The Art of Loneliness: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City

Amber Caron

New York, NY: Picador, 2016. 315 pages. $26.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

There’s a moment late in Olivia Laing’s new book where the author has a flash of realization while watching Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her. In the movie, Theodore Twombly returns from work, sits down in front of an enormous television, picks up a remote control, and with frantic thumbs, tries to maneuver his avatar up a slope. “He looked hopeless,” Laing writes, “ridiculous, absolutely divorced from life, and I recognised him immediately as my twin: an icon of twenty-first-century isolation and data dependency” (226).

This image isn’t, of course, a new one. We need only look around—on the subway, in restaurants, at libraries, or any other public space—to see people staring into a phone, engaged in a virtual world by way of ignoring the actual one. Try to get through a single day without hearing how we live in an age of alienation, isolation, loneliness, distraction, and anxiety—and how our devices are largely to blame. But Laing, in her characteristic, probing way pushes beyond this observation to interrogate the underlying cause: “We haven’t just become alienated because we’ve subcontracted so many elements of our social and emotional lives to machines . . . [P]art of the impetus for inventing as well as buying these things is that contact is difficult, frightening, sometimes intolerably dangerous” (227).

It’s an apt description of The Lonely City itself—a book that examines just how hard it is to make honest, meaningful contact with another human being. Laing was in her thirties when she moved to New York from the UK, pursuing a relationship that ended before she had even boarded the plane. (The love interest calls last minute to say he’s changed his mind.) Perhaps out of determination or hope—the reason isn’t entirely clear—Laing goes anyway, finds a place to sublet, and immediately drops into that strange paradox of living in a city with millions of other people, yet finding herself completely and utterly alone. “What does it feel like to be lonely?” Laing asks. “It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast” (11). Laing takes to the Internet to feed that hunger. She watches hours of YouTube clips, aimlessly following links that might distract her, even if only momentarily, from the moving world beyond her walls. Her attempt to connect largely fails, leaving her even more isolated and alone. Eventually she finds a flicker of solace in the art of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. For Laing, it’s art as medicine, as therapy, and as evidence that others get it: they understand what it is to be alone, to be scared, to be in a city that doesn’t seem to care whether you come or go, live or die.

If it’s the art that lures Laing in, it’s the artists and their (often lonely) lives that sustain her attention. Laing initially identifies most closely with the subjects in Edward Hopper’s paintings—men and women shut off from the world, alone in a bedroom or restaurant or hotel lobby, trapped behind windows. “[W]hat Hopper captures is beautiful as well as frightening. They aren’t sentimental, his pictures, but there is an extraordinary attentiveness to them . . . as if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell” (44). And this is exactly what Laing does. She looks. She visits archives all over New York, flipping through personal papers, reading diaries, listening to interviews, studying images, peeling back layer after layer of each man’s life, piecing together his particular brand of loneliness.

If Hopper shows what it looks like to be lonely, Darger’s life demonstrates “the way imagination can work to resist [loneliness]” (7). Wojnarowicz, who Laing identifies as the artist who did the most to show her she wasn’t alone, responds to the experience of being silenced and ignored by “making things that serve explicitly as communication devices, resisting censorship and silence” (7). Throughout the book, Laing weaves in stories of other artists and performers, including Klaus Nomi, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, further broadening the conversation to include more responses to isolation. The more she becomes entrenched in these lives, the less of herself she puts on the page, a likely signal that the process works, that the act of looking, watching, studying, actually seeing, is the only proper cure for loneliness. We’re happy, of course, that the spell has been broken—that Laing’s isolation, and the shame she experienced alongside it, is a temporary affair. Yet I did wish for a bit more access to the author’s life in the second half of the book. This is, of course, always the challenge in writing this kind of cultural and social criticism: the question of how much of the self to include. Laing’s strategy is to frontload her story, to disclose more of herself early on, and then to let the artists take center stage, an effective strategy for the most part.

Ironically, this book is probably best read with a device nearby. Laing’s descriptions of Hopper’s Automat, Warhol’s taped interviews, Wojnarowicz’s Arthur Rimbaud in New York, Darger’s Realms of the Unreal will inevitably send you to Google or YouTube. It’s not that Laing’s descriptions aren’t sufficient to capture the work; it’s that she conveys them with such precision, such beautiful prose, that you can’t help but share her fascination. Take her description of Klaus Nomi’s 1978 debut appearance at Irving Plaza: “He appears on stage in a see-through plastic cape, with wings painted around his eyes. A science-fiction figure, gender indeterminate, he opens his mouth and out comes ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,’ my heart opens to your voice, from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dilila. His voice is almost inhuman, climbing higher and higher . . . ‘Holy shit,’ someone shouts. There is a barrage of stray claps and cheers from the audience, then total silence, total attention” (181). Always one to anticipate a reader’s need, Laing posted a playlist for her book on her website—YouTube clips and recordings of performances by Klaus Nomi, Maria Callas, Justin Vivian Bond, Lou Reed and others. (Set an alarm before you start clicking, and remember to come up for air.)

I read this book a few months after moving from Los Angeles to the UK, a reverse move from Laing’s. I read it in the way I imagine Laing read those journals and diaries in the New York archives—eagerly searching for an answer to when the loneliness might abate. When I finished the book, confident not in when this feeling would end, but comforted that it would, I bought another copy and sent it to a friend who has lived in New York for three years, and who had called just days earlier, lonely and in tears. “If you’re lonely,” Laing writes in the dedication to her book, “this one’s for you.”

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