The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

As I finish the book and skim through the pages again – pages full of sticky notes, pages flagged for further reading and pages filled with purple highlighted passages, I realise that whatever I can conjure to write about this book and the experience of reading it, will do no justice to it.  

Olivia Laing has taken the genre of non-fiction writing to exceeded heights as she has worked with it masterfully to bring life to an intensive understanding of loneliness. It was not just the material but the craft of writing it, of being able to string narrative, encapsulate figures, facts and academic study to human feelings and whittle extensive knowledge into an inviting, easily accessible text that confounds me. It is nothing short of magic to me. Her concise readings, enveloped with keen observations and an endless reserve of empathy is the only way that this book could have been written. 

“There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness, of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feeling – depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage – are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.” 

I want to recount every story that she has painted onto page, but doing so would be robbing a future reader of a fine experience, but anything devoid of the text, is devoid of true retelling. Laing brings us to humanity through the art and life stories of artists – Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Valerie Solnas, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Klaus Nomi, Nan Goldin. Along with it, she explores the varied facets of the internet and art. The author contextualizes events and experiences for the reader by interweaving psychological studies, her own loneliness of the present and the universality of feelings. 

“Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.” 

In the title, Laing manages to capture also what she does throughout the book, by choosing statements such as, “The Lonely City”, “Art of being alone”, she destigmatizes what is inherently stigmatized. She destroys the notion that loneliness is singular, she illustrates time and again that loneliness is collective, universal, and ignored for the discomfort it causes to confront this emotion. She talks of complexity when she states, “art of being alone”, because it is a journey that has value, even though people seek to devalue it for their own delusional comfort.  

We, as a people, make it seem like loneliness only occurs in the other, while fully knowing that we all inhabit it. We make taboo that which is natural. 

“Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.” 

What remains for me is the month of experience of reading this piece of worded art, of starting mornings feeling despair and hope in equal parts. It is to remind myself what the world can be viewed as when we possess empathy. It is to acknowledge that art is yet again larger than life, ephemeral, expressive, healing, and restorative.  

I have often wondered since August of 2019, when I decided to ink the words, “people are poems” onto my skin, if in fact that feeling was true, especially since the world devolved in an alarming rate since. Somehow this book has answered my query in part by being able to reinforce that humans are art – complex, varied, filled with messy emotions on all parts of the spectrum, and with it all, mesmerizing. 

“Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”