BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, March 2016
Olivia Laing’s soulful blend of biography and autobiography makes her one of the most compelling nonfiction writers around. The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking made numerous “best of” lists in 2014 with its gimlet-eyed portrayal of the ravages of alcohol on the careers of otherwise distinguished writers. Laing continues to pursue her unique blend of experiential research in her new book, deepening her personal investment in the material.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone begins with a brokenhearted Laing (who’s British) adrift in a series of New York City sublets. She finds, as so many do, that loneliness has a particularly urban flavor, and that modern cities are very easy to get lost in, particularly if they are not yours. Partly to assuage her loneliness, she starts pursuing the life stories of American visual artists who made the experience of isolation part of their art.
She begins with Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks,” with its indelible portrait of a late-night diner, and explores the bitter dynamics of his marriage to a fellow artist. Other subjects include Andy Warhol’s use of technology to create a safe barrier to intimacy, and—heartbreakingly—downtown artist David Wojnarowicz’s depiction of the tragic isolation of gay men in the era of AIDS. A chapter on outsider artist Henry Darger—the creator of the weird and epic Vivian Girls—argues for his deliberate transmutation of childhood trauma into art.
Laing’s own wrestling with loneliness, and her readings in psychology and philosophy, weave in and out of these portraits, creating a complex and multilayered narrative. Her experiences of “insufficient intimacy” and the social awkwardness of the lonely offer a humane and sensitive lens through which to view the life and art of her subjects. This is a stunning book on the nearly universal experience of feeling alone.