A few years ago, Olivia Laing found herself an expatriate Brit living in New York City. No stranger to urban life, she nonetheless grew overwhelmed — by the quirks of each new sublet, by the slight social differences in an otherwise familiar language, and most of all by the blurry rush of humanity around her, so close yet somehow so distant.
So she wrote a book about it. The Lonely City is the follow-up to Laing's 2014 book The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Writing; similarly, The Lonely City filters big questions about modern life through the lens of specific creatives, although in this case artists and musicians are folded into the mix alongside writers. The big four are Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger — all but Darger were either native or adopted New Yorkers — and Laing peeks into their respective states of loneliness with both biographical rigor and poetic license. At the same time, she recounts her own time in New York in a delicately dark, quietly sad voice, describing the "spectral blue space" of a leaf-filled pool and the way her busy neighbors seemed to ignore others as if they were "accumulation[s] of colored pixels" rather than fellow human beings.
It's a stunning balance. Laing renders her autobiographical vignettes — being left alone in the big city after a boyfriend gets cold feet; running into a Puerto Rican wedding in a park in Brooklyn; trying with dubious results to connect to others via Twitter and Craigslist — with dry, haunting anxiety. The Lonely City is subtitled Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, and the irony of that phrase is palpable. The book's so-called adventures are all withdrawn and introspective; for a book about loneliness, it couldn't read more lonely. That's both a plus and a minus. Laing — like Hopper and the other artistic loners she writes about — is an observer, and that passivity lends the book a staggering emotional weight that's both powerful and leaden. It's a gray, overcast afternoon of a book, sometimes oppressively so.
"The writer who wishes to elaborate on loneliness is faced with a serious terminological handicap," Laing writes, quoting the German psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. "Loneliness seems to be such a painful, frightening experience that people do practically everything to avoid it." To her credit, Laing faces isolation head-on, and she walks it like she talks it; her own loneliness drives her to write about the loneliness of others. Her keen insights into Warhol's ironic distance — or the new-wave singer Klaus Nomi's operatic otherworldliness, or the science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany's sexual revelations — ring with poignant sympathy.
Moving effortlessly between subjects, Laing uses everything from biochemistry and urban theory to art criticism and technology. Her look at how the AIDS crisis of the '80s affected the notion of loneliness in New York feels like it could (and should) be a book of its own; by the same token, her ruminations on social media's place in 21st century loneliness feel cursory and tantalizingly scant.
That aside, The Lonely City bristles with heart-piercing wisdom. Loneliness, according to Laing, feels "like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast." Later, she admits that at one point during her own hermetic existence in New York, "I felt like I was in danger of vanishing." Thankfully The Lonely City goes far beyond a cry for connection in an overcrowded, overstimulated world. It's a ghostly blueprint of urban loneliness — an emotion that Laing calls "a city in itself" — that reminds us how loneliness can sometimes bring us together.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.