"We're so often told that art can't really change anything. But I think it can." In her first collection of essays, the prize-winning author celebrates art as a force of resistance and repair; one that can "shape our ethical landscapes and open up the interior lives of others". In a broad span of pieces, she profiles Jean-Michel Basquiat and Georgia O'Keeffe, interviews Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith, writes love-letters to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, and explores loneliness and technology, women and alcohol, sex and the body. Frankly, it's essential to read anything Laing writes.
Most of the pieces in Funny Weather began as journalism. Not all deserve a repeat airing. Laing’s profiles tend to the formulaic; many of her reviews glance off her subjects rather than fully penetrating them. The best essay collections — reminiscent of Joan Didion or even Martin Amis — offer a quizzical intelligence on the loose, cruising for surprise and enchantment, occasionally violence. Too few of these articles, however, contain that vital element of daring. And it’s not clear how they speak to the theme. Can David Hockney’s art really be read as a response to emergency? Can David Bowie’s?
Laing is an intelligent and acute writer, and this book is certainly interesting and assuredly well-written. I very much admired her three non-fiction books, To The River, The Trip To Echo Spring and especially The Lonely City, although I was less impressed by her novel, Crudo. That said, I am probably in a minority since it was a bestseller and won the James Tait Black Prize. Since I do find her work always worth reading, it was unsettling to experience a kind of déjà vu while reading Funny Weather, and to realise that it was déjà lu: I’d read that piece in the Guardian or the New Statesman.
Laing is most comfortable when she is using “portraiture as a way of getting at something deeper”. With a grace and benevolence similar to Sinéad Gleeson, she pens portraits of artists, writers and singers from the latter half of the 20th century which are rich in detail, suffused in empathy and astute in their socio-political contextualisation. To be drawn in a Laingish light is to be considered searchingly but always with a whole heart.
Every essay is rich with forensic research, but never feels weighed down by it. There’s too much heart in Laing’s writing for that. She creates an atmosphere through detailed descriptions of particular moments and everyday actions, remembering the exact way that she took her earrings out before having sex for the first time, and including moments that make you empathise with the famous, omni-talented figures she talks about — from Hilary Mantel recounting her Catholic parents’ unconventional break-up to David Bowie at Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Laing’s preferred method of appreciating an artist is the biographical essay. Hers is not quite criticism in the manner of, say, the late Mark Fisher, with an idea in every sentence, but rather, a collation and relaying of perspectives and information – occasionally penetrating and generally celebratory. As a critic, Laing tends to drop her readers off at the door. She is a maker of introductions, an enthusiast who speaks up for semi-obscure figures such as Arthur Russell (“the greatest musician you’ve never heard of”), or urges us to maintain in due regard the likes of Derek Jarman or Hilary Mantel. On glancing at the names gathered under the “Reading” section on the contents page, I cynically wondered if the scrupulously fashionable London dinner party chat-list (Deborah Levy, Maggie Nelson, Sally Rooney, Chris Kraus, etc) was strategically calibrated to shore up the author’s own cultural capital by association. When I read the impassioned book reviews in question, however, I realised that Laing herself bore significant responsibility for these authors’ prominence this side of the Atlantic (her review of Nelson’s The Argonauts begins: “Let’s start with an introduction”).