The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

“He lived in isolation, but it was a highly populated isolation. There was a circle drawn around him that no one crossed.”


Olivia Laing’s second book (but her first that I read), The Trip to Echo Spring, was an exploration of how alcoholism affected the life and art of six mid-century American writers. It was, in essence, a mapping of something that can seem abstract (a diagnosis, a condition, an impulse, an addiction) onto the skin of everyday reality: how it feels to experience it, how it manifests, and its ability to both enhance and destroy artistic potential. The Lonely  City is doing something similar, except that the abstraction is loneliness and isolation—particularly in an urban setting—and the afflicted makers are visual artists, most (thought not all) of them centred in New York City.

She also combines the experience of the artists she discusses with her own experience of loneliness. It’s a phenomenon, as the psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann dryly noted, that people do not seem to want to discuss, an aversion that stretches even to psychologists themselves, who tend to avoid asking questions that would lead them to the heart of the nature of loneliness. There is something in us that makes us not only forget what loneliness feels like once we are no longer lonely, but that causes us to be actively repelled by loneliness in others, a kind of cruel self-reinforcing survivalism. (Laing writes of the elderly man she met on a station platform who tried to engage her in conversation. Her responses to him are increasingly terse until, smiling gently, he moves away. She is ashamed of how she has pushed him away, but she almost cannot help herself.) The awful thing about this is that to be lonely is often to feel as though you are somehow, incomprehensibly, repulsive to other people—and the truth, horrible as it is, is that you are right. “It may well be,” Fromm-Reichmann wrote, “that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.” Edward Hopper, Laing’s first subject, had this effect on people; a diarist who met him writes, “Should be married. But can’t imagine to what kind of a woman. The hunger of that man.”

Hunger and loneliness go together: the need for connection is as driving as the need for food. It’s no wonder that Laing chooses to focus on outsider artists. Andy Warhol—whom you might consider a consummate insider—was in fact the son of Polish emigrants from Pittsburgh, born Andrej Warhola, an ultimate outsider in many senses. He found himself, the body, mortality, death, physically horrifying; he could not face the reality of his own existence as a corporeal being. He was a sickly little boy, an immigrant, and gay: triply alienated from the children amongst whom he grew up. Laing’s acuity, as a critic of art and of psychology, is in evidence when she examines Warhol’s Pop Art aesthetic:

Starting with a series of Coke bottles, he progressed rapidly to Campbell’s soup cans, food stamps and dollar bills: things he literally harvested from his mother’s cupboards. Ugly things, unwanted things, things that couldn’t possibly belong in the sublime white chamber of the gallery…He was painting things to which he was sentimentally attached, even loved; objects whose value derives not because they’re rare or individual but because they are reliably the same.

As a little boy in industrial urban Pennsylvania in the 1950s, to not be the same as one’s peers was to be freakish, alien, to suffer a profound social isolation. It puts a new, an entirely heartbreaking, slant on those Technicolour silk-screened soup cans, to look at them as a wordless cry of longing for assimilation. “All the Cokes are the same”, Warhol wrote in his autobiography, “and all the Cokes are good.” Inanimate objects, factory-produced, mechanized, do not shun each other, and are not individually shunned by the people who use them. They are part of a tribe. They belong somewhere; they belong together.

Sexuality is a huge part of this feeling of belonging or alienation. David Wojnarowicz is the subject of most of Laing’s attention in The Lonely City; he was a gay photographer and video artist who ran away from home as a teenager and hustled for years before getting off the streets. His life spanned a period of New York City’s history that began with the sexual freedom and liberating anonymity of the gay hookup scene at the abandoned Chelsea piers, and that ended with the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. It’s not easy, if you haven’t lived through it, to imagine how genuinely apocalyptic the late 1980s and early 1990s must have felt, primarily for urban gay men and the people who loved them, but increasingly also for sex workers and intravenous drug addicts. Wojnarowicz saw dozens of his friends die. The American government did nothing to help. An ignorant and judgmental political elite saw the waves of deaths as the result of “lifestyle choices”, regrettable but ultimately no one else’s responsibility. It must have literally felt like the end of the world. Wojnarowicz lost his friend, the artist Peter Hujar, in 1987. A few weeks later, Wojnarowicz’s partner, Tom Rauffenbart, was diagnosed with AIDS, and Wojnarowicz himself was diagnosed in the spring of 1988. Laing writes so movingly, so beautifully, about his artistic response to these losses:

Later, he made a film for Hujar that was never finished… The camera moved tenderly, grievingly over Peter’s open eyes and mouth, his bony, elegant hands and feet, a hospital bracelet looped around his wrist. Then white birds by a bridge, a moon behind clouds, a shoal of something white moving very fast in the dark. The fragment ended with a re-enactment of a dream: a shirtless man being passed through a chain of shirtless men, his supine body slipping gently from hand to tender hand. Peter held by his community, conducted between realms.

[…] During the AIDS years he kept painting a repeating image of creatures attached to one another by pipes or cords or roots, a foetus to a soldier, a heart to a clock. His friends were sick, his friends were dying, he was in deep grief, thrust face to face with his own mortality. Again and again with his brush, painting the cords that tethered creatures together. Connection, attachment, love: those increasingly imperilled possibilities.

She intercuts these chapters with her own experience of loneliness in New York, a loneliness that feels particularly contemporary because of its existence alongside technology that is designed to bring people together but that often only makes them more acutely aware of how far apart they are. She describes her late-night scrolling through her Twitter feed as being an experience akin to staring out of a dark window into other people’s lighted windows: you can see them, but you can’t reach them. You are very aware of your own solitude, and simultaneously aware of the thousands of people around you. It’s dizzying and not altogether a comfort. She is aware of the myriad wonders of the Internet: she and three friends hold a long-distance film festival, watching from several different continents the documentary We Live In Public, about a social experiment that saw dozens of people living in a complex without any privacy whatsoever. They discuss their responses to the film over Gchat or Facebook Messenger. And yet there’s also that ultimate sense of being alone anyway that is only heightened by the illusion of actually being together. And there’s the rabbit-hole effect:

I was spending increasing hours sprawled on the orange couch in my apartment, my laptop propped against my legs, sometimes writing emails or talking on Skype, but more often just prowling the endless chambers of the internet, watching music videos from my teenaged years or spending eye-damaging hours scrolling through racks of clothes on the websites of labels I couldn’t afford. I would have been lost without my MacBook, which promised to bring connection and in the meantime filled and filled the vacuum left by love.

[…] I wonder now: is it fear of contact that is the real malaise of our age? At the top of Broadway I passed a man sitting in a doorway. He must have been in his forties, with cropped hair and big cracked hands. When I paused, he started to speak unstintingly, saying that he had been sitting there for three days and not a single person had stopped to talk to him. He told me about his kids, and then a confusing story about work boots. …It was snowing hard, the flakes whirling down. My hair was soaked already. After a while, I gave him five bucks and walked on. …What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

But with this book, Laing refuses to pretend. She follows the gazes of people in pain, people isolated and suffering and making desperate, beautiful art out of desperate, awful emotions. She reads their pictures and their film reels; she finds in their work the voices of artists and writers and makers and humans all calling out to be heard. She doesn’t need any accolades—her first two books have already made it abundantly clear that her talent is huge—but The Lonely City, predictable though this may sound, really does make you feel just a little bit less alone.

Many thanks to Anna Frame at Canongate Books for the review copy. The Lonely City was published in the UK on 3 March.

11 thoughts on “The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

  1. This review really emphasizes the isolation we experience while pretending we have friends, which are, for the most part, defined by Facebook as anyone we agree to let see us online. I enjoyed this review and hope we can share book reviews with each other for a long time 🙂

  2. You have absolutely convinced me I have to read Laing now. I’ve got her first book, To The River, in hardback (because of the Woolf connection) but I’ve never cracked it open. I’m so rubbish at choosing non-fiction!

    Loneliness is something I see relatively frequently at work. Libraries are notorious haunts for people on their own; it’s a reprieve from the isolation. I admit to being frightened by perfectly ordinarily people sometimes. The way they talk to you, it’s like they need you more than they need air or water or food. It puts this awful weight of responsibility onto any interaction and it makes me awkward. On an evening, when the library starts to empty out and the cafe closes, there is a group of three men who come together and sit around one of the deserted tables. They are all a bit grubby, unkempt. They take it in turns to buy a four fingered kitkat, which they share, and then they play dominoes or cards. Conversation is pretty minimal, and though they are usually around during the day too they don’t spend time together then, but they have that hunger for contact when evening rolls around. It’s weird, and kind of lovely.

    1. Oh, that is heartbreakingly lovely. And weird, and sweet, and the sort of thing I’m glad I can observe from a distance. I’m totally with you and Laing on the awful weight of responsibility. It actually makes me angry sometimes (probably because I’m not really very nice), and then I feel awful for being angry at a lonely sad person. Especially because I have *been* that lonely sad person, although my MO was never to ask for attention from strangers.

      Really really do read this, and The Trip to Echo Spring as well, which I think is still my favourite and which blew my mind when I read it. I have actually never read To the River, which is ridiculous given my love of Virginia Woolf. I must be subconsciously saving it up.

  3. As usual, an excellent (and thorough) review–what a fascinating subject. I just read Katie Roiphe’s book The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, which takes, I think, a similar approach to a related subject. I bet you’d like it.

  4. This sounds like a really interesting book. Your write up is really good and is making me think about what is behind flinching away from people who are obviously lonely. I think, to me at least, their need feels overwhelming and demanding — voracious. It is frightening and I feel as though I am being asked to give more than I want to and more than I am able to give, like I won’t be able to escape and be pulled down with them. I should probably read this book sometime!

    1. YES, absolutely. It’s the feeling of hunger that she nails so well. And of the ceaselessness of need: lonely people are desperate, they can’t mitigate that, and something about our social conditioning or reflexes or evolution or whatever finds that intensely stressful.

  5. I’m reading this with my book club right now (well, I still haven’t started it yet… but I will soon!) We’re hoping to have our meeting at a museum to see some of the artists she discusses. You have me really excited to go home and finally start this book tonight! Thank you for this really lovely write up!

    1. Ooh, that sounds like a great way to read it! I was a bit sad that there weren’t any colour plates in the book itself, so envious of your chance to go have a look at the art 🙂

      1. I am a firm believer that all nonfiction books and memoirs should have color plates. I am always obsessively googling things after I finish reading a book. I’ll have to let you know after I finish the book! You can help me figure out where we should go for our book club meeting! 🙂

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