Friday, June 24, 2016

The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Olivia Laing's consoling and sympathetic new book looks at how outsiders carve out a life for themselves in big cities.

When writer and critic Olivia Laing found herself living alone in a series of apartments in New York, she was plunged into a near despairing loneliness. To find consolation, she started looking at art and reading literature around the subject. The result is The Lonely City, eight poignant chapters looking at a range of outsider artists, writers and thinkers, most of them New Yorkers.

The book starts with the painter Edward Hopper, discussing his paintings of solitary figures in city settings. Laing also examines Hopper the man, his long and somewhat turbulent marriage, and finds a strangely lonely and isolated artist.

The next chapter dives into the Warhol scene of the 1960s. In Andy Warhol Laing finds a lonely man ahead of his time. Unable to sustain particularly deep relationships with others Warhol  distanced himself with the use of technology. He filmed and recorded everyone, but remained numbly uninvolved. Interestingly, Laing spends quite a bit of time building up a sympathetic portrait of Valerie Solanis, writer of the notorious SCUM Manifesto. She finds here a deeply isolated character, someone with a history of abuse. Clearly mentally ill, she famously shot Andy Warhol in 1968, almost killing him.

Laing is particularly fascinated with New York gay culture, especially the period during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. This is perhaps the most affecting part of the book, where Laing describes the time in the early eighties when no one knew how the virus was spread. Shunned gay men  with the disease died in horribly lonely circumstances. Laing looks at this period a lot through the art of gay artist David Wojnarowicz and to a lesser extent singer Klaus Nomi. (Laing confesses herself to be a gay man trapped in a woman’s body.)

The last person to be profiled is early internet pioneer Josh Harris. This is a fascinating chapter, featuring some shrewd social analysis, looking at how the net is isolating people. In the late nineties, Josh Harris used his wealth to create somewhat bizarre communal living experiments, the most famous of which was called “Quiet: We Live in Public”. It was Orwellian surveillance gone mad (if that’s possible). Participants agreed to have every aspect of their lives filmed while living in an underground compound. Even the toilets had cameras. The results were fairly predictable, with everyone suffering near mental collapses. Laing says that Joshua Harris was ahead of his time because he could see social media coming and knew it would have deleterious psychological effects. Yearning connection, yet unable to deal with the unpredictable nature of our fellow humans, we seek a safe distance from them by hiding behind the Internet. This is now becoming the social norm, living our lives online, every aspect documented for public consumption and comment.

This is a fascinating and insightful book that deals not so much with loneliness, although that’s a big part of it, as with outsider personalities and damaged misfits. Laing’s approach is always humane and sympathetic, even when writing about clearly troublesome characters, such as Valerie Solanis. The Lonely City takes the reader into uncomfortable territory, but is well worth the journey.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, by Olivia Laing. Published by Canongate. ISBN: 9781782111238 RRP: $34.99

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