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.

 

The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong

One of the most famous photographs in the world adorns the cover of this book – a young girl running, naked, her face contorted in pain and fear as the blast of napalm highlights the background.

Kim Phuc

This was Kim Phuc, a nine-year-old South Vietnamese girl whose village was bombed in a misplaced air attack, and this is the story of her life from before the attack until she’s living in Canada after defecting with her husband. It is also a story about the futility and horror of war, and the effects of war on countries, communities, families and individuals.

book

Nick Ut, an Associated Press photographer, is the man who took the famous photo and, at the same time, was one of Kim’s rescuers. Ut, soldiers and another journalist stopped Kim as she ran past screaming – her skin was bubbling and peeling, chunks of flesh falling off. She radiated heat. At the request of Kim’s father, Ut stalled his deadline (despite having a gut feeling that his was a sensational photo) and took her to hospital, an act which  saved Kim’s life.

Kim remained in hospital for months before returning home, and going back to school. Her back was severely scarred from 3rd degree burns, and she was to live in hideous pain and with excruciating headaches for her whole life. She could have  slipped into anonymity if it hadn’t been for a German photographer who tracked her down and alerted her presence to the authorities in Hanoi. For years afterward, Kim was used for propaganda purposes by the government.

In 1986, she was sent to Cuba to study and further the ‘Communist cause’. She attended the University of Havana, where she met and married another Vietnamese student. In 1992, they defected to Canada where they have lived ever since. She reconnected with Nick Ut and has become a Christian, a faith which she says has helped her cope with bitterness and the pain.

Grownup

 

The above is merely a brief summary of Kim’s remarkable life, however the book is so much more than that. It also focuses on the Vietnam war in general. I found it interesting to read about the war from the Vietnamese side – in fact, to read about the war in general, as I don’t know much about it – and to see how that famous photo changed attitudes towards the war. Chong writes in a very accessible style and moves easily between the intimate details of Kim’s life and a portrait of Vietnamese society during and after the war. I highly recommend the book.

Postscript: In Miami in September 2015, Kim started a course of laser treatment that hopefully should smooth and soften the thick scar tissue that runs down her back and left arm, in the hope that it will help with the chronic pain that Kim lives with: Kim Phuc laser treatments