Art and Loneliness: Olivia Laing’s Lonely City

What does visual art tell us about what it means to be lonely? A critic blends memoir and biography to find the answers.

Lonely City

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. By Olivia Laing. Mar. 2016. 336p. illus. Picador, $26.00 (9781250039590); e-book, $12.99 (9781250039590). 700.1.

Writer and critic Laing searches for answers to the puzzles of her life in the experiences and creative endeavors of others. In The Trip to Echo Spring (2014), she explores the impact alcoholism has had on various American writers. In her newest imaginative and poignant quest, shaped by her gift for entwining memoir with incisive biographical inquiries and astute interpretations, she looks to visual art for illumination of the true nature of loneliness. Her “attempt to chart the complex relationship between loneliness and art,” she explains, was catalyzed by a dark spell of alienation that seized her while she was living in wretched New York City sublets and bingeing on Internet videos and social media. Seeking an antidote, she immersed herself in Edward Hopper’s life and paintings, responding most profoundly to his distinct perspective on urban life and the strange phenomenon of feeling hopelessly alone while surrounded by strangers.

With loneliness as her lens, Laing discerns radical strategies of anxiety and consolation in Andy Warhol, from his persona as a living caricature to his worship of pop culture and reliance on the mediation of telephones, cameras, and tape recorders. As Laing chronicles the goings-on at Warhol’s infamous Factory, she considers the paradox of both longing for acceptance and needing distance. The standoff between insiders and outsiders informs her sensitive telling of the tragic tale of Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Warhol. Laing brings the same sympathetic receptivity to her profile of the self-taught Chicago artist Henry Darger, detecting compassion for abused and misfit children in his famously disturbing, violent, otherworldly illustrated epic.

Laing perceives that loneliness is not only
a sense of isolation but also of brokenness,
and that art can be an annealing force.

The artist who resonates the most for Laing is David Wojnarowicz, who survived a brutal boyhood and battering life on the streets before he began addressing “issues of connection and aloneness” in bold and unsparing photographs, films, drawings, and writings, which he hoped would help “make somebody feel less alienated.” Following Wojnarowicz’s trail to the carnival of gay sex and rogue art on New York’s abandoned piers in the 1970s and 1980s, Laing writes of her own transient years and wrestling with gender categories as a daughter raised by lesbians who felt that if she “was anything, it was a gay boy.” Ultimately, Wojnaraowicz delivers Laing to the 1980s AIDS epidemic, a hellish engine for loneliness that turned him into a grieving activist and then took his life.

Laing perceives that loneliness is not only a sense of isolation but also of brokenness, and that art can be an annealing force. And like the artists she profiles, she refuses to look away from pain or simplify trauma, or deny anyone respect or dignity. Through her ardent research, empathetic response, original thought, courageous candor, and exquisite language, Laing joins the ever-growing pool of writers—among them Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hope Jahren, Jhumpa Lahiri, Leslie Jamison, Helen Macdonald, Sally Mann, Patti Smith, Tracy K. Smith, Edmund de Waal, and Terry Tempest Williams—who are transforming memoir into a daring and dynamic literary form of discovery that laces the stories of individuals into the continuum of humanity and the larger web of life on Earth to provocative and transforming effect.

This review first appeared in the March 1, 2016, issue of Booklist.



About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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