The Lonely City: Adventures in Art of Being Alone

Olivia Laing

Loneliness is a strange modern phenomenon. Communities and extended families have broken down in the past century and isolated urban living is becoming more common — I personally lived in an 10-apartment building for four years without ever knowing the names of any of my neighbours.

Loneliness can be fatal, with some studies suggesting that it can increase mortality rates by up to 32 percent, worse than smoking or obesity. It’s not uncommon either: 10 percent of people in the UK experience regular loneliness, while 48 percent feel that they are becoming lonelier.

And yet, most people would rather die than admit to being lonely. Of course they do: our culture celebrates friendship as the true measure of a life’s worth, from George Bailey being embraced by the people of Bedford Falls to the inseparable gang on the couch at Central Perk, with the implication that being friendless is a sign that you’re a bad person. However, we rarely talk about how hard it is to make friends and keep them, especially after disruptive life events like moving to a new city or ending a long-term relationship.

The nature of loneliness is the topic of The Lonely City, which is structured similarly to Laing’s previous book The Trip to Echo Spring. She takes us through the lives of artists, some famous and some not so famous, and talks about their experiences of social isolation, and uses these stories to talk about her own experience. For Laing, it was a failed relationship and a move to New York, the best and worst place in the world to be alone. In this pulsating metropolis, while pondering the experiences of those who’ve also been through it, she wonder if loneliness is something that we need to run away from. Can it be a positive? Can it lead to spiritual growth?

The two most famous artists here are Edward Hopper, who peeked through the windows of a city and saw people struggling with isolation, and Andy Warhol, who remained isolated under his wig, glasses and persona even as he was surrounded by the New York art scene at his Factory. There’s also a look at outsider artist Henry Darger, who filled his lonely garret with disturbed and disturbing paintings and novels, and the singer Klaus Nomi, one of the first Americans to die of AIDS. Perhaps the most harrowing chapter is centered around David Wojnarowicz, another AIDS fatality, who experienced the disease at the height of the homophobic 80s, when “gay cancer” suffers were treated as modern lepers, literally untouchable and forced into near-total isolation.

For all of these artists, their work expresses a desire to connect, to belong to a world that doesn’t seem to want them, and sometimes to fight back against the conventions that create this isolation. Laing works through her own feelings while recounting their stories, and offers insight into the nature of modern loneliness, where the internet offers both a respite from and a constant cruel reminder of the user’s physical isolation. There’s potentially a whole other book in this, but it’s not the one Laing wanted to write. Instead we get something illuminating, insightful, and alternately sad and uplifting.

“Lonelines, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive,” she writes towards the end. It’s a message that many people need to hear.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.