I was attracted to Olivia Laing’s new book partly because of its setting – that old New York lure – partly because I’d enjoyed her exploration of the relationship between writers and drink, The Trip to Echo Spring. In The Lonely City she explores loneliness through the work of four artists – Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Andy Warhol and Henry Darger – prompted by her own descent into chronic loneliness after a love affair collapsed leaving her untethered.
Laing applies the same forensic research skills to her artists as she did to the four writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, videos and the artists’ works. Anyone who has ever seen a reproduction of Nighthawks will understand why she chose Hopper as one of her subjects. Warhol may seem a less likely choice given the incessant party that seemed to surround him but, as she persuasively argues, that was a symptom of his loneliness. Both David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger were new to me although when I googled him I was struck by the familiarity of an image of Wojnarowicz, lips stitched together as part of his work as an AIDS activist. You may recognise the svelte young man shot at various New York locations wearing a Rimbaud mask which seems to be his best known work. Darger’s art seems the most strange with its watercolours depicting children rebelling against their enslavement by adults. Darger spent much of his life as a janitor and was almost certainly mentally ill. His paintings were found by a neighbour just weeks before he died. Woven through her studies of these four are Laing’s own experiences and her exploration of urban loneliness in the modern age.
I remember being struck by Laing’s graceful writing style in The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City is marked by the same elegance of expression – her descriptions of some of the artworks make you want to get on the next plane to see them. That said, this is not an easy book to read: it’s intensely cerebral at times but that’s not the reason. Laing’s own experience of loneliness is raw and painful, and her eloquence makes it all the more so. She unflinchingly articulates the shame loneliness makes us feel, the assumption that only the pathetic are lonely despite statistics which suggest its increase in modern society. Her exploration of loneliness during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s is particularly affecting – the isolation of both the bereaved and those stigmatised by the ignorance of others, starved of touch or company, is heartrending. As she points out her observations on our love affair with connectedness via the internet and its effects on our increasing physical alienation may not be original but they’re no less persuasive for all that and her exploration of its history is fascinating, if hair-raising, with its descriptions of internet entrepreneur Josh Harris‘s willingness to put every aspect of his relationship online. Laing concludes her study with the observation that ‘loneliness, longing, does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive’ – comforting words for those who need it and wise ones, too.
If I’ve whetted your appetite for Laing’s book you might like to read an extract and the feature it prompted in the Observer a week or so ago.