Olivia Laing’s ‘The Lonely City’ reflects a state of mind

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Olivia Laing. Picador. 336 pages. $26.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Olivia Laing. Picador. 336 pages. $26.

When The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg sang, “Lonely, I guess that’s where I’m from” on 1989’s I’ll Be You, he suggested the possibilities of defining loneliness in geographic terms. The memoir-meditation The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone sets author Olivia Laing in contemporary Manhattan, aspiring to disappear into crowds despite a lifetime of conditioning teaching them to reject the gesture, for Americans live in a country suspicious of uncoupled people.

Using stand-alone essays on Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz, among others, as ballast, Laing explains how loneliness was the universal late 20th century preoccupation — and condition. Their pain is ours, she argues. “Loneliness is collective; it is a city,” she writes in a lyrical conclusion.

But Laing’s book isn’t interested in limning aloneness, alas, and it takes a few pages before she distinguishes between the two. “By no means all people who live their lives in the absence of company are lonely,” she writes. Loneliness is another gradation of anxiety; it starts as a self-consciousness that deepens into an occlusion of the ability to feel. “When one has lived a long time alone,/One wants to live again among men and women,” wrote the poet Galway Kinnell in a sonnet sequence that Laing might have approvingly cited.

But the visual artists, she writes, offered more solace than writers did. Warhol, she writes — fascinated by trash and glamor, motivated in part by a childhood of numbing shyness — wrote a novel composed entirely out of tape recordings. Living among men and women meant “employing machines as companions or managers of human connection and communication.”

Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto and of secondary interest to Laing in her Warhol chapter, dies in a San Francisco welfare hotel, body crawling with maggots. So committed was she to language’s capacity to change the world that, Laing theorizes, “it was better, safer, less devastating to think if it as a medium in which her own stock was so high … that she no longer dared participate.”

As intermittently powerful as these considerations are, they have the texture of magazine pieces, the topic sentences of which Laing rewrote for the sake of incorporation. An appraisal of forgotten New Wave singer-personality Klaus Nomi is The Lonely City’s novel stroke. “Sometimes all you need is permission to feel,” the chapter’s first line goes, a good one — Laing’s aphoristic tendencies at times exceed her talent for writing them. This little man with the terrifying falsetto, plucked eyebrows and alien-in-lamé schtick made no concessions to mass taste; apart from a classic appearance on Saturday Night Live with David Bowie, he was much better known in Europe. But Nomi became one of AIDS’ earliest casualties, not long after it shucked off its louche gay-identified acronym. Fascinated by the decay of his body (“He began to look like a monster,” a friend noted), Laing chronicles the atmosphere of hysteria that gripped Manhattan’s artistic community, often propagated by outside-insiders like Warhol himself with his revulsion towards sickness.

Retroviral drugs may have halted the epidemic’s inexorability, but what Laing calls “a profound fear of difference, a fear of dirt and contamination, an unwillingness to let other life forms coexist” persisted into the 1990s during the Rudy Giuliani years. Whether this urge to expunge differences intensified the loneliness or interfered with loneliness remains unclear, and while I don’t expect Laing to resolve the tension most of her heroes didn’t and died, which makes her yearning look sentimental.

The exception: Henry Darger, the recluse who left his Chicago apartment for Mass and food and otherwise stayed indoors to write a15,000-page novel about a protector of children; the text includes collages comprising watercolors and magazine photos, often in lurid re-imaginings. How Laing commemorated Wojnarowicz was true of Darger: “All his work was an act of resistance … driven by a desire to contact and inhabit a deeper, wilder mode of being.”

Loneliness then is a muse, to be courted with caution. In Laing’s rendering it can “cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive” as much as mitigate what in another elegant phrase she calls “the small accumulation of positive regard” that the internet provides. Rueful and self-aware, The Lonely City discovers itself in the act of writing; in its modest way, it carves a space amid Laing’s beloved outsider art.

Alfred Soto is a student media adviser and instructor of journalism at Florida International University.