The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (Macmillan-Picador, March 2016) is a unique book, unless there is a whole genre of non-fiction focusing on the idea of loneliness, and I have just been blithely walking past that section in Waterstone’s for my whole life. I came to The Lonely City as a huge admirer of Laing’s previous work, The Trip to Echo Spring, which centred on alcoholism and its impact on the lives of legendary writers.
This book takes a similar approach, with Laing using her own experiences as a starting point, before expanding her analysis to the work of artists, both well-known and obscure. Much time is spent on Laing’s experience of finding herself unexpectedly living alone in New York. I was interested in the idea that one can be profoundly lonely when surrounded by millions of people in one of the world’s great cities, which I suppose shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The descriptions of Laing’s increasingly desolate apartments provided an almost visual representation of what loneliness looks like, and this focus was then transferred, for example, to the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the representations of loneliness to be found there.
What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?
Laing’s chapters studying the last two of these questions was one of the most compelling for me, and made me consider my own use of mobile technology and social media. I don’t suppose it’s groundbreaking to suggest that we are becoming increasingly isolated even as the world becomes more accessible, but the ways in which Laing presents this idea are intriguing. Another chapter which resonated with me was the one in which Laing considers the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and how this created loneliness and isolation for its victims. I was, I suppose, dimly aware of how the first AIDS sufferers were treated, but viewing this injustice through the prism of loneliness exponentially increases the sense of empathy created.
As with The Trip to Echo Spring, I enjoyed Olivia Laing’s style, even when the subjects being discussed were challenging, unfamiliar or unpleasant. The unflinching examination of the life and work of David Wojnarowicz, for example, provided an effective means of demonstrating the effects of social isolation, and led me to question whether such people are isolated because of their experiences or whether their experiences lead to their isolation. Laing is sensitive without being mawkish, exposing difficult truths without ever passing judgement. There’s a quality to her writing which is almost dreamlike, reflecting the sense of detachment one feels when isolated from one’s surroundings.
I could easily go through all the topics mentioned in The Lonely City and explain how fascinating they are and how compellingly Laing presents them, but to do so would be to take away from the experience of actually sitting down with this book. The reflections on psychology, science and technology, as well as the analytical approach taken to art, all create a work which is unique and emphatically worth reading.