager who swung from trees. “We are hurtling towards a world with sewage in the river. A world without insects. We’re going towards hell, really,” she says, her calm voice at odds with the Armageddon she describes.
Why does she think so many powerful people, those in a position to make a real difference, remain so apathetic towards our planet?
“Profit,” she says succinctly. “A disaster equals profit. You profiteer from war. You profiteer from environmental collapse,” she continues, citing the current vogue for “selling futures in water” as an example. “Or they believe in [transferring] to Mars!” She laughs bleakly. “They think you can sequester yourself with money.”
Given her environmental politics, it comes as no surprise to learn that Laing’s next book will see her return to nature. Spiralling out from the project of restoring her own garden, it is an investigation into “the idea of paradise through history”, she says, adding that she will explore material that ranges from the English 18th-century poet John Clare to slavery and colonialism to ask “whether you can make a paradise that’s shared or whether it just has to be a luxury for the rich”.
Laing’s gift for weaving big ideas together with lyrical prose sets her alongside the likes of Arundhati Roy, John Berger and James Baldwin. In other words, she is among the most significant voices of our time.
Everybody: A Book About Freedom, by Olivia Laing, Picador, RRP£20/WW Norton & Company, RRP$26.95, 368 pages
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