THE LONELY CITY: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, by Olivia Laing. Picador, 315 pp., $26.
Olivia Laing is a genre-busting writer. She writes about place, but she is not a travel writer. She writes about the lives of artists, but she’s not a biographer. She writes a good deal about herself, but she is no memoirist. She writes about depression and addiction, but she’s hardly a pop psychologist.
In her unsettling new book, “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone,” Laing combines and subverts these elements to sometimes powerful effect. Delving into the lives of downtown New York artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, Pop wizard Andy Warhol, outsider artist Henry Darger and painter Edward Hopper — whose street scenes are iconic studies in urban alienation — plus a host of subsidiary characters, Laing goes into some very dark territory.
Herself adrift in New York after being jilted by a lover, the author — whose previous books are “The Trip to Echo Spring” and “To the River” — measures her own feelings of loss and isolation against the figures she invokes. “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult to categorise,” Laing writes. “Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstance, like the loneliness that follows the heels of a bereavement, break-up or change in social circles.”
Not quite a disease, more than a state of mind, loneliness is an enveloping condition that is hard to shake. It is, as she describes, a kind of living death. The ennui Laing outlines on these pages is endemic to the big city, where one can easily be lost in the crowd and slip into anonymity. Laing’s chapters digress in and out of the lives she chronicles, mirroring her own wanderings in Manhattan. She ponders how Warhol used technology — tape recorders and movie cameras — both as a shield and as a simulacrum of intimacy with the actors and scenesters at The Factory in the 1960s, as well as the psychological aspects of loneliness.
Loneliness is also a political condition, Laing observes, a plight faced by those society deems deviant or odd, like Valerie Solanas. If Solanas has been “reduced to a single act” — the attempted murder of Warhol in 1968 — Laing considers how she tried to break out of the conventions gender enforced on her, and the way her “SCUM Manifesto” “seeks to identify and remedy the causes of isolation.” For David Wojnarowicz, abused as a child and defiantly coming to terms with his homosexuality, being an outcast offered a kind of redemption from a “sick society.” Laing powerfully identifies with Wojnarowicz’s radical aesthetic responses to the AIDS crisis, which would claim him in 1992.
Laing’s sections on Henry Darger are among the most haunting in a book that too often feels like an extended exercise in self-pity. In his cramped boardinghouse room, this reclusive Chicagoan, orphaned and institutionalized as a child, created vast worlds — a 15,000-page fiction and over 300 paintings, works elaborately festooned with newspaper cuttings and other found materials, depicting a lurid world inhabited by predatory villains and abused children.
Some considered Darger insane, but Laing argues strongly against looking at him as a pathological case. His creations are things of beauty in their own right. “It’s not only factually incorrect to assume mental illness can entirely explain Darger,” Laing writes, “it’s also morally wrong, an act of cruelty as well as misreading.” One should feel not pity, then, but awe at how he “managed to create so much, to leave such luminous traces in his own wake.” If “The Lonely City” is often an unbearably sad place, Laing shows the redemptive side to the struggles recounted in these pages.