The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

lonely city

Subtitled Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, The Lonely City is a fascinating hybrid of memoir, philosophy and biography in which Laing explores New York city by way of art in an attempt to understand her state of loneliness.

When in her mid-thirties Laing finds herself alone in New York (having moved for a relationship that failed), she falls into a deep loneliness, the kind that can happen in a big city. She manages to explore this state with curiousity, observing her behaviour in a non-judgmental fashion.

It was the sensation of need that frightened me the most, as if I had lifted the lid on an unappeasable abyss. I stopped eating very much and my hair fell out and lay noticeably on the floor, adding to my disquiet … I was keeling towards the midpoint of my thirties, an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.

As someone who has has experienced loneliness post-divorce and when my children left home (sometimes hit sideways by it, left breathless, puzzled as to how I can feel so lonely in my home town), I found Laing’s descriptions of this state to be exquisite in their accuracy:

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming … It hurts, in the way that feelings do …

My life felt empty and unreal, and I was embarrassed by its thinness, the way one might be embarrassed about wearing a stained or threadbare piece of clothing. I felt like I was in danger of vanishing.

Stuck in an apartment in which she can’t close the blinds, watching other people live out their lives in front of her, but aware that they can also look in and watch her, Laing is reminded of Edward Hopper’s painting, particularly one:

I knew what I looked like. I looked like a woman in a Hopper painting. The girl in ‘Automat’ maybe …

Automat by Edward Hopper

As a way of  trying to understanding her loneliness and seeking solace in the experiences of others, Laing explores the lives and works of four artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. All of these artists were lonely or reclusive, had no intimate relationships or had intimacy issues, and all lived in the  city that didn’t care whether you lived or died. She writes about their lives with the accuracy of a biographer, always in light of loneliness and solitude; she describes and interprets their work as an art lover.

When I read the book, I had to have my phone or laptop nearby to google the works of art; I was only familiar with a few of them. I didn’t know much about any of these artists – a little about Andy Warhol – and was struck by how tragic their lives were, by how violent and disturbing some of the art is, and by the cruelty humans can inflict on each other and on themselves.

Self Portrait with Collage by David Wojnarowicz

In the course of describing the artists’ works and lives, Laing introduces a range of other personalities, such as Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo, Diane Arbus and Zoe Leonard among others. As a result, she covers a wide range of topics, including AIDS, music,  the role of cities in providing space for the lonely and the homeless, and the disadvantages of gentrification. She also researches loneliness as a subject on its own, drawing on authors such as Virginia Woolf and the psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the first pioneer into the study of loneliness, who said of it:

Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.

By Henry Darger

In her explorations on the subject, Laing considers the role of technology in our lives, looking at its dual function – offering relief to the lonely by giving them a private bubble in which to sit when in public, while allowing to them interact with others when  alone. She writes about Josh Harris, one of the early pioneers of the internet in the late 1990s:

… Harris predicted the internet’s social function, and that he did so in part by intuiting the power of loneliness as a driving force. He understood the strength of people’s longing for contact and attention and he also grasped the counterweight of their fear of intimacy, their need for screens of every kind. 

Laing’s exploration into these four artists, and other individuals, did not cure her loneliness per se, however she acknowledges that (when referring to a photographic portrait of Warhol):

… like Wojnarowicz’s diaries and Klaus Nomi’s voice, that painting of Warhol was one of the things that most medicated my own feelings of loneliness, giving me a sense of the potential beauty present in a frank declaration that one is human and as such subject to need.

laing 2
Olivia Laing

She concludes the book with the thought that she doesn’t necessarily think the answer to loneliness is to meet someone:

I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seems to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.

The Lonely City is such a wide-ranging book that I cannot begin adequately to cover all the topics here, and it is one that deserves a second read as it is richly detailed. In the way she applies herself so intelligently, philosophically and personally to an array of subjects, Laing reminds me of another of my favourite authors, Rebecca Solnit. Perhaps more than with other books however,  I related on a personal level to the basic tenet of The Lonely City – the state of loneliness and its implications for oneself and society – and I was in all other ways was fascinated, stimulated and deeply moved.


In One Person by John Irving

This is a big book – physically big and thematically big. At 425 pages long, it’s a book that became quite difficult to read when lying in bed, but it kept me captivated enough to strengthen my hands and keep reading. 

I haven’t read a John Irving novel for a long time, having enjoyed The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany I began to get confused by his books after a while, with their circuses, bears, wrestlers and complicated relationships. (John Irving competed as a wrester for 27 years and then coached the sport. I think wrestling has featured in every book he has written.) ImageHowever, In One Person introduces us to wrestling again, but no bears or circuses  – rather compelling, likeable, complicated main character who kept me intrigued throughout the book.

Billy, the protagonist, narrates his life story to us, scanning the years from a child to an elderly man. It is a poignant, sad story of a bisexual man who is determined to stay true to his real sexual identity, despite the prejudices and difficulties he encounters along the way. Irving tells Billy’s story in the quirky, wryly humorous way that only Irving can, inventing characters that dwell on the fringes of society because of their oddities. He treats his characters with such kindness, even the bullies, that they are all compelling and delightful.

Some of the sexual descriptions are fairly graphic (I certainly learned things I didn’t know), but they are not written for their shock value, but as events that make up part of Billy’s life and further our understanding of him. As a middle-aged man living in America in the 80s, Billy encounters AIDS for the first time, the devastating effects it has on some of his friends and lovers, and the prejudicial attitude of society towards this ‘gay’ disease.

ImageDespite the novel’s humour and sometime seeming lightness, this is one of the most serious books Irving has produced, subject-wise. He deals with adolescent desire, forbidden love, tragic loss. He writes about identity, peculiarities, taboos and polarisations. And he addresses all of these themes in a gripping story that is well written and very readable.

If you are a fan of John Irving, you shouldn’t miss reading In One Person. If you aren’t, or don’t know his writing, I would recommend this as a good place to start.



Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

I’m not sure how to categorise this debut novel. It’s a coming-of-age novel, yet it’s also a love story, a family tragedy, and one about friendship. It’s a wonderful book, very poignant, sad, heart-warming, although I didn’t ‘sob uncontrollably’ as one critic did.

ImageJune is 14 years old and is in love with her uncle Finn, a renowned artist. Desperately in love – she makes up any excuse to see him and believes that no one else understands her like he does. June doesn’t fit in at school, she’s a weird child who’s obsessed with medieval times and dresses funnily, and Finn provides her with a special friendship. Yet Finn is dying of AIDS and his last big project is to paint June and her sister, Greta. 

The book is set in the ’80s, when AIDS was still a taboo subject, and June’s parents are virulently against Finn’s partner, Toby, believing that he was the cause of Finn’s death by AIDS. When Finn dies, June is devastated and confused. She’s ashamed she loved her uncle in such a deep way and she hates the idea of him having a partner who she didn’t know about. 

The author

But when a present arrives in the post from Toby for her, she reaches out to him and a fragile friendship develops between these two lonely people who both loved Finn. As she gets to know Toby, June’s eyes are opened to the fact that she was not the only one who loved Finn and misses him terribly. She slowly learns to trust Toby and to enjoy the friendship he offers her when she most needs it.

June’s relationship with her sister, Greta, worsens as Greta suspects that June has someone in her life that she doesn’t know about. June and Greta used to be very close and in the book, Greta is awful to her, mean and spiteful. Towards the end of the book, their relationship improves and we learn of Greta’s jealousy of June and Finn’s friendship. 

There is so much to this book that I can’t sum it up here in a short review. One of the side stories that I so enjoyed was to do with the painting of the two sisters that Finn finished before he died  (called Tell the Wolves I’m Home) – it is put in a safe box in the bank for the girls to go and look at when they want to. They each separately go and add little details to it – it’s secretive, poignant, and at the same time dreadful in that you know they are defacing a valuable painting. To them, though, it is a part of their uncle Finn and that’s all that matters. 

Brunt stays clear of sentimentality in the book, an admirable feat in that it is a sad story that she tells here, and she depicts June’s adolescent emotions with clarity and accuracy. Some reviewers haven’t liked how Brunt characterised June’s sister, Greta, yet I feel she created a true reflection of a sibling relationship where both children feel isolated in their own self-focused lives.

I loved this book – perhaps if I were a crier, I would have cried. It is tender and beautifully written, it’s not highly intellectual or particularly challenging, but I think it is well worth reading.