The Lonely City – Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Olivia, Laing

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Longform journalism

Annotated by:
Perkins, Sam
  • Date of entry: Aug-06-2018
  • Last revised: Aug-06-2018


Olivia Laing, a British novelist and writer on cultural and social issues, tackles the phenomenon of loneliness as a pervasive condition that is both a symptom and a cause of malaise, dysphoria and depression. The book is thoroughly referenced and has an extensive, useful bibliography. Laing begins by describing her own loneliness when she moved to New York City. Somewhat reclusive by nature, she spent hours in her apartment, connected to  the outside world through social media, email and Skype. This leads her to examine the nature of loneliness, its causes and impact on the individual. She then turns to the lives and works of artists who specifically dealt with their own loneliness -- as inspiration, subject matter and personal burden: Edward Hopper; Andy Warhol and his assailant Valerie Solanas; the artist and AIDS activist, David Wojnarowicz; outsider artist, Henry Darger; singers Klaus Nomi and Billie Holliday; tech entrepreneur, Josh Harris, and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Laing weaves in pertinent research (Klein, Harlow, Bowlby, Ainsworth, Weiss, Turkel) and expertly ties their findings to her subjects’ creative lives. Her section on Josh Harris’ radical social media experiments is a pertinent reminder of technology’s role in fostering loneliness. A recurrent theme is that social isolation “leads to a decline in social sophistication which itself leads to further episodes of rejection.” Among the results, she says, are that lonely people are more susceptible to sickness and more likely to die before their time.  


Through the lives and work of the artists she examines, Laing provides a nuanced analysis of how loneliness both damaged them and fueled their creativity. Integral to her story are the pathologies that loneliness leads to and the role that otherness -- the stigma of disease (primarily AIDS), sexual orientation and color -- plays in engendering a sense of loneliness. Though the dates of her New York sojourn aren’t mentioned, based on the clues Laing leaves and her age (she was born in 1977), it would seem to be the late 2000-aughts and early 2010’s. A literary prize she received in 2014 for her previous work helped her complete the research. But the exact chronology is less important than her skills as a poignant storyteller and an effective polemicist, advocating movingly on behalf of marginal members of society who suffer for their failure to conform to the norm. Compassion, empathy and comfort overarch her book as remedies. Chapter by chapter, Laing tells her own story of loneliness in New York and, albeit indirectly, the comfort she felt through empathetic connection with her lonely heroes. The book that results is elegant, impassioned and convincing.  Counselors, social workers, psychiatrists and gerontologists will especially benefit from reading The Lonely City, as will the general public, who will either learn or be reminded of the importance of dealing compassionately and more inclusively with those on society’s margins.



Picador; Reprint edition (June 6, 2017)

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