Book review: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

jack laytonby Jack Layton

Reading a book about loneliness in the city is a curious phenomenon. For me, reading is often a solitary activity; perched in a park or café, headphones in. Firmly in the city, but experiencing it on my own. However, the very practice of reading is a form of communication between reader and writer. With The Lonely City, it was clear that Laing knew intimately what it was like to be lonely in the city. It was not difficult to imagine her writing away on her own, in a similar café but in a different city. We were alone, but there was a reassuring message of shared experience there.

Being lonely in the city, and finding solace in other people’s art is the thread that runs through this book. Laing takes a series of artists that lived and worked in New York throughout the 20th Century (Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and David Wojnarowicz amongst others) and explores the ways in which loneliness informed their artistic practice and output. These biographical tales are interwoven with Laing’s own experience of moving to New York by herself and being lonely.

The starting concept in this book is that loneliness is not equivalent to being on your own. Loneliness is an experience of lack for something that you desire more of: lack of intimacy, lack of contact, lack of communication, lack of understanding. It is possible to be on ones own for extended periods and not be lonely, just as much as it is common to be amongst other people and still be lonely.

Loneliness is a multivalent experience. Different aspects of loneliness are elaborated on through each chapter on a particular artist. With Warhol, Laing explores the ways in which not feeling part of the crowd, and lack of physical acceptance appear in his work. Be it through replication of images and objects that suggested common experience. Or his constant use of polaroid cameras and tape recorders as devices that simultaneously facilitate connection and distance.

In David Wojnarowicz we get the lack of emotional, political, and physical support that came with being homosexual in New York in the 1980s at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic – or as it was then referred ‘gay cancer’. David created a series of images of individuals in face masks in different areas of the city where the marginalised found shelter and consolation. The idea of anonymity and being on the fringes of society hangs in the images.

Laing is a thorough biographer and art historian. Personal diaries are trawled, private museum collections visited, and endless archives raked, to assemble the stories of these different artists and the personal challenges they faced. As a piece of art history it is substantive and informative – even if the lack of images embedded in the text can be frustrating at times.

As someone studying urban geography, what interested me, was the impression it left of New York City and how cities have changed over the course of the last century. Again and again in Laing’s book we get stories of the marginalised and disenfranchised piecing together a life in New York. Of refuge being found amongst other down and out misfits that found themselves in that particular corner of America. I could not help but feel this was an urban experience lost to history.

Today it is difficult to imagine individuals experiencing the absolute poverty that lurks ever-present throughout the book, but still finding a way to live and create art in London, New York, or Paris. Rent is too expensive, as is studio space, and supplies. Meanwhile the spaces for artistic expression and means for creating a career in art appear as that much more competitive, and institutionalised. There wasn’t much discussion of studying for MAs, paying student loans, or applying for grant funding in this book.

There is a fantastic documentary on Joy Division, that beautifully captures the way that being in and around a rapidly declining Manchester in the 1970’s facilitated their music. The band were able to hire out floor space to rehearse, record, and film; while the bleakness of life is at the core of their artistic practice.

This is not to romanticize urban poverty. These artists could live in the city, but the quality of life they experienced was awful. Mortality rates were higher, crime rates were higher, and the marginalised were more systemically disadvantaged than they are today. However, it does raise questions about the kinds of cities that are created, and the kinds of lives people are able to live in them. Is there the space and provision today for the less privileged to pursue a creative career in cities?

In many ways this book offers a more personal and affective tale of gentrification. Rather than the socio-economic violence that is often commented on, we get an intimate account of what it was like to live in New York on the cusp of extensive social change. It provides insight into the progress that has occurred: being a more tolerant and accepting society, safer streets that are less physically dangerous. But the book also suggests at the ways in which cities today would be far tougher to gain a foothold in without already having a steady job to pay your way.

The most compelling sections of The Lonely City were Laing’s personal reflections. Laing is a thoughtful self-reflexive writer that is able to articulately capture some of the everyday experiences of loneliness in the city. From gazing through the windows of other people’s homes, wondering at the lives lived within, to the cold comfort of social media that promises connection but fails to deliver intimacy. The snippets of Laing’s thoughts at the beginning and end of each chapter are worth the book on its own.

There was a curious warmth to reading this. I felt that Laing shared my sideways look at the world that appreciated the opportunities living in the city afforded, whilst also experiencing how isolating it can be. In popular media the idea of urban life appears as some kind of quasi-utopia. A place where all the beautiful young things go to find their lives. Where the best bars, nights out, and events occur. Where the best jobs, and best opportunities lie. Urban life is presented as the backdrop to a happy modern life. This idea of urban life is rarely the full reality.

Loneliness is perhaps one of the most common human (and urban) experiences least communicated about. There is a normative bent to Laing’s book that seeks to address the ways in which as a society we refuse to acknowledge loneliness. It addresses the idea that loneliness is not a singularly negative experience. It is clear that being lonely in New York was a formative experience for Laing, and an immense source of inspiration for the artists she documents. As a society we need a better vocabulary for dealing with the idea of loneliness. There is beauty and strength to be found from experiencing lack in society, but also despair and sadness.

In all, this book was an interesting read covering an important topic that is not discussed enough. However, it rested too heavily on artistic biography, and I would have like to have had more thoughts about what it is in contemporary city life that engenders loneliness, and whether there is something unique about the kind of loneliness experienced today. There were snippets of this, but not enough for my liking. The title suggested at a slightly different book that I’m eager to read.

It would have also been interesting to get beyond the artistic social landscape and grapple with what it is like to be lonely as a migrant, or local resident whose city changes around them – but that is perhaps unfairly asking more of the book than it set out to deliver. As a study of how several artists experienced and dealt with different forms of loneliness, and the ways in which they drew on this for their different artistic practices, it is a great read.

For a taster of the book Laing wrote a Long Read for The Guardian on the future of loneliness back in April 2015, it’s worth checking out.

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