On Olivia Laing’s ‘The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone’

Laing’s thoughtful, carefully researched, and carefully written memoir reflects the anxieties and comfort-seeking behaviors in all of us.

Olivia Laing
Memoir | Nonfiction
336 pages
5.8” x 8.5”
Also available in paperback, eBook formats, and audiobook
Review Format: Hardcover
ISBN 978–1250039576
First Edition
New York, New York, USA
Available HERE

What do you do when you find yourself not only in a new city, but a new country, without the love that you relocated for? In The Lonely City, thirtysomething Olivia Laing asks:

How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being?
(p. 5).

How indeed? Laing attempts to find her place in New York by exploring its art. However, the art itself is less of a focus in The Lonely City; the artists’ lives are where Laing focuses most of her attention. Each chapter couples a move to a new apartment with the life and work of a new artist, and through her research, Laing draws parallels between their suffering and her own.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.
(p. 3)

So begins the realization of her plight after Laing moves to New York. Although she speaks English, her thick British accent is surprisingly difficult for baristas and strangers on the street to understand, so Laing is positioned to lose both her sense of self and her ability to connect with others.

Through painstaking research, Laing shares the biographical histories of some of the most well-known — yet private and lonely — contemporary artists in New York’s history. Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and Klos Nomi, among others, are artists who were grossly misunderstood or overlooked during their lives, and even when they died among others, seem to have died lonely.

Laing’s artists are all outliers in some way — weird, sexually repressed, homeless, depressed, hoarders, paranoid — personality traits that often separate individuals from the masses that surround them. The representation of their lives and deaths gradually reveals Laing’s fear — as is the fear of many in large cities — that their anonymity will result in lonely deaths. More ominous than dying alone is dying of loneliness.

The mechanism here is broadly the same as in loneliness itself — a decline in immune function due to ongoing exposure to the stress of being isolated or rejected by the group. […] In short, being stigmatized is not just lonely, or humiliating, or shameful; it also kills.
(p. 191)

Thoughtful, carefully researched, and carefully written, The Lonely City, is more than a memoir: it’s a text that reflects the anxieties and comfort-seeking behaviors within all of us.