The Lonely City: Adventures In The Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

Written by Hesandi Jayasekara

This summer, I challenged myself to read something that I wouldn’t have read usually, and that was how I wound up stumbling through a multitude of Goodreads lists full of non-fiction books that I hoped would pique my interest, until I finally stumbled across this book; The Lonely City: Adventures In The Art of Being Alone.

This book went into detail about the desolation depicted among art, particularly in New York where Olivia Laing, the author found herself stranded after a breakup, with no friends to call her own and loneliness that can only be felt in big cities where urbanisation had taken hold. Becoming utterly compelling to read despite the topic discussed ⁠- and perhaps, because of it. Especially since the author didn’t go into much detail about her own life and simply let the lives led by the artists she was describing speak for themselves.

‘You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.’

The Lonely City deals with a subject that many people have tried to deal with in their works but haven’t tried to articulate – something that everyone feels, at least once in their lives – loneliness, and the desolation that comes with it. Laing’s novel, while it goes into detail about artists like Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper to name a few, feels less like a dry collection of facts and more like a memoir – Laing painfully relates the emotions felt by the artists and their ability making us the spectators, look more critically at these artists and how they impacted us on our day-to-day life; how they, too, had lives like ours and felt the same loneliness that was a singular human experience.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
Picture credit: Artsy

This novel might not be for everyone – especially if you don’t want to have an existential crisis or have a healthy fear of questioning your life decisions at 2 am in the morning but it’s a book that’s hard to put down after you’ve started it, a book that sucks you in and spits you back out with too many philosophical thoughts in your head. The fact that it’s non-fiction doesn’t detract from its brilliance; Laing’s descriptions of Andy Warhol and his desire to avoid everyone who sought him with his insistence of looking at them through his camera. Edward Hopper’s tumultuous relationship with his wife and how the loneliness and isolation in his pictures are even glaringly obvious today. And David Wojnarowicz, who was an AIDS activist in the East Village art scene when the world sorely needed it, all cement the fact that loneliness was an emotion that everyone of any calibre experience, despite your every ability to ward it off.

This novel with its multifaceted views on what loneliness is- as a feeling that can coexist with living in a highly populated city, both feeling part of something and part of nothing at the same time- brings to life how many artists that we hold up to an ideal, felt the same emotions that we all experience and even, felt the loneliness that comes with success and leaves you open for the world’s criticism.

Written by Hesandi Jayasekara