The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

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Reviewed by Marina Sofia

There are some who crave solitude, others who fear it. There are those who crave some idealized version of solitude, à la Thoreau, absorbing the lessons of nature, feeling one with the universe… This is not the book for them. Olivia Laing clearly states that this is a book about the ‘particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people’. The loneliness of not knowing our neighbours, of imagining that everyone has a more glamorous and meaningful life than ourselves, of dying alone and undiscovered until complaints about putrid smells alert the health and safety committee of some apartment block.

The author is creating a bit of a name for herself for combining the personal with the political, contemporary concerns with historical data. Creative non-fiction is probably the best term to describe this mix of thorough biographical research, memoir writing, in-depth journalism and almost philosophical prodding of the reader’s own thoughts and values. Although I have personally never felt lonely (despite my apparent gregariousness, I quite enjoy my own company too), I absolutely loved this book and am recommending it to everybody.

Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as desired… Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categoriese. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstance…

The author starts with her own experiences of feeling lost and hungry in New York City. Why hungry? Because Olivia Laing compares loneliness to hunger ‘like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated…’ A self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words; by experiencing loneliness and feeling ashamed of it, we soon lose the ability to connect with others, to make those polite social noises which often seem meaningless but are an essential part of functioning in society. With honesty, humour and not an ounce of self-pity, Laing links each chapter and artist to her own evolution of loneliness and eventually her coming to terms with it.

Laing has chosen to approach the subject from the point of view of art – reflecting her own current passions. She chooses and describes works of art (and other visual imagery, including film), which seem to best articulate loneliness in that epitome of a modern metropolis which is New York. She mentions Hitchcock, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Valerie Solanas, Billie Holiday and many others, but focuses particularly on the work of four artists: Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, Edward Hopper and David Wojnarowicz. If, like me, you’ve only heard of two of these and really only seen the work of one of these (forever associated with Heinz Baked Beans and Marilyn Monroe in your mind), fear not, for the author is a wonderful guide through their work. She brings together their own words from interviews, biographical details, psychoanalytic interpretations with her own sensitive and detailed analysis of their work, and weaves a very readable, colourful tapestry of words and images. 

She describes how Hopper became annoyed with people insisting that loneliness was his central theme: ‘The loneliness thing is overdone.’ She allows us to discover the similarities (and differences) between Rimbaud and artist David Wojnarowicz: ‘I want to create a myth that I can one day become’.  She introduces us to Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who posthumously achieved fame as one of the world’s most celebrated outsider artists, leaving behind a huge body of work which is profoundly disturbing and resistant to interpretation.

Finally, she begins to appreciate Andy Warhol’s art beyond the ubiquitous pop images. She describes just how agonizing he found speech, how paralysed he was by the fear of being misunderstood or found unintelligible: ‘Can I just say alalalala?’ The loneliness of difference, undesirability and not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance are things we might not associate with the media-hungry Warhol and his endless queues of groupies. However, Laing shows us a different, shy Warhol, constantly hiding behind his machinery, cameras and recorders. We hear of the strange relationship between Warhol and Valerie Solanas, who tried to assassinate him. Yet Laing does not give us the salacious details of celebrity magazines, but describes it as the desperation of two outsiders, fearful that what they had to say was not wanted at all.

Loneliness is not supposed to induce empathy, but like Wojnarowicz’s diaries and Klaus Nomi’s voice, that painting of Warhol was one of the things that most medicated my own feelings of loneliness… so much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive…

In other, very poignant chapters, Laing tells the story of how AIDS laid waste to almost an entire generation of talented young artists in NYC.  Initially called the ‘gay cancer or plague’, between 1981 and 1996 (when combined therapy became a reasonable option),  66,000 people died of AIDS in NYC alone, many of them gay men, in conditions of the most horrifying isolation – sacked from jobs, rejected by families, neglected even by hospital staff, even their bodies were often cast aside by funeral parlours. Laing introduces us to just a few of those talented, doomed individuals: David Wojnarowicz, photographer Peter Hujar, counter-tenor Klaus Nomi, who made an art of being alien.

The final part of the book examines the future of ‘connection’ and loneliness: the internet with its apparent ‘instant community’, ‘beautiful, slippery promises of anonymity and control’, apparently risk free, no danger of being exposed, no public rejection or humiliation. Once again, Laing introduces me to a new name: Josh Harris, who has been called the Warhol of the Web. Back in the late 1990s, he created a participatory domain in a physical place, a loft somewhere in NYC, run along the lines of Warhol’s Factory, where gamers, models, pop stars and the like could congregate. Later, this gave way to an experiment in communal living under surveillance, with participants eager to sign away their rights to their own data in exchange for some illusory online fame. A cautionary tale, which the author admits made her rethink her whole approach to social media.

Although this book is infused with Laing’s elegant style, it is not a gentle, lyrical read. You will need a strong heart and open mind to engage with this work. It is profoundly affecting if you allow it to be: to burrow its way into your soul and allow you to be completely honest with yourself and explore yourself further.  You will come many disturbing scenes and life trajectories filled with sadness. Laing raises many questions: some personal, some more general and historical, but it certainly cannot leave you indifferent. I love the way she writes so clearly and eloquently – making it all seem very simple and accessible, yet ultimately making me as a reader feel very intelligent.

Loneliness is a very special place. It isn’t always easy to see the truth of Dennis Wilson’s statement, but …I’ve come to believe that he was right, that loneliness is by no means a wholly worthless experience, but rather one that cuts right to the heart of what we value and what we need. Many marvelous things have emerged from the lonely city: things forged in loneliness, but also things that function to redeem it.

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Marina Sofia blogs at Finding Time to Write

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Canongate, 2016). 978-1782111238, 388pp., hardback.

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