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.'