Investigating the body and its consequences.
Growing up in a lesbian household in the stridently homophobic Britain of the 1980s, novelist and cultural critic Laing, winner of the Windham-Campbell Prize, felt she was “not a girl at all, but something in between and as yet unnamed.” The sharp dissonance “between how I experienced myself and how I was assumed to be,” she writes, was like a “noose around my neck.” Reflecting on her fraught sense of embodiment, Laing creates a penetrating examination of the political and cultural meanings ascribed to bodies as well as the relationships of bodies to power and freedom. The body, writes the author, was central to cultural protests—gay rights, feminism, and civil rights—that essentially were struggles “to be free of oppression based on the kind of body you inhabited.” The controversial Austrian physician and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich serves as gadfly and guide as Laing thinks about the forces that shape and limit bodily freedom. In the early 1930s, Reich coined the term sexual revolution in order “to describe the universe of happiness and love that would arise once people had shaken off their shackles” of sexual repression, and he claimed to have discovered orgone, “the universal energy that animates all life.” With Reich as a touchstone, Laing investigates many artists and writers with particularly vexed connections to their bodies: Susan Sontag in her ferocious response to cancer; radical feminist Andrea Dworkin; Agnes Martin, who, like Reich, “wanted to connect people to a kind of universal love” but became undermined by paranoia; Ana Mendieta, whose art violently depicted rape; Allen Ginsberg; Malcolm X; and Nina Simone, whose music enacted a “cathartic passage through fury, mourning, horror, hurt, despair, and out again to joy.” Laing reveals in visceral detail society’s terror “of different kinds of bodies mixing too freely” and envisions a future in which that terror no longer exists.
Intellectually vigorous and emotionally stirring.