Recent years have seen the release of a great deal of memoirs, biographies, and “creative non-fiction”. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City manages to submerge itself within several of these categories while remaining uniquely outside of any particular one of them.
It is a book which blends both Laing’s own experiences with loneliness and those of several artists – mostly New York-based – from the twentieth century. Laing gives fairly extensive biographies of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz whilst simultaneously interweaving philosophical reflections on art, the desire for connection, and the difficulty in traversing our modern technocentric landscape.
Laing roots her observations in her own backstory; one that, although kept vague, forms an aura of personal significance around her work. After the dissolution of a relationship that brought her to New York, Laing found herself alone in the city. However, as she mentions by the book’s end, it was not another person who ultimately helped her to understand her own loneliness. Rather, it was “by handling the things other people had made” – by examining the work of the artists here profiled – that Laing came to recognise that loneliness “does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”
Laing has a distinctive talent for forming her various nonfictional odds and ends into a panoramic collage of loneliness, both as a concept and what it entails. In this way she is able to, for instance, use an essay-like exposition of Wittgenstein’s theory of language to interpret Warhol’s fascination with language errors. She extends this by blending in her own evocative impression of Warhol’s recordings, the effect of which is “like being shipwrecked in a sea of voices, a surf of unattributed speech.”
There are moments in which Laing almost seems to channel the voice of Virginia Woolf. In her writing she makes the same attempt to grasp at the unspeakable, to physicalise things almost too elusive to be put into words. This stylistic tendency is what makes reading The Lonely City such a striking experience. While it mirrors that of reading a novel, the incorporation of biography allows the insights and observations to come from an objective world of facts, which is not quite as present within the sphere of fictional writing.
The text’s segments which talk explicitly of our own digital worlds—worlds removed, only barely and yet profoundly, from the lives of Warhol and Wojnarowicz—give a relevance to the book that stretches beyond the limits of mere biography. The Lonely City aims to help us all feel less alone by conveying an understanding of how loneliness has manifested itself in several modern lives. In terms of its presentation, it is a success. Laing’s lucid, searching prose allows her work to take on an added significance, which may continue to add insight to our many perspectives on modern loneliness.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (Canongate, 2016)
Photo courtesy of Canongate