A dazzling work of memoir, biography and cultural criticism on the subject of loneliness, told through the lives of six iconic artists, by the acclaimed author of The Trip to Echo Spring .
What does it mean to be lonely?
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A dazzling work of memoir, biography and cultural criticism on the subject of loneliness, told through the lives of six iconic artists, by the acclaimed author of The Trip to Echo Spring.
What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we're not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens?
When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives - from Edward Hopper's Nighthawks to Andy Warhol's Time Capsules, from Henry Darger's hoarding to David Wojnarowicz's AIDS activism - Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone.
Humane, provocative and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality and the magical possibilities of art. It's a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-02-01
- Reviewer: Staff
The lonely city of the title is teeming with painters, filmmakers, writers, and thinkers. In her new book, Laing (The Trip to Echo Spring) creates a “map of loneliness,” tracking its often-paradoxical contours in her own life as a transplant to New York City and traces how loneliness can inspire creativity. The central figures of the book—Henry Darger, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz—were all “hyper-alert to the gulfs between people, to how it can feel to be islanded amid a crowd.” By focusing on four artists (others, like Billie Holiday, also make appearances), Laing’s writing becomes expansive, exploring their biographies, sharing art analysis, and weaving in observations from periods of desolation that was at times “cold as ice and clear as glass.” She invents new ways to consider how isolation plays into art or even the Internet (which turns her into an obsessed teenager, albeit one who calls the screen her “cathected silver lover”). For once, loneliness becomes a place worth lingering. (Mar.)
Portrait of the lonely artist
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, March 2016
Olivia Laing’s soulful blend of biography and autobiography makes her one of the most compelling nonfiction writers around. The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking made numerous “best of” lists in 2014 with its gimlet-eyed portrayal of the ravages of alcohol on the careers of otherwise distinguished writers. Laing continues to pursue her unique blend of experiential research in her new book, deepening her personal investment in the material.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone begins with a brokenhearted Laing (who’s British) adrift in a series of New York City sublets. She finds, as so many do, that loneliness has a particularly urban flavor, and that modern cities are very easy to get lost in, particularly if they are not yours. Partly to assuage her loneliness, she starts pursuing the life stories of American visual artists who made the experience of isolation part of their art.
She begins with Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks,” with its indelible portrait of a late-night diner, and explores the bitter dynamics of his marriage to a fellow artist. Other subjects include Andy Warhol’s use of technology to create a safe barrier to intimacy, and—heartbreakingly—downtown artist David Wojnarowicz’s depiction of the tragic isolation of gay men in the era of AIDS. A chapter on outsider artist Henry Darger—the creator of the weird and epic Vivian Girls—argues for his deliberate transmutation of childhood trauma into art.
Laing’s own wrestling with loneliness, and her readings in psychology and philosophy, weave in and out of these portraits, creating a complex and multilayered narrative. Her experiences of “insufficient intimacy” and the social awkwardness of the lonely offer a humane and sensitive lens through which to view the life and art of her subjects. This is a stunning book on the nearly universal experience of feeling alone.