This daring and seductive book — ostensibly about four artists, but actually about the universal struggle to be known — raises sophisticated questions about the experience of loneliness, a state that in a crowded city provides an 'uneasy combination of separation and exposure'...As Laing describes finding consolation in the work of artists, so this book serves as both provocation and comfort, a secular prayer for those who are alone — meaning all of us.
Laing bravely illuminates the dark contours of these difficult, sometimes even repulsive works and the extreme deprivation that produced them. In doing so, she campaigns against what she calls the gentrification of cities and of emotions. By that, she means the homogenizing, whitening, deadening effect that causes us to deny the existence of the shameful and the unwanted. The Lonely City is an odd and uncomfortable book - not consoling, but always provocative. And like so many of its weird solitary subjects, it's absolutely one-of-a-kind.
That pattern, moreover, is a lovely thing. Exceptionally skillful at changing gears, Ms. Laing moves fluently between memoir, biography (not just of her principal cast but of a large supporting one), art criticism and the fruits of her immersion in 'loneliness studies.' Her phrasing has a chaste, lyric plangency apt to her topic. She writes about Darger and the rest with insight and empathy and about herself with a refreshing lack of exhibitionism...For all that, I regret to say I liked only the first two-thirds of the book. The different flavor of the last third stems from Ms. Laing’s wish to show that 'loneliness is . . . also political.'
It's a stunning balance. Laing renders her autobiographical vignettes...with dry, haunting anxiety. The Lonely City is subtitled Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, and the irony of that phrase is palpable. The book's so-called adventures are all withdrawn and introspective; for a book about loneliness, it couldn't read more lonely. That's both a plus and a minus. Laing — like Hopper and the other artistic loners she writes about — is an observer, and that passivity lends the book a staggering emotional weight that's both powerful and leaden. It's a gray, overcast afternoon of a book, sometimes oppressively so.
Laing has found a canny, outward-facing architecture to hold up the viscous topic of loneliness ... The form of her project, and the way she suffuses it with empathy for her subjects, resists the solipsism of loneliness. But the effort to be universal brings its own problems; in moments, Laing’s act of cartography threatens to flatten the complex territory of this particular sadness ... Laing has beautifully repurposed the idea that 'the personal is political,' one of feminism’s best slogans, to express this — and yet, she doesn’t seem to want to dwell on it ... Though Laing never manages to fully make use of her insight that loneliness is both personal and political, her conclusions provide a powerful model for how to live within a diverse and complex society.
Laing has a gift for sifting through art and archival materials and finding sympathetic windows into her subjects, many of whom don’t typically benefit from such generous treatment. In her hands, close readings of works tend to illuminate biography, rather than the other way around.
The sorts of loneliness that can envelope you in a big city have been much explored in music and art and literature, where a plump blue moon is always shining down on someone. The British writer Olivia Laing, in her new book, The Lonely City, picks up the topic of painful urban isolation and sets it down in many smart and oddly consoling places. She makes the topic her own.
The two sides of the resulting book – the curatorial and the curative – drive each other with neat economy, loneliness propelling Laing out into the archives and galleries of her chosen artists, whose work in turn informs (and transforms) her sense of her own isolation. Structurally speaking, it is an especially elegant demonstration of the advantages of this hybrid form...
In nearly every chapter, Laing discovers some magnetic, neon lure to the past — even though the artists she focuses on may have been lonely in their own times, at least they felt the pain and terror of it, and it moved them to create ... Laing realizes that we are all stumbling around the same scary zip code of the mind, looking for a friend. The Lonely City offers readers the gift of an extended hand.
With The Lonely City, a mixture of biography, memoir, travel writing, and criticism, [Laing]'s still producing the sort of book that at first seems to wander as extravagantly as Baudelaire’s flâneur. But that impression is deceptive; Laing is always circling back toward a piercingly relevant observation. And, oh, those observations!
'Loneliness,' Laing says, 'is not supposed to induce empathy.' In her case, however, that’s clearly what happened. With The Lonely City, Laing has taken a painful spell in her life and turned it into a book of extraordinary compassion and insight.
It's not easy to pull off switching between criticism and confession—and like Echo Spring, The Lonely City is an impressive and beguiling combination of autobiography and biography, a balancing act that Laing effortlessly performs. Her gift as a critic is her ability to imaginatively sympathize with her subjects in a way that allows the art and life of the artist to go on radiating meaning after the book is closed, and yet her love of the work never means lost authority as an interpreter of it.
Any criticisms are minor compared to what I got out of it. Reading The Lonely City left me with the unsettling thought that all those decades I had spent trying to outrun loneliness rather than accept it had consequences far more subtle and devastating than the obvious ones I have since come to accept on my life, my relationships, my creativity. My liver? Forget about it. Yet, despite the painful thoughts The Lonely City sometimes triggered, this is a book that left me feeling encouraged. Laing takes all sorts of people, events, cultural attitudes and political items and stitches them together to create a new, compelling whole.
Loneliness...is a muse, to be courted with caution. In Laing’s rendering it can 'cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive' as much as mitigate what in another elegant phrase she calls 'the small accumulation of positive regard' that the internet provides. Rueful and self-aware, The Lonely City discovers itself in the act of writing; in its modest way, it carves a space amid Laing’s beloved outsider art.
The success of Laing’s book is that it doesn’t require the reader to know much about — or even to be particularly interested in — the New York art world. It’s more about the people that populate it and the stories that make them who they are. The Lonely City draws on social science, gay culture, AIDS history, and the influence of technology, weaving in snippets of memoir. Laing’s prose is elegant and concise, with a breath of Joan Didion...
There are few certain declarations in The Lonely City, and this is to its benefit. Laing is careful not to come to any simple conclusions, instead using her research and experiences to offer insights and possibilities. Although I read The Lonely City in the same urban spaces that usually impart a familiar loneliness—loud cafés, quiet apartments and slow trains choked with strangers—I felt different while reading it. Discovering the complex forms of loneliness that gripped all of these people, something surprising happened, something Laing most likely intended. It made me feel, for at least a little while, a bit less lonely.
Yet, she says, there is beauty and meaning to be found in [loneliness]. On an artistic level, that’s a fetching argument. But on a psychological one, it is not. The lonely people in this book, including Laing, are damaged and struggling. Thus does her courageous attempt to celebrate loneliness fall short. But there is bravery in helping us recognize and ease it, in ourselves and others.
Despite the unevenness and occasional meanderings of The Lonely City, Laing is a brilliant and moving writer; her desire for communion is at times heartbreaking. Art, she contends, is an enduring way to connect with the world, to not feel so alone among so many others.