When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art.
Moving fluidly between the works and lives of some of the city’s most compelling artists, Laing conducts an eclectic, dazzling investigation into what it means it be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be redeemed and embraced.
How are you doing, really? Are you on lockdown? Are you a key worker?
I’m at home. In the past two weeks I went from working in an office, to working from home, to furloughed from work until further notice, the magazine I work on suspended from publication. I live with housemates, all men, none I am particularly close to – though we’re getting a bit closer, inevitably I guess. I’m lonely, and I am afraid what the total lack of structure in my life will do to my brain, which veers towards the angsty and sad even at the best of times.
I’ve gotten really into Money Heist. Like, to be honest, that show is my life now and I don’t know what I’m going to do when it’s over. If you have any recommendations they will be gratefully received.
What I’m saying is that one way or another, it felt like the perfect time to revisit, The Lonely City, a book of essays by Olivia Laing that I read during my months of non-blogging. When I picked up the book and reread a couple of essays this morning to refresh my memory for this very review it felt like a risk – would this make me feel better, or would it make the dread that has been creeping over me since the weekend all the worse?
Fortunately, it was the former. The Lonely City isn’t precisely an uplifting read, but it is a cathartic one. Post-break up and in a foreign country, Olivia wrote this book in a period of absolute solitude. During that time, when even ordering a coffee became a challenge because she felt so painfully self-conscious about herself (something I felt on a spiritual level), she found solace and a kind of kindship in the stories of the lonely artists that came before her. She looked at the work they created to fix themselves – or if not that, patch over their worst of it – as a road map for the way out of her own heartbreak, which began over one person and over time grew into something much larger than that.
“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. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need to constantly inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed inside a unit of two, turned inward from the world at large?”
The book is filled with stories of artists, a lot of them from the 70s and 80s, and the various ways they did and did not manage to connect in their lives and work. They are painful, bittersweet and comforting all at the same time. Maybe my favourite was the story of Andy Warhol, who, hampered first by his weak grasp of English and second by his paralysing hatred of his body, started to use technology as a means of shielding himself from others. He started carrying a tape recorder with him everywhere he went, recording all of his interactions as part of some wider art project that seemed like it was as much about creating a means of holding himself at a safe distance from his friends and boyfriends as it was the end product, a book called a, which no one read.
These essays are filled with people who lived their lives on the fringes; people of colour, queer people, the mentally ill and those living in poverty, many of them not allowed a voice during their lifetimes. People like Henry Darger, the janitor who spent his entire life in poverty who was discovered to be an incredibly prolific artist and writer when his landlord came to clean out his apartment after he’d been hospitalised for what would be the final time. He may also have been a total psycho (his artwork is scary weird) – but nobody ever knew him, so no one knows for sure.
The Lonely City is an exploration of a subject we’re all facing right now in new and frightening ways. What is a world where we can’t go around to your friend’s place to watch a movie? How do you cope when all you want is a hug from your mum, but she is quarantined miles away from you? What this book does, somewhat paradoxically, is classify loneliness as a community experience – because at some point, to some degree, we’ve all been there.
Especially right now.
“If I sound adamant it is because I am speaking from personal experience. When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”