Joanna Scutts, a literary critic and cultural historian, is the 2016-2017 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society.
Imagine the plot of a romantic comedy: An English writer who has given up on love meets a man who asks her to move halfway across the world for him. When the “hare-brained plan” collapses, the writer finds herself rejected and alone in an unfamiliar city, “adrift, stunned by the swift arrival and even swifter departure of everything I thought I lacked.”
That’s the prologue to “The Lonely City,” and you might expect (or dread) the ensuing story of a woman learning to love her single state, until she’s saved by a new relationship. Thankfully, Olivia Laing’s unusual book — part memoir, part biography, part cultural criticism — is less a predictable rom-com than a wonderfully melancholy meditation on modern art, urban space and the complexity of being alone.
Shuttling among a series of cramped, quirky sublets in downtown Manhattan, 30-something Laing experienced the city as artists and loners always have, by watching and endlessly walking, barely speaking and rarely interacting with other people. Silence built upon silence, until everyday objects — such as the empty off-season pool in a Lower East Side park, a “spectral blue space, filling at its corners with blown brown leaves” — became symbols of her solitude.
Such moments give Laing the opportunity to contemplate the mystery of loneliness — in science, art and the lives of some famously lonely artists, such as Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper.
Loneliness hurts us deeply: We don’t know exactly where or why, but there’s increasing evidence that it makes us vulnerable to disease and even early death. Yet psychological study of the condition is surprisingly sparse; Laing quotes psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s description of loneliness as “a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.” Lonely people make others anxious, defensive and cruel, so that to be lonely is to suffer injustice on top of isolation: “It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”
In film, literature and art, however, an unmistakable glamour clings to the lonely figure at the end of the dark street, mysterious and magnetic. This ennobling is due in part to artists like Hopper, Laing’s first artist-subject, who trained his gaze on urban figures locked in their solitude — the barflies bathed in greenish light in “Nighthawks” or the woman in the cloche hat who sits alone in “Automat.” His enduring appeal, Laing suggests, lies in the bold attention he pays to that taboo of loneliness, as if by looking, we can counter its “strange, estranging spell.”
Hopper was notoriously uncommunicative about the meaning of his paintings, but Laing persuasively teases out links between his life and his work. An early talent and a late bloomer, Hopper spent years dragging his portfolio all over New York in pursuit of dull commercial-illustration work, catching glimpses of warm, alluring interiors, but always from the outside. He had barely any close relationships until his late marriage to a woman he knew from art school, who became the model for all the female figures in his paintings — even as he discouraged her own work. The silence of the paintings, Laing writes, “becomes more toxic after the revelation of how violently he worked to suppress and check his wife.”
With Warhol, Laing shows how the immigrant kid never quite at home in language or in his own body gathered fellow artists and misfits around him to fill the silence, recording their words and images on film and tape. In 1968 that carefully constructed line of defense was violently breached, by Valerie Solanas’s gun. Stuck as a footnote in someone else’s life, Solanas is one of the few female subjects in Laing’s study, and her scathing SCUM Manifesto offers a way of thinking about isolation not as an emotional problem but “structurally, as a social problem that particularly affects women.”
But ultimately, Laing is less interested in the everyday contempt inflicted on lonely women than she is in the more extreme forms of isolation that shaped gay men such as Warhol and the artist, writer and activist David Wojnarowicz, who were “hyper-alert to the gulfs between people, to how it can feel to be islanded amid a crowd.” One of Wojnarowicz’s signature works is “Rimbaud in New York,” a series of photographs taken of friends around the city wearing a mask of the poet’s face. The mask-wearer is at once exposed and disguised, a duality that marked the artist’s life as a young, poor, gay man in the city in the 1970s and ’80s. Laing sees Wojnarowicz’s art and his sexual encounters as related efforts to forge connections across a gulf of separation.
Laing’s personal experience, woven through the book, helps explain her deep connection to these artists. Raised by a mother who emerged from “deep in the closet” into a relationship with an unstable, alcoholic partner, Laing had a childhood marked by the same forces of disorder and repression that disrupted her subjects’ early lives: “Alcoholism, homophobia, the suburbs, the Catholic church.” Her previous book, “The Trip to Echo Spring” (2013), explored writers and drinking; she remains fascinated here by the reverberations of “people leaving, people drinking too much, people losing control.”
Laing’s meditation gradually gathers force into a manifesto, taking aim at the assumption of simple, unknowable “mental illness” to explain the life and creative work of the outsider artist Henry Darger or of Solanas — or of Warhol, for that matter. Such an explanation ignores society’s role in excluding those who do not fit our narratives of conformity or our romantic comedies. Without glamorizing either loneliness or the urban decay of New York in the ’70s, “The Lonely City” builds an impassioned case for difficulty and difference, for social rebellion and the unpredictable artistic richness that can result.
By Olivia Laing
Picador. 315 pp. $26