“What does a sane man do in an insane society?” Joseph Heller asked. He does what a man has always done when that question is put before him: he flees or he fights. He flees, as European intellectuals did during the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, or he fights, as Europe and America reluctantly did when pushed to it by Germany and Japan a decade later.
The difficulty often lies in recognizing insanity for what it is. Governments all over Europe chose not to take Hitler’s rearmament of Germany seriously for years. The German people themselves initially thought that their military forays were merely taking back territory that was historically theirs, anyway. Only Hitler’s most ardent followers saw, with a glint of steel in their eyes, the rise of a new, dominant Germany. And only Hitler’s close inner circle knew the actual depth of the Fuhrer’s plans and the reach of his ambition.
This is the human dilemma on the largest scale, hard to perceive and explain even by bright minds, which is why historians and philosophers are necessary to us. We live, however, for fourscore years on the small scale, knowing we have little impact on the larger scale, save through our activity in the voting booth and in our neighborhoods. Yet the question is asked of us, too, nearly every day: what does the sane man do in the face of insanity?
The answer, as Amy Liptrot reveals in her memoir, The Outrun, is the same: she flees, or she fights. Liptrot was born and raised in the windswept and desolate Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland, a place so bereft of the human imprint that many have left the islands, even after the modest industrial improvements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In my imagination, it is bracing to live in such a place, contending every day and night with the relentless wind, the bitter cold, and the crashing sea. All that is unnecessary to life is stripped away; survival and survival alone is what matters. And yet, if you do survive, a man or woman has to feel an enormous sense of pride in the accomplishment. The place is yours, and there’s the obscene satisfaction that nobody will fuck with you.
The drawback to living in such a place, though, is an immense loneliness, a cage of solitude made of implacable rock and an impenetrable wind in our faces. Such loneliness cannot necessarily be cured by friendships, because friends are few there. Even marriage may not help, because suitable partners may not exist there, even if we marry them. Work cannot cure it because there are few jobs to be had, except for tending the sheep.
No, unless one loves the life that she’s born into there, unless she says to herself, with resolute calmness, This is my place. This is what my life is, there is only one alternative: to flee, even if we don’t call it that; even if we don’t know that’s what it is. Liptrot flees to the expanse of London, but the Orkney Isles are always, always on her mind. There’s a constant tug of war going on in the book between Liptrot’s evident love of the Orkneys and her sure and certain knowledge that’s there’s nothing in those islands for her, no way to make a life there.
There’s nothing for her in London, either. She’s alone in both places, and that knowledge paralyzes her with fear, except for one endless activity: her drinking. The Outrun is a classic memoir of a battle against alcoholism. All the behaviors of the drunk are there, and the evasions of the truth: the drunkenness at parties; the stealing and the replacing of wine bottles in the fridge; the borrowing of ten pounds just so a run can be made to the corner store. Liptrot’s roommates and friends are aware of her drinking and her denials. Few of them do anything. Others, who tell her she needs help, eventually leave her, to save themselves. Liptrot loses both boyfriends and jobs in this way, and she is on the verge of losing life itself until, one day, she has a moment of clarity, and sees that a life of sobriety is not only possible, it can be better than anything she has ever had.
She checks herself into one of Britain’s government-funded rehab programs. Over time, as she both wills herself to stop drinking (day by day, inch by inch) and listens to the stories of her fellow addicts, she begins to see her prior behavior–stealing liquor, waking up with strangers, wallowing in her own shit–with an outsider’s eye. She begins to see herself as she realizes her friends have seen her. The knowledge brings shame, as knowledge sometimes does, but it also kindles in her the desire to preserve the talent she’s always had: the talent to write.
The Outrun is a terrific memoir. God forbid that alcohol ever be allowed to destroy the talent to write as Liptrot does. The landscapes of the islands are terrifying, and you may be able to go back and re-read a graphic novel like And Then Emily Was Gone, by Iain Laurie and John Lees (2015), with new pleasure and a new understanding of why those authors set their story of a tormented detective and an abducted girl in those islands. You may also see Liptrot’s memoir as a companion piece to Post Grad, Caroline Kitchener’s account of five women’s first year out of Princeton.
What all three books have in common is the stamp of human anguish. Life is so short, and it is so hard to bear its solitude alone that we are driven crazy. We are provoked into doing things that none of us would do if we had work that made us happy, and companions who loved us. Neither of these gifts is given to any of us, though. We must search for them. And those who search for us must have the right to choose us, if they wish. The truth is, it’s hell when they don’t choose you.
It’s also hell to know and understand that solitude is the root condition of the human experience. All of us are, each of us is, trapped inside our own skin, with all of our faults and imperfections, real or imagined. The love of our wives, our girlfriends, our husbands, or our boyfriends may help us endure and even flourish for a time, but our singularity, our solitude, will remain until the end of our days. That is the way it is.
I have, myself, been as battered and bruised as Liptrot has been, as lonely and anguished. My brother-in-law has asked me, “Where is your anger?” My sister has asked me–just last week, in fact–“Why don’t you drink?” My anger was buried in Lubbock; it was buried in Champaign. That which remains (and there will always be some that remains), I carry inside of myself. It is the measure of my folly. But it is also fuel, to be used to illuminate both the dark and the light inside of me. As far as drinking is concerned, I do drink, and if I had a lick of sense I’d drink even more, given the pressure I’m under every day. But I have people to help. I must be here to help them. That means I cannot yield to the despair I often feel. I cannot end before my end. That means I must wake up, every day, in the middle of nowhere, and recognize the place as my own.