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Review: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is an exploration of isolation and intimacy Add to ...

  • Title The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
  • Author Olivia Laing
  • Genre Non-Fiction
  • Publisher Picador
  • Pages 315
  • Price $29.99

Upon beginning Olivia Laing’s nobly forthright, vulnerable new memoir The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, I wagered a silent bet with myself: how many pages until my eyes would see the word “sublet”? I guessed 30.

It was 11.

All anyone my age talks about these days is their sublet – how liberating it is to inhabit a space without owing it anything, the eeriness of daring to open a stranger’s abandoned almond milk, the thrill of awaking disoriented, briefly unsure where you are, the newness of someone else’s shower curtain, desk, stashed-away porn collection, their quirky mugs, cutlery and so forth.

There’s a cult of present-day non-fiction writers whose work I call “sublet-chic” – the work itself flâneurs toward a thesis so exorbitantly draped in adjectives and personal anecdotes one reaches the end of a long essay wondering what they were doing there in the first place. One could craft a Bingo card out of go-to imagery – the shadows of the houseplants, the view of Brooklyn row houses from their temporary desk, how the light streams in and wakes them up too early. It’s dizzying. Ultimately, it’s pointless.

In light of Laing’s book, though, this lifestyle gains new credence. Rather than just a trend fueled by the desire to romanticize one’s own life, this cataloguing of fleeting cognizance and materialism can be viewed as an attempt to appear defined while transient, transience being an essentially lonely state.

The Lonely City offers an empathetic deciphering with which we might come to understand this perpetuity of transience and therefore the meaning of loneliness. The book is a meandering exploration of isolation and intimacy, the shame that shadows both, and the economics, illnesses, injustices, and conditions that have made loneliness a chronic component of the human experience.

Laing, like many restless creative-types, did move around a lot, and uses her own feelings of loneliness and detachment to interrogate senses of isolation in the lives of other New York-dwellers, including artists Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz, and Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas (who self-published the SCUM Manifesto in 1967 and tried to kill Warhol in 1968) and internet pioneer Josh Harris.

These are people whose livelihoods and formations of self were rooted by alienation in a city of millions. The Lonely City unpacks, with harrowing depth and impeccable bedside manner, why it is we’re all subletting, which is to say, why we’re all desperate to find a notion of home that sticks, a permanence of feeling content in our own bodies, in an environment that actually wants us there.

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” writes Laing. One way to quell that is to move at a faster pace than one’s surroundings, thereby creating a false sense of momentum. Another method is to detach from one’s past. Sometimes it is the disjunct between the way familiarity of past places and things suggests we still belong to them, and the reality that we may not, that evokes a form of loneliness.

A sublet is a home without your history.

In a famous study edited by social scientist Robert Weiss in 1975, Weiss wrote that as lonely people become less lonely, they are unable to remember the self that experienced loneliness. Is it any wonder, then, that we romanticize in hindsight the most miserable periods of our lives? That when the scribes of sublet-chic put their pain into words they sound like one of Lena Dunham’s bratty notebooks? Weiss, according to Laing, also noted, “loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close.”

The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein believed that loneliness was not just a desire for human connection, but also for an experience of wholeness, which she called a “ubiquitous yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state.”

When photographer Peter Hujar died in 1987, David Wojnarowicz filmed his lifeless body lying in a hospital bed and snapped 23 photos of him. Writes Laing: “In the suddenly empty room [David] tried to speak to whatever spirit was hovering, perhaps afraid, but found himself unable to find the right words or make the needful gesture, saying at last helplessly, ‘I want some kind of grace.’”

I think we humans are overdue in admitting a shared desperation for grace in life as much as in death, to resign to craving the satisfaction of affection, of being worthy and in control. At the risk of sounding utterly millennial, I think my generation’s most effective salve for this – at least for the non-religious – is Instagram. Laing writes that Josh Harris, years before Mark Zuckerberg, “understood the weirdly protective quality of screens, the sense that participating in virtual spaces might be a way of medicating a sense of isolation.” Harris’s heyday predated the invention of Instagram by nearly 20 years, but he was among the first to recognize social media and virtual camaraderie as businesses where the leading economic driver was loneliness.

“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast,” writes Laing, adding later: “…Loneliness triggered by virtual exclusion is just as painful as that which arises out of real life encounters: a miserable rush of emotion that almost every person on the Internet has experienced at one time or another.” Laing recalls scrolling through Craigslist out of boredom because she enjoyed its “unashamed display of need.” That’s what loneliness is. It’s need.

Should it make us feel more or less alone that we’re all inhabiting the same spaces, going to the same restaurants, ambling around the same sidewalks, reading the same tweets, essentially subletting the same sublets, subletting the same Instagram filters? We live in cities of millions, sure, but we are intertwined by categories, cliques, geo-tag data, Facebook check-ins, even sexual partners.

Laing writes of Samuel R. Delany’s 1988 autobiography The Motion of Light in Water: “His take wasn’t so much nostalgic as utopian: a vision of a lubricated city of exchange, in which brief, convivial encounters kept satiated those otherwise nagging and sometimes agonizing needs for touch, company, playfulness, eroticism, physical relief. Furthermore, these interactions in stalls and balconies and orchestra pits created as a by-product the kind of weak ties that sociologists believe glue metropolises together, though admittedly they tend to be thinking of repeat encounters with shopkeepers and subway clerks, rather than amiable strangers who might give you a hand job once every three years.”

Isn’t that precisely what Facebook is? (One hundred pages later, Laing describes one of Harris’ live-streamed social experiments as “a malicious room of knowing ghosts.” That sounds like Facebook to me, too.)

Social media is one way to temporarily pacify loneliness. Sex is another. (Laing deeply articulates the intersections of sex, isolation and mortality, especially as they pertain to the AIDS crisis.) I am reminded of Bruce Benderson’s Sex and Isolation, in which Benderson writes that the Internet encourages both constant confession and safe physical solitude. It’s fitting that Laing mentions the German word “Maskenfreiheit” in her book – the freedom conferred by masks.

“Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with those things? Does it draw us closer or trap us behind screens?” asks Laing.

Spending a pleasant, cybernated Skype hour with someone you love, only to close the lid of your laptop, suddenly alone, and realize you’ve been talking in a room by yourself, can make the space between parties and the fleetingness of connection feel more painful, more disappointing and more manic. (For a glass-half-full kind of person, perhaps glimmers of indulgence are less anguishing.)

People use many methods to treat loneliness – art, Skype, sex, transience, Instagram, introvertedness. But Laing’s point is that loneliness occurs as “interplay between the individual and the society.”

“I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily,” writes Laing. “I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion.”

Last spring, I reviewed Kate Bolick’s book Spinster for this newspaper. Determinedly single and purposefully alone, I raved about it. The author’s independence was my independence. It wasn’t until my friend Isabel told me over drinks how she disliked Spinster that I began to rethink my self-righteousness. She lamented that the author of the book was actually a serial monogamist whose periods of singlehood felt victorious only because they followed periods of smothering attachment. Perhaps I had convinced myself that loneliness is liberating. For some, maybe it is, partially. For others it’s a vulnerable morass where past and present slop around like heavy mud.

Ultimately loneliness, according to Laing, is “uneasy combination of separation and exposure.”

Indeed, for me there is no lonelier place than driving through my hometown during the holidays at night, compulsively blowing kisses to the graves of my dead friends when I pass the cemetery, or their old houses, or the orchard which is now a subdivision where we used to loll as innocently rebellious teenagers, before they vanished into some other realm. I can only wish, for them, it is a realm without loneliness.

Carly Lewis is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Maclean’s, The Walrus and The Guardian.

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