The 100 or so men that British journalist Tabitha Lasley interviewed for her ethnography turned memoir Sea State are all stalked by death. That makes sense, given their profession: The men work on oil and gas rigs in the North Sea. These offshore workers labor away on floating bombs, at the mercy of an industry that has long been willing to sacrifice occupational safety to the bottom line, a situation that the recent intercession of private equity has only worsened. The UK Health and Safety Executive reported in 2019 that 26 percent of the inspection scores assigned to British rigs qualified as “poor or very poor”; in total, the office identified 1,382 compliance issues ranging from maintenance problems to improper emergency procedures—a figure that has been rising more or less steadily since 2014. Greed, malfeasance, and neglect are all major factors in the serious accidents that continue to happen offshore, as they have been ever since the BP-operated Sea Gem first discovered natural gas in UK waters in 1965. The Sea Gem itself capsized only a few months after it began drilling, when two of its hastily constructed steel support legs crumpled, taking 14 men with it. But the disaster that would eventually become synonymous with North Sea oil is the Piper Alpha, a platform operated by Occidental Petroleum that exploded in 1988 and claimed the lives of 167.
None of the Piper Alpha’s 61 survivors appear in Lasley’s book, though she speaks to a man who had bunked with one in Morocco. He recalls a memory that his roommate, a rigger who rarely spoke, eventually relayed to him: After the explosion, the man had hesitated on the platform’s helideck; his hair was burning from the heat of the fire, but he was too afraid to jump into the water below—until an older coworker took hold of him and pulled him in. “When they hit the water, the old guy’s life jacket came up, broke his neck, and he died.”
This is one of Sea State’s most disturbing images. It isn’t, however, the death that keeps returning to Lasley, the story she hears in so many interviews that it begins to seem apocryphal. That one is about a man working the Brent oil and gas field, who is said to have filled his pockets with wrenches and thrown himself off the side of a rig. More so than the Piper Alpha tragedy, this rumored death by suicide is an apt motif for Lasley’s project, which quickly abandons any pretense of being an objective study of a masculine industry in decline. What Sea State becomes instead is a blistering account of self-destruction—that of the men who work offshore, yes, but mostly Lasley’s own.
The events recounted in Sea State are precipitated by a breakup and a burglary. Lasley is working at a magazine in London when a man kicks in the door to the basement apartment she shares with an oafish boyfriend named Adam and steals, among other things, her most prized possession: a laptop containing four years of work on a book about oil rigs. The shock of the theft exposes the shaky foundation of her on-and-off relationship, which crumbles completely when Adam receives a fat tax return that he declines to share with her, even to help replace the pilfered computer. Deciding the only thing to do is to start her book over, “properly this time,” Lasley leaves London for a reporting trip, telling Adam to “wipe [her] number” on the way.
Why does Lasley want to write about offshore work so badly anyway? A strange author’s note appended to the US edition of Sea State, which reads as if written under duress, suggests that her aim is to paint a penitent, soft-focus portrait of the proverbial white working class in the era of Trump and Brexit. Thankfully, this is just a red herring: What she’s actually up to is something much less programmatic. When asked by an editor at her magazine about her interest in riggers, Lasley gives a different answer than the one she proffered to prospective readers: “I want to see what men are like with no women around.” “But you’ll be around,” the editor points out. As it turns out, that isn’t even the half of it.
Lasley’s inquiry brings her to Aberdeen, Scotland, a coastal city two hours north of Edinburgh that James Marriott and Terry Macalister refer to in their book Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation as “the service base for a vast new oil colony.” Aberdeen is the portal through which men all over the UK must pass to reach their rigs, and offshore workers are frequently stranded there when poor weather conditions ground their flights home or delay the long-range helicopter rides that form the final part of their commute. In Lasley’s telling, the city, awash in oil money, has remade itself in the image of this transient workforce, catering to its two primary hobbies: drinking and shopping. She paints Aberdeen in broad, unflattering strokes, writing that “the city is rich and dull. The winters are punitively cold.” Later, she scoffs at the description of a neighborhood as fashionable: “As if any part of Aberdeen could claim to be in vogue.”
Her disdain for this “grave and venal town” notwithstanding, she winds up renting an apartment there in short order. Lasley’s decision, we’ll soon find out, is more personal than professional, but its consequences are far-reaching: To take the flat, she has to quit the London magazine and its “simian day rate” once and for all. It’s the beginning of a downward slide into precarity, a condition that in Sea State comes for everyone eventually.
On Lasley’s very first visit to Aberdeen, she meets Caden Doyle, a small but sculpted offshore worker three years her junior from the post-industrial sprawl of Stockton-on-Tees, where he lives with his wife and twin daughters. Their connection is immediate and wolfish in its intensity: Lasley asks to interview him, but this tenuous alibi is jettisoned a few drinks in, and the pair retreat to a more secluded bar where they fondle each other like teenagers:
I caught a hank of his hair in my hand, and tipped his head back. His skin was soft, its grain finely sifted. Edible, I thought, putting my mouth to his throat. He wriggled out from underneath me. There was a perfectly executed oval of tooth marks on his neck.
Back at her hotel room, Lasley refuses to sleep with Caden—she hasn’t attended to her bikini line, she tells us, and is wearing the wrong underwear besides. He pleads that this is their only opportunity; they’ll never meet again. It’s a lie, of course, but how precisely their tryst becomes a full-blown affair is left off the page. This omission is of a piece with Lasley’s refreshing disdain for the reader’s desire to know exactly what is going on at all times, who is speaking which lines, what is truth and what’s a fabrication. As in real life, key details are only revealed in their full context long after they’ve been introduced. Twice in Sea State, Lasley comments on Caden’s unusual sexual stamina; it’s not until the final chapter that we find out he can stay harder for longer because he’s addicted to Viagra.
Lasley is no stranger to substances herself, though her tastes tend more toward the illicit: As she brags to one offshore worker, “I’ve been taking [pills for] twenty years.” (She’s 33 at the time.) Cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA, and great quantities of alcohol are ingested in this book, and Lasley’s pursuit of her next high forms an implicit parallel to her relationship with Caden: Both are flirtations with oblivion. She acknowledges this aspect of the affair when she imagines informing Caden’s wife Rachel about them. “I could picture it…the way I could sometimes see myself falling under the tube on the way home from work,” she writes, “breaching the yellow line and slipping down onto the tracks.” While her attraction to drugs and booze makes intuitive sense—they’re fun, after all—Lasley’s attraction to Caden is a bit more confounding. The two of them are mismatched in all sorts of superficial ways: His body runs too hot for her to comfortably share a bed with him; his inability to distinguish “to” from “too” makes her “gnash [her] teeth”; she has no TV at home, while he has eight (“one in each bedroom, one in the front room, one in the playroom, one in the sun room, and one in the bathroom”). There are more profound incompatibilities as well. “I was greedy for his past, he was bored by mine,” Lasley writes. “It was one of several small inequities I accepted without thinking about it any further.”
Surely, you’re thinking, at least the sex must be good? Not really! After one early rendezvous in an airport hotel, Lasley comments that she “couldn’t, in good conscience, class what we’d done as fucking, any more than I’d call a speculum a sex toy.” Later, she writes that their intimacy has “a teenage flavor…in that it was clumsy and disorganized, and I couldn’t articulate what was wrong, or how to fix it.” While Lasley speculates that her desire for Caden might be the result of manufactured scarcity—like “a celebrity doing a club meet and greet,” he has a habit of “duck[ing] in, then out, leaving me with a large bill and the uneasy feeling I’d been ripped off”—she doesn’t waste time interrogating it. This willful ignorance is ultimately what makes her account so affecting: “What is love, after all, but a temporary cessation of critical faculties?”
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Caden and Lasley’s attempt to make a real go of their relationship is comically abortive. Before too long, Rachel’s lawyer sends a letter informing Caden that, since she has lived with him as a stay-at-home wife for 10 years, she is now herself a dependent; should he go through with the divorce, he’ll have to support her “for the next fifteen years, possibly forever.” Lasley never sees him again.
The affair with Caden may consume most of the narrative of Sea State, but Lasley continues to work on the book that she set out to write, inducing riggers into conversation at hotel bars and strip clubs across Aberdeen. The memoir that she has actually published contains the ghostly imprint of this other book, the one that almost was. Anonymous quotes from Lasley’s interviewees appear at the start of each chapter. A few read almost like punchlines:
I have a problem with authority. Did I have a bad relationship with my father? No. Wait a minute. Yes! Sort of. My mum and dad split up when I was ten. I didn’t speak to him for seven years.
Many others, though, are poignant, or at least revealing of the double life that so many offshore workers feel the job forces them to live. For weeks at a time, they’re sequestered in monastic conditions while performing dirty and dangerous labor. Their marriages, already likely to suffer the ravages of “intermittent husband syndrome,” tend to be further damaged by the men’s inclination toward hedonism on either side of a work trip. “When you get home, you’ve got a lot of steam to let off,” one rigger tells Lasley. “Women don’t tend to understand that.” Another confesses, “I get back and for the first four days I turn my phone off. I don’t see her. Obviously, I say hello, but we’re struggling. It takes me so long to get used to being at home.”
Lasley is perceptive, too, about the uneasy class position of the offshore workers, many of whom come from working-class backgrounds but whose occupation allows them a level of material comfort that eludes many bourgeois, city-dwelling professionals today. Despite, or perhaps because of, these advantages, the industry has proved relatively resistant to trade unionism, even as cost-cutting and mergers have led to a 40 percent reduction in jobs over the last five years. As Lasley observes at one point, “though it was part of the Northeast’s catechism to hate [Margaret] Thatcher and all she stood for, the pioneer spirit that saw them shift their working lives out to sea had something in common with the buccaneering ethos of Thatcherism itself.” What goes unsaid here, but is relevant to her point, is that Thatcher relied on the miraculous productivity of the offshore workers to crush the storied miners’ strike of 1984-85.
These more sociological passages are interesting, but on the whole, Sea State’s slide into the personal doesn’t wind up feeling like a loss. Lasley’s writing is energetic and occasionally impressionistic. She is prone to self-indulgent disquisitions on the beauty of dance music like UK garage and seems nimbler with details than structures. All of this makes for a fresh and unpredictable prose style but would be an obvious liability in any bird’s-eye view of the oil industry. And perhaps most crucially, Lasley makes for as compelling a character as any of the men she speaks to.
One of the book’s most fascinating subjects, which feels only half-intentional, is the insincerity, or at least incoherence, of her own avowed gender politics. Lasley is never without a vaguely feminist zinger—“I don’t wear high heels. They’re a plot against women. They mean you can’t run away from men”—and she’s unafraid to challenge the prejudices of the offshore workers who casually call her a whore. But she’s no bastion of female solidarity herself. When Caden’s wife finds out about her existence, she starts bombarding Lasley with invective via her phone. “Tell your wife her internalized misogyny is showing again,” Lasley complains to Caden at one point, eliding her own part in Rachel’s distress. Much later, a different rigger complains to her that women always take each other’s side; all she can say is, “Oh no. No, they don’t.
At the end of her short-term lease on the apartment in Aberdeen, Lasley packs up to leave with neither a completed manuscript nor a boyfriend nor any money to show for it. She can’t afford to move back to London without a job and must return to her mother’s home in the northwest of England instead—“as if the intervening twenty years hadn’t counted at all.” Without better options, she finds work at a take-out joint in a neighboring town that is drawn as the inverse of conspicuously wealthy Aberdeen: Downstream from a city built on extraction, this place is home to an oil refinery that pumps a “sulfurous cloud” over hulking public housing complexes. Lasley’s personal crash is mirrored by structural changes in the North Sea. A few of her customers at the restaurant work on the rigs, and they bring back grim tales of a sector in free fall; companies are hiring again, but this time to decommission rigs. As Marriott and Macalister report in Crude Britannia, “UK oil production has slumped by over two-thirds since the late 1990s.”
Readers know all along that the real conclusion to Sea State is the book we hold in our hands, but Lasley crafts her own denouement all the same. Driving a young coworker home after her shift one night, she’s on the point of missing his exit and nearly careens off the road—an echo of the traumatic car accident that she survived as a teenager, which she recounts as an omen in the book’s opening pages. If this ending is unsatisfying, it’s because such self-conscious loop-closing feels like a betrayal of what Lasley’s memoir is at its best: a validation of failure, no matter how self-inflicted, as a story in its own right—one that can be told just as well as any other.