The Lonely City: Adventures In The Art Of Being Alone — Reviewed

Nighthawks, 1942, painting by Edward Hopper -- via

What does it mean to be lonely? Eli Regan reviews author (and regular frieze contributor) Olivia Laing’s new book, and finds a genre-bending account of human solitude in art…

Olivia Laing’s latest book defies easy categorisation, much like the difficult subject it explores – loneliness. The Lonely City: Adventures in The Art of Being Alone is both fluid and genre-bending; encompassing creative non-fiction, memoir, art essay, biography and societal critique. This freedom gives Laing the scope to create a full portrait of loneliness and, chastising capitalism for its “homogenising, whitening, deadening effect”, she urges the reader not to be afraid of difficult emotions.

Moving to New York in her mid-thirties, and soon after experiencing a break-up, Laing found herself catapulted into an unexpected but very human solitude.

Completely engulfed by loneliness she describes as feeling “shameful and alarming”, Laing began to seek solace in observing works of art. Her physical encounter with Edward Hopper’s much reproduced portrait of aloneness, Nighthawks (1942), feels dizzying, energetic, empathetic:

“It was impossible to gaze through into the diner’s luminous interior without experiencing a swift apprehension of loneliness, of how it might feel to be shut out, standing alone in the cooling air.”

“Laing sensitively traverses the emotional landscape of these artists”

These encounters with physical works of art merge into full depictions of the artists behind them: Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz, and a very moving portrayal of SCUM Manifesto writer Valerie Solanas – who shot Andy Warhol in 1968.

Laing sensitively traverses the emotional landscape of these artists. Her analysis of Warhol’s prescient love of machines is particularly striking:

“His attachment [to machines] at once prefigures and establishes our own age of automation: our rapturous, narcissistic fixation with screens…”

The Lonely City: Adventures in The Art of Being Alone

She presents a Warhol who is always surrounded by Factory superstars, yet mostly keeps an emotional distance from the people he films, whilst simultaneously offering his entourage “15 minutes of fame”.

Laing’s recounting of Solanas’ story is similarly compelling. SCUM was published in 1967. Soon after, she attacked Warhol and was thrust into the limelight for all the wrong reasons, and eventually confined to a mental institution. In 1977, Solanas self-published SCUM, a version closer to what she meant to express originally. It was a commercial and critical write-off.  Laing describes how “her failure to make contact by way of words” shut her off from the public she badly wanted to connect to. This failure to communicate haunted her. And yet, Laing reappraises Solanas and SCUM as an important feminist text, and reveals her desire for a true community of free spirits who support each other “to achieve common ends”.

“Laing’s revelations about herself never feel prurient or overlong”

Laing’s gift of acute sensitivity for the real people behind these works of art gives The Lonely City an emotional weight beyond mere analysis of the artworks. Her great joy in reappraising artists is also palpable.

Laing’s revelations about herself never feel prurient or overlong, and yet reveal she does: “I had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy”. Laing’s non-binary identity almost seems cocooned within the artists she so deftly explores.

The book’s other, ever present protagonist is New York: “The air was full of wet neon, sliding and smearing in the streets.” Readers will likely experience an enormous affinity with Laing’s depiction of loneliness, but the backdrop of New York City perhaps made her isolation at times more palatable than that experienced on, say, a deprived housing estate.

Without oddness, without illness, without otherness, without melancholy, without hardship, would there be any “good” art? Laing’s bravery in confronting loneliness as a subject lends it validity as an emotion of import. Being alone can make us truly aware of life and all its hardships, but also to its beauty and the deep meaning of art created in its wake.

Eli Regan

The Lonely City: Adventures in The Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing is out now on Hardback from Canongate Books Ltd, and out on paperback from tomorrow

The Lonely City has been shortlisted for the 2016 Gordon Burn Prize and the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism

Follow on Twitter @olivialanguage

Laing has made a playlist go accompany The Lonely City — listen here

Image, top: Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper — via

Posted on 01/03/2017 by thedoublenegative