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.
In delving into Warhol’s life, Laing also delves into that of Valerie Solanas, the woman who tried to kill him in 1968. Suffering from a history of abuse and mental illness, Solanas became more and more unstable in the time leading up to the attempted murder. After her imprisonment, Solanas experienced temporary periods of stability, but ultimately lived a hard life that included bouts of homelessness. Her death is the ultimate nightmare of many a shut-in: she died of pneumonia in 1988 at a welfare hotel in San Francisco, discovered only because her rent was late. Her body was covered in maggots; she’d been decomposing for three days.
On his part, Warhol also suffered greatly after being shot. He was covered in scars and he had to wear surgical corsets for the rest of his life because of the damaged caused by the ricocheting bullet inside his body. Physical pain and PTSD, on top of his previous issues, now served to isolate him even further.
Like Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz was a gay man, though their childhoods were strikingly different. He spent his youth on the filthy city streets, occasionally turning tricks to drum up some cash. What was once a source of isolation and shame eventually became a celebratory sub-culture: hooking up with men in seedy theaters in Times Square and on the Chelsea piers was liberating. Then the AIDS crisis began, and again gay men were visibly marked by the toll the disease took on their bodies. Wojnarowicz, who watched many close friends die, eventually succumbed to the disease himself. But not without a fight; activists pulled together and protested the Reagan administration’s mishandling of the crisis, and Wojnarowicz was at the forefront of art activism. Still, it is a disease that carries with it a terrible stigma, especially in those early years when even medical professionals were afraid, and Laing uses the lives of Wojnarowicz and Klaus Nomi to explore loneliness and isolation through the prism of the AIDS crisis.
One of my favorite chapters was the one about Henry Darger, whom I first learned about maybe ten years ago when I saw a documentary about him called In the Realms of the Unreal. He was abused as a child and lived as an eccentric adult (his mental health is debated upon), earning a pittance as a janitor in Chicago. When he died, mountains of things were discovered in his cramped apartment, among them, a fifteen-thousand page book and hundreds of somewhat disturbing works of art focusing on the lost innocence of children. Yet no one knew about this, and after his one friend died, he suffered terribly from loneliness for the rest of his life, a fact he seem resigned to in his memoirs.
All of these disparate threads remain tied together by the inclusion of Laing’s own experiences and observations of loneliness that I think everyone can relate to. There was only one point in the book that I felt was a misstep: one chapter focuses on a man behind some reality televisionesque performance art that I felt veered slightly off course, although technology certainly plays a role in modern day loneliness. Other than that, I loved the book. It’s a beautiful, sad, complex look at human existence.
The Lonely City was released in March 2016 by Picador.