For the past few weeks, I’ve spent an unusual amount of time on the subway, crisscrossing NYC on the hunt for a new apartment. My travel companion during these spouts to the outer boroughs has been Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City. It’s a smart, enthralling, beautifully articulate meditation on loneliness.
The book spawned from the author’s own bout of loneliness a few years back when Laing found herself on the heels of a breakup, living alone in a new city, in a new country, feeling unanchored and isolated yet restless. As she apartment hopped for several months, she turned to visual art to find solace. She writes that during this time she was “possessed with a desire to find correlates, physical evidence that other people had inhabited my state.”
This desire leads her to the art—but even more so the lives and inner worlds—of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz, and her book is largely an investigation into the worlds of these men at certain points in their lives. The theme of loneliness falls in and out of focus—as Liang wanders away from the subject or circles around it. It’s this willingness to stray and get lost in the lives of the people that gives this book its soul.
We follow along as Laing finds refuge in the archives of these artists, letting her own restless curiosity, intellect, and empathy lead the way in her research. These qualities—possessed by the desire of loneliness—and coupled with Laing’s beautiful command of language take us into the flawed marriage of Edward Hopper and his wife Jo, who was also an artist; to the summer of 1952 when Andy Warhol moved his mom, Julia, to Manhattan to live with him in a messy apartment filled with cats, all but one of them named Sam; to Chicago in the early 1970s to the single room apartment packed with decades of collages and other artwork unseen by anyone other than its creator, a janitor named Henry Darger; to NYC piers in 1980s, the once safe haven for photographer David Wojnarowicz; and finally to the NYC just a few years ago where Laing walked the streets untangling the lives of four artists in her mind but no certain place to go.