A meandering, heartfelt exploration of loneliness, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is part memoir, part philosophising, part art history. Subtitled “Adventures in the art of being alone”, Laing uses an astutely lonely period of her life as a springboard to understand more. Searching for connection or camaraderie, she seeks out artists and thinkers to have also dealt with this beast, moving between the works and lives of some of New York City’s most compelling artists.
In her mid-30s, Laing moved across the Atlantic for a relationship but by the time she’d made it to New York, she was single. Having already said goodbye to home in the United Kingdom, she decided to try this different version of her new life. So she found herself alone and very quickly, inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Fascinated and curious by this deep and shameful experience, she began to explore it through its expression by others. Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz all lived in this same very personal space and used it as a form of or fuel for their unique expression Their work and lives became avenues for Laing’s understanding of her own psyche.
Being alone is not the same as loneliness, and loneliness is not the same as depression. Laing makes these definitions and distinctions early as she sketches out her new New York situation and the artists whose works she will be investigating further in the book. The personal experience becomes a framework for this interrogation into the art and artists, their stories shared as well as her own story in discovering them. How these artists’ experiences of New York start to blend in with Laing’s own is quite beautiful and, essentially, mitigates her very aloneness in a way that echoes through the decades.
It’s intense, this book. In the first quarter, I thought that this was not something for me at this time. Laing’s experience is claustrophobic, her writing so effective that it was heavy. I was struck by her lassitude, irritated with her diversions into philosophy as they kept her in the same, isolated place. Her activity seemed to take her further into loneliness when I felt like she could simply translate that energy into action in the real world to abate the condition.
But then when we get into the lives of others, her curiosity and compassion in examining these artists is compelling.
“All his work was an act of resistance against this dominating force, driven by a desire to contact and inhabit a deeper, wilder mode of being. The best way he’d found to fight was to make public the truths of his own life, to create work that resisted invisibility and silence; the loneliness that comes from having your existence denied, from being written out of history…”
Laing is drawing out common themes that the artists may or may not see themselves. By doing so she weaves a community out of disparate people across two centuries in the same city, grappling with the same isolation. It is quite beautiful, subtle work.
Laing’s life has translated into a book that dips its toe into different fields, different genres, but emerges into a clear whole. Contained within Manhattan island, her journey is right here on the page between the covers, her evolution in thinking to come to a complete, happier alone. It is a challenging, fundamental, brave piece of work.