Hemingway said there is no companion as loyal as a book and, while his irascibility may have biased him, he could be right in the case of Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. To pick up this book in the midst of your own solitary introduction to New York City is a great comfort; Laing’s “adventures in the art of being alone” is an ode to urban alienation, casting New York City as its muse and art as antidote.
Laing is honest and candid about what brought her to New York (the promise of a new relationship that had failed before even getting there) and then the oppressive sense of loneliness that deflated her once she arrived. Laing’s descriptions of the mundane, depressing rituals of solitary apartment life in the city and the shameful hunger of loneliness conjure the kind of pleasant surprise one feels at the discovery that, hey, our experiences are not just our own. There is reassurance in universality.
The wanderer who traces the city as psychological map is a familiar literary figure: in her meander through New York, Laing evokes Isherwood’s flaneur in Goodbye to Berlin; Baudelaire’s “lounger or saunterer, an idle [wo]man about town”; Woolf’s twilight strolls through London or Benjamin’s unfinished work on the Parisian arcades. But The Lonely City might be thought of as providing an updated, or at least genre-bending, version of the flaneur. Importantly, Laing grounds her experience of loneliness in the urban and the contemporary. Modern life – with its trappings of technology, information glut and constant communication – shapes an experience of loneliness that has far less literary precedent. Even so, Laing has enough to prescience to understand that people are tired of reading complaints about the freneticism and fragmentation of modern existence. The Lonely City doesn’t read as a sanctimonious lament for the days of old. It simply says: this is how we live. Let’s explore it.
Laing claws at the core of loneliness – it was difficult not to overuse the word loneliness in writing this review because that experience, like nothing else, anchors the book. Even Laing herself writes, “the writer who wishes to elaborate on loneliness is faced with a serious terminological handicap”.
As Hemingway found a companion in books, Laing does in art. Art with a capital A – not always something we realise can become part of us. Laing is soothed by art which, as she does for us, reminds her that she is not alone in her loneliness. Finding herself adrift in a city that begs to be experienced through the networks one makes, Laing instead designates a list of artists as ‘guides’, seamlessly interspersing discussion of their works with autobiographical vignettes and small anecdotes from the city. The list may seem idiosyncratic (and male-dominated) at times – Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz – but Laing alights upon them because at one point or another, or for long stretches, they understood “how it can feel to be islanded amid a crowd.”
Like the flaneur who is, as Isherwood famously wrote, “like a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”, Laing describes the work of these artists in intense and original detail. We’ve likely all seen prints of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks tens of times, but have we heard it described as “a cool green icebox”? And unlike the detachment of the flaneur, Laing’s description of the art she encounters (or seeks out) is inflected with her own interiority: she hones in on the “noxious pallid green” of Nighthawks as the colour in existence that best captures “urban alienation, the atomisation of human beings inside the edifices they create”.
The best parts of the book are when Laing points out the contradictions of loneliness: paradoxical feelings of invisibility and visibility (“the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure”) and the fear that one will be unintelligible or fail to make meaningful sense despite the innately social, communal aspect of language.
Lang’s voice is honest and stripped back. She doesn’t embellish or romanticise loneliness, or push for revelation to make the whole thing worthwhile. She simply records the experience as it comes and – as “such a painful, frightening experience that people do practically everything to avoid it” – one can’t help but feel appreciative for her journey into its bleak centre.
Laing’s own epigraph is probably the best way to put it: if you’re lonely, this one’s for you. If you’re finding yourself riding high then The Lonely City may feel like somewhat of a buzzkill. But it’s a good one to keep in your back pocket for that inevitable moment…