In her mid-thirties, Olivia Laing moved from England to New York City for a relationship, only for the romance to fizzle out shortly after her arrival. Heartbroken and alone in a city of millions of people, she sunk into the realm of intense loneliness that most people try desperately to avoid. Drawing from these experiences, Laing examines the concept of loneliness by focusing on the lives of several artists who themselves were shaped by experiences of profound loneliness and otherness. The end result is a fascinating hodgepodge of memoir, biology, art history, art theory, psychology, and the occasional foray into technology ethics.
There’s a difference between lonely and alone, and some of the artists frequently walked that line. Some were visibly different from their peers while others were painfully shy for a number of reasons. Some had experienced sexual violence and/or suffered from mental illness. Some, like Andy Warhol — née, Andrej Warhola — struggled with multiple insecurities. Born to Slovakian immigrants in 1928, Warhol stuttered, was anxious, and later suffered from skin problems. It is no wonder, then, that he took comfort in being behind a camera and in control of everything.
Fereiba is dealt a cruel twist of fate at birth: her mother dies in labor, and although her father eventually remarries, Fereiba is never truly welcomed by her stepmother. It’s a bit of a Cinderella situation; her stepsisters are doted on and sent to school while Fereiba is kept at home and taught to serve. It’s only by her sheer force of will that moves up in the world, and then her fortunes truly turn when she meets the love of her life, Mahmoud, a man who treats her as his equal and whose family respects her.
While their family lives a comfortable middle-class life in Kabul, trouble is brewing in other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban is rising to power and people are fleeing the country in droves. Fereiba and Mahmoud don’t realize the error of staying until it’s too late, and their lives change drastically once the Taliban reaches Kabul and imposes their new fundamentalist regime. With two children and another baby on the way, they make plans to flee, but as a government employee, Mahmoud is targeted and murdered by the Taliban. Now, it’s up to Fereiba to escape and get her children safely to London. They manage to stay together part of the way but end up being separated in Greece; at that point, her oldest son must figure out how to get to London on his own.
If you’re familiar with Jennifer Haigh, you’re probably familiar with the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. It’s the setting of two of her previous books, Baker Towers and News from Heaven; the books span generations as they follow the town’s residents through the coal mining boom and bust.
In Heat & Light, another form of energy production dangles promises of wealth to the residents of Bakerton. Unlike before, when men spent the strongest years of their lives breathing coal dust only to die of cancer and black lung down the road, all this generation has to do is sign a lease to allow fracking on their land, then sit back and wait for their checks to arrive.
Of course, knowing what we now do about hydraulic fracking — the earthquakes, the razed land, the tap water you can set on fire — it’s not that simple. Most of the residents don’t know this. When they’re approached by Dark Energy and told stories of the Marcellus Shale and the ocean of wealth they’re sitting on, most of them can’t wait to sign up. The town has been dying ever since the coal mines closed, and the remaining residents are struggling to survive.
In the 1920s, riding high on the pro-eugenics wave that had swept across the nation, key individuals in Virginia pushed hard to advocate for mass eugenic sterilization. Unlike other states that were moving their sterilization programs forward with zeal, however, Virginia took a somewhat more cautious approach. A law was passed that would give the state the power to sterilize the unfit members of society who had been institutionalized in state facilities. However, the state would not proceed until the law was tested before the Supreme Court. The unfortunate target of that test case was a young woman named Carrie Buck.
Carrie came from a poor family; her father died when she was young, and her mother, Emma, struggled to provide for her daughter. She occasionally lived with other men and received charity to make ends meet, but she ultimately gave Carrie up to John and Alice Dobbs in hopes that she’d have a better life. The Dobbses ended up treating Carrie as little more than a servant; she was pulled out of school and sometimes hired out to help neighbors with domestic work. When Carrie was fourteen, her mother was arrested and sent to live at the Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded for the rest of her life (she was neither epileptic or “feebleminded,” though she was labeled a “moron”).
Living beyond their means, Kyung Cho and his wife, Gillian, are now drowning in debt. By all outward appearances, they seem modestly successful: Kyung has a PhD and teaches at a university, and they live in the second most desirable neighborhood in a Boston suburb, just down the hill from the wealthiest area, where Kyung’s parents live. In reality, their marriage is strained and all of their credit cards are maxed out; buying even the most basic necessities is a strain on their limited resources. The time has come to face reality and sell their home.
The realtor’s assessment is another blow: with the terrible housing market, they wouldn’t get enough from the sale of the house to clear their debts. It would be wiser to rent their place out and wait until the market gets better. It makes the most sense for the family to move in with Kyung’s parents, whose home is large enough to accommodate everyone. But Kyung, who has done the bare minimum to give the appearance of a good Korean son, can’t bring himself to take that most logical step. He harbors inexplicable resentment toward his parents that even Gillian does not know about.