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Rosanna Mclaughlin

Rosanna McLaughlin is a cultural critic and satirist who moves deftly between genres. Her first collection, Double-Tracking: Studies in Duplicity (Carcanet, 2019), combined essays and short fiction in a merciless satire of middle-class life. Her latest book, Sinkhole: Three Crimes (Montez Press, 2022) steps fully into fiction. It is a novel in three parts, set in a grotesque near-future. Britain is immersed in a swamp, and sinkholes are appearing randomly, swallowing a petrol station here, a Greggs there, leaving gaping holes in the landscape. The divides between rich and poor have only intensified and nationalism is rampant. McLaughlin points towards other kinds of sinkholes of the psychological variety in her bleak world, one electrified by her expert satire, against which three crimes unfold.

Interview by Izabella ScottPortrait courtesy Rosanna McLaughlin

IZABELLA SCOTT Sinkhole begins with the epigraph, “Sorry everyone”. Why?

ROSANNA MCLAUGHLIN Who am I going to dedicate it to? My wife? The memory of my grandmother? Every character in the book is abject. It would be like giving someone you love a gift-wrapped turd. Given the circumstances I thought this was a better dedication. I also knew friends and acquaintances would think I had based characters on them, which is partly true, but only in a superficial sense, by which I mean I picked up all kinds of mannerisms or characteristics and stitched them into the tapestry of the book. I’ll take a thing and twist it into something monstrous. This is partly why I made the move from non-fiction to fiction, to avoid the writing being libellous, I suppose. My first book, Double-Tracking, was inspired by New Journalism. In the 1960s and 1970s, writers like Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote produced some incredible nonfiction writing, but used their subjects in ways that are no longer acceptable or fashionable. These days we live under the tyranny of relatable first-person writing, where there is an unspoken rule that a non-fiction writer must be a “nice”, ethically sound guide who the reader trusts. In Sinkhole, one of the characters is a misanthropic ghostwriter who specialises in producing this kind of writing for her clients – I wanted to show how artificial this niceness can be, how self-serving. 

IS Each of the novel’s three sections centre around crimes. In the first story, there is the theft of a national monument. In the final story a murder takes place among British expats in Goa. The middle story is set in a day in the life of a porn-addicted ghostwriter. Why crime?
RM Like millions of people, I bingewatch crime shows on TV. There is a moral sheen applied to the crime genre, an illusion that you are watching a fight between good and evil, that allows viewers to consume and enjoy very dark material without asking themselves why. I regularly sit down to dinner and watch someone trapped in a basement by a psychopath or a dismembered corpse being removed from a suitcase. I didn’t want to write from the perspective of the police; I didn’t want to get involved in aggrandising law enforcement as moral crusaders. I wanted to know: what would it mean to write crime with no detective? Crimes that nobody solved? If you take the moral sheen away, the genre quickly becomes depraved. We live in censorious times, where cultural faux pas get publicly punished. I wanted to create a tension between legal crimes and these more ambiguous misdemeanours. In the ghostwriter’s story, it’s not so clear what crime has been committed, although everything is sordid and corrupt. There are crimes against decency, ecological crimes playing out in the background, various betrayals. 

IS Sinkhole is full of disgusting characters, some of whom push back against tropes of positive queer representation. In the first story there is a character named Elizabeth Delbridge, a caricature of a lesbian aristocrat. In the second story, Harry the ghostwriter is a misanthropic lesbian, a drunk and a recluse who watches porn all day, while her one-eyed chihuahua Sontag snoozes nearby. Why did you want to write bad lesbians?

RM It’s a rotten kind of equality that expects minority groups to carry the burden of goodness. I resent the prevalence of the RuPaul character arc, the trauma plot that the good queer is expected to follow on the path to public acceptability: nobody can win the crown unless they pledge allegiance to fighting the good fight and cry in public. I resent the idea that queers are there to show the rest of the world what it means to have a moral compass – as if we are a politically homogenous community “teachable moments”. There is a great deal of nervousness around depictions of amoral or morally ambiguous queerness. Take the pushback against the film Tár [2022]. People walked out of the cinema when I saw it. I read an article in which a representative of the “lesbian conductor community” expressed outrage that a lesbian was being portrayed as an abuser, as if this was somehow an impossibility, as if there is a specific way all lesbians must be represented, even in fiction. But of course there are shitty lesbians out there. There has also been a concerted effort to sanitise queer cultural history, back-projecting the moral idealism of the present onto historical figures. There was an Andy Warhol show at Tate Modern just before the lockdown, in which Warhol was described as an artist who created “safe spaces” for marginalised people. Safe spaces! Warhol filmed people high on drugs, made art from pictures of people jumping to their deaths. I find this moralising turn moronic and counterproductive.

IS Why is Harry’s dog called Sontag?

RM I’ve long thought Sontag was an excellent name for a dog. This is meant as an honour, not a dig, although it also speaks to how Sontag is remembered today. She was an intellectual titan, yet since her death there has been a palpable collective joy in reading her diaries and uncovering the embarrassments of her life. The amount of pleasure people derive from discovering she thought she was crap in bed or seeing that photo that was doing the rounds on Twitter, where she’s dressed in a bear outfit. There is a kind of desperation to knock her off her high horse, to infantilise her, so she’s just like everyone else. Somehow it made sense to name a one-eyed chihuahua after her, trapped in a flat with a washed-up writer, a hostage of contemporary life.

IS Lots of the characters in Sinkhole watch porn. Harry is a Pornhub addict. You describe the “desire by algorithm” girls she has a penchant for, who exist in the “twilight zone of lobotomised erotics”, and how she masturbates “until her fingers pruned”. Why does porn feature?

RM It’s not a main aspect of the plot, but a constant backdrop – which feels true to life. I read recently that 30% of online traffic is porn. The way we interact with smartphones is so closely aligned with the logic of porn and gambling that it’s hardly surprising: flicking through images, seeking that serotonin pop. With Sinkhole I was thinking about instantly accessible content, the kind people sneak off to the toilet to watch at work. And I wanted to capture something of the experience of porn-sickness, and the kinds of depraved genres people get hooked on. Harry watches a genre called “celebrity lookalike”: videos that begin with a clip of a real celebrity, and then cut to a budget version of someone with the same colour hair and similar clothing having sex.

IS In the first story, there’s a cop, PC Whitehaven, who watches porn while on duty: burglar scenarios, lonely housewives, gangbangs. He follows the algorithm and ends up somewhere he didn’t expect: a female prisoner fucking a male guard with a strap-on, a role-reversal of the dynamic he’s used to. “His face flushed fuchsia,” you write. He’s not sure if he’s turned on or disgusted. Are you interested in the way porn can reveal desires we don’t know or can’t admit?

RM Transgression is at the heart of most porn narratives. The kind of transgressions we are prepared to watch, and those we aren’t, can say a lot about us. Mostly, though, I was thinking about the way porn informs desires, rather than reveals them. If an alien went on Pornhub they could be forgiven for thinking the whole of humanity was a teenage boy desperate to have sex with their stepmother or stepsister. I don’t imagine first-time viewers turn up seeking out this kind of content, but it becomes something they come back for, it becomes the erotic trigger. Harry is trapped in this kind of cycle. She’s a lesbian watching straight porn, but she’s swilling around in the swamp along with everyone else.

IS Across Sinkhole, you lean into the revolting, into libidinal darkness. You delight in describing Harry’s bodily odour, and the precise colour of her vomit: “A soft mound of red mulch flecked with luminous orange. Part Doritos, part wine, part brandy. A combination, she discovered, that smelled a lot like rotten apples.” There are so many dazzling moments of nauseating prose: a cat’s prolapsed arsehole “flaunted to passers-by like a florist hawking a single hideous orchid” is particularly memorable. What was it like to write this? And where did the desire to push it to this place come from?

RM It was a thrill to lean into the grittiness. We live in such disembodied times, often through identities constructed online. I wanted to return to the visceral body, which tends to get left behind, edited out: people sweating away in their synthetic loungewear, farting at their computers, binge drinking, hunched over, watching porn, picking up dog shit. I wanted to add the sordidness back in, to indulge in that queasy horniness.

IS In the world of Sinkhole, Britain is in the throes of an environmental crisis. Increased rainfall means sinkholes are appearing, and there are “floodzones” – areas that are submerged in water – and “dryzones”, where it’s safe. The countryside is doubly inhospitable due to a tick infestation. Tell me about this world you built.

RM I didn’t set out for Sinkhole to be my Greta moment. I wrote the book during the pandemic, while living in Glasgow. It rained almost every day, and the soddenness and the apocalyptic mood seeped in to the book. The landscape of Sinkhole may be an exaggeration, but isn’t particularly far-fetched. Environmental catastrophes entrench divisions that already exist. In the book, those who can afford it have bought homes in gated-communities with flood defences built on higher ground. Everyone else is left behind to eke out an existence in the floodwater. The weather is a condition of life in Sinkhole, something that is happening to everyone, but that people have different resources to deal with.

IS I found the world you satirise in Harry’s story particularly dazzling, because some of the types were so recognisable: Annie O, the “female cultural agitator”, who lives in a squat she secretly owns; Paloma Gordon, a wealthy feminist It Girl who writes for the Telegraph and is employing a ghostwriter to work for her. This felt like a continuation of Double-Tracking, where you send up artworld figures, real and fictional. Why satire?

RM For me, satire is about showing the world twice: you show how it wants to be seen, alongside what it’s actually like. Humour comes out of the rub between these two perspectives, along with something like musicality. I wish there was more humour around. We are, I hope, coming to the end of an age of unbearable sincerity. Satire is also my sensibility; it’s part of the way I engage. I’m a contrarian by nature, and I get off on a particular kind of criticality and playfulness. I see contemporary culture as a bleak comedy. Everybody has a part to play, but most people don’t recognise the genre in which they’ve been cast. As a species, humans have the greatest access to technology and information that we’ve ever had, but we are arguably the most stupid we’ve ever been. It’s funny, right? Bleak, but funny. ◉