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
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Beach

I enjoyed Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Visit from the Goon Squad – an experimental novel written from many different points of view – so was glad to see a new one written by her; this time a historical novel set in New York in the aftermath of the Great Depression and into world war two. It’s totally different, but just as well written, and well researched.

The story revolves around a working-class Irish family, the Kerrigans. Anna, the elder daughter, adores her father Eddie who works for a racketeer named Dexter Styles. We are introduced to these three characters in the opening scene, where 11-year-old Anna has accompanied her father to visit Dexter on the privacy of Manhattan Beach to discuss business. The meeting is brief, and after that Egan takes us a decade into the future and re-introduces us to Anna, who has fought against male opposition to be accepted into the Navy Divers and, because of the war, has begrudgingly been accepted.

Eddie has left, having abandoned the family years earlier, leaving no trace and no one to help Anna’s mother and her sister, severely disabled from birth. Dexter Styles runs his illicit businesses successfully, keeping the balancing act going while deferring to his powerful father-in-law. Egan keeps these three stories running concurrently, and brings Anna and Dexter together in an eerily horrific scene when Anna determines to find out what happened to her father.

Egan

The storyline is strong and the characters interesting – that is enough to make it a good book – but Egan also introduces New York almost as a fourth character; a coastal city in which Manhattan Beach features as a major setting, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Anna works as a diver, introduces the symbolic theme of the ocean, by which Anna, Eddie and Dexter are all affected. Even Anna’s sister, brought down to the beach by Anna and Dexter, becomes animated at the sight of the ocean and experiences a brief improvement in movement and speech. Egan’s descriptions of Anna’s diving work – from putting on the clumsy suit and heavy brass helmet for the first time, the blissful weightlessness underwater, the exacting work – fascinated me (in the acknowledgments, Egan thanks the United States Army Divers’ Association for allowing her to try on the 200-pound suit).

For example, when Anna tried the suit on for the first time, in front of the Naval men who did not want her to succeed:, “She tried to stand, but the breastplate and helmet and leather belt fused her to the bench. The only way to rise was to force her weight against those two spots where the collar cleaved her shoulders. Anna did this with a sensation of nails being pounded into her flesh. The pain made her eyes swim, and the weight threatened to buckled her knees, but she heaved herself upright…”

DivingSuit

I particularly liked Anna; her inner strength, how she pushed herself into a male-dominated arena and showed them she was good at diving; her vulnerability with regard to her father and her anger at his abandonment, her push-pull attraction to Dexter.  Dexter was a fantastic gangster, moving between the different parts of his life seamlessly – loving father, family man, dutiful son-in-law, business with hitmen and then bankers. Perhaps Eddie’s story dragged on a bit – I found I wasn’t that interested in his journey as the other two main character’s. Yet Manhattan Beach was an absorbing read, and one I could easily go back to again.