“The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” by Olivia Laing, Picador, 314 pages, $26. It should surprise no one that one of the most beautiful American songs about being alone was written by one of the most sociable and extroverted of jazz musicians – Duke Ellington, composer of “Solitude.” Loneliness as a paradox essential to art and civilization is the essence of this remarkable book. It is also conclusive affirmation that its author, Olivia Laing, is one of the most fascinating and unexpected of all current writers. Laing’s previous book was “The Trip to Echo Springs,” which is one of the best books about a very well-traveled American subject: alcoholism and literature.
What Laing is doing here is plucking big city loneliness from its shared DNA with depression and putting it somewhere else altogether, somewhere unequivocally salubrious. “Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness,” Laing writes, “it is subject to pathologicisation, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose.” To the contrary, insists Laing, who was set on her brilliant and revelatory way by a passage in Virginia Woolf’s “Diary” wherein Woolf wanted to analyze “inner loneliness”: “If I could catch the feeling I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.” How much of art and civilization and a “real world” has loneliness, then, as a pre-condition for Laing?
So it’s about loneliness in New York City, personally and historically and artistically in the works of “Alfred Hitchcock, Valerie Solanis, Nan Goldin, Klaus Nomi, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, Zoe Leonard and Basquiat” but especially “Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojrarowicz” all, to Laing, concerned with “how it can feel to be isolated amid a crowd.” Her book is about realizing that loneliness “cuts right to the heart of what we value and what we need.” It is full of art cricitism as much as it is confession of her relationship with the Internet. She came to New York “in pieces” but came to realize, through art, “the fact that loneliess, longing does not mean one has failed but simply that one is alive.” As is Olivia Laing’s singular, fiercely candid and rare book.
– Jeff Simon