Literary hangovers: how the morning after brings out the best in writers

From Irvine Welsh to Helen Fielding to - of course - Kingsley Amis, capturing the unique terror of one-too-many is a challenge many fine writers have taken up, with deeply enjoyable results.

Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019
Illustration by Ryan MacEachern for Penguin 2019

In the early 14th century, Pope Benedict XI was searching for the finest artists in all the land to paint Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. 

Word got to him about a guy in Florence called Giotto who was supposedly quite handy, so he sent a courtier to bring back evidence of his suitability for the holy task.

The fable goes that upon receiving the challenge, Giotto dipped his brush in some red paint, slowly drew a perfect, freehand circle, then handed it over. 

The emissary was nonplussed, but back at the Vatican, Benedict understood perfectly: here was an expression of pure artistic technique, a concise demonstration of skill few other painters in the world could match. Giotto got the gig, and people have been queuing in Rome to see the results ever since.

What is the novelist’s equivalent of the perfect circle? The scene which, if requested, could serve as indisputable proof of their brilliance?

'What is the novelist’s equivalent of the perfect circle? The indisputable proof of their brilliance?'

Some people would suggest a grand moment of love or death or war, but I’d propose a far more dramatic experience, one most of us will dabble in this December: the hangover.

Think about it. What contains a greater maelstrom of emotions in a shorter space in time than waking up the morning after an office party, Santa hat askew on your head, the hazy memory of shouting in your boss's ear across a crowded bar hovering over your bed like Scrooge’s ghost? 

If a novelist’s task is to communicate dramatic interiority, what richer than an 8am bus journey in which you can’t say for sure whether you're going to laugh, cry or discreetly throw up in your handbag?

Or if fiction's job is merely to entertain, what could be funnier than watching someone with their head buried in their hands, suffering in a way both transitory and self-inflicted, the cleanest hit of schadenfreude in the known world?

To paraphrase Anthony Burgess's description of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, not a word could be added or taken away from this passage to improve it, from "spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning" – a line that actually dries the inside of your mouth as you read it - to the final, deadpan flourish. 

It’s the gold standard in hangover writing that many brave writers have tried to match since. Tom Wolfe had a go, some 30 years later, in his satirical novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), by way of an extended metaphor:

“The telephone blasted Peter Fallow awake inside an egg with the shell peeled away and only the membranous sac holding it intact. Ah! The membranous sac was his head, and the right side of his head was on the pillow, and the yolk was as heavy as mercury, and it rolled like mercury, and it was pressing down on his right temple… If he tried to get up to answer the telephone, the yolk, the mercury, the poisoned mass, would shift and roll and rupture the sac, and his brains would fall out.”

'It's the gold standard in hangover writing'

There’s a surreal, almost sci-fi quality to this, as there often is on, say, New Year's Day, when a few hours earlier someone declared 'shots!' and you tried a little too hard to roll back the years.

More recently, in Anansi Boys (2005), Neil Gaiman threw his hat in the ring by experimenting with punctuation – or the lack of it – to replicate what I would call the 'all-at-once' mania of a morning after:

“Charlie was thirsty and his head hurt and his mouth tasted evil and his eyes were too tight in his head and all his teeth twinged and his stomach burned and his back was aching in a way that started around his knees and went up to his forehead and his brains had been removed and replaced with cotton balls and needles and pins which was why it hurt to try and think, and his eyes were not just too tight in his head but they must have rolled out in the night and been reattached with roofing nails; and now he noticed that anything louder than the gentle Brownian motion of air molecules drifting softly past each other was above his pain threshold. Also, he wished he were dead.”

Fast-forward to 2012, and Will Wiles, writing in Care of Wooden Floors, went for something bordering on science writing to try and capture the queasiness of a certified Bad One:  

"White noise. Indistinct sound, beneath hearing, the growl and whoosh of blood forcing through tight passages. A two-part beat, the slave-driver’s padded drumsticks rising and falling as an exhausted muscle trireme heaves across a treacle ocean. A heart, pumping hot, thick goo in place of blood. Cells striving and dying. The electricity of the brain whining like an interlocutor. A cascade of neural sparks, an ascending, crackling chain reaction, synapses firing. Sensation – the sensation of no sensation. Then, awareness."

Did any match Aimes? Probably not. But what good fun to see them try. 

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