The Lonely City (book review)

I finished the book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing today, and I’m here to write a review.

Laing talks in this nonfictional social study book, predictably by the title, about loneliness, the kind that comes from being alone amid a city of millions of people.  Her particular interest is on people who are lonely because of structural prejudice or traumatizing experiences, and she explores those people and spaces through the artworks and lives of famous historical artists who she believes personify such loneliness and prejudice.

It’s an interesting read, trailing through countless pieces of artwork, countless lives.  There is a particular focus on prejudice against homosexuality as well as the AIDS epidemic.  What I thought the book was a little short on was Laing’s conclusions based on this research.  She essentially claims in the book summary that she has potential remedies to heal loneliness, but the book is very short on that particular element.  Instead, she spends most of the book talking about the loneliness of artists, or about being lonely in New York City herself.

From what I could gather, her conclusions about the cure to loneliness were threefold: First and foremost, we have to realize we are not alone in being lonely, by her recommendation through looking at the lonely works of famous artists.  Second, we have to learn how to befriend ourselves first and other people second.  Third, we have to recognize and face the fact that some loneliness is structural and situational – not all of it can be solved with a pill.  She also had an interesting chapter on technology, the Internet, and social media as both a cure for and a way to intensify loneliness, all wrapped up in one experience.

Let me say that I agree with all these conclusions.  I just wish they’d taken up a larger part of the book.  I wanted her to elaborate on them, when really they did not take up very much of her 281 pages of writing.  I even wanted more elaboration on her own lonely experiences in New York City and her own struggles with gender identity – those, too, took up a very small section of the book.

I’m not saying it’s a bad book, but I am saying that the summary is deceptive.  I picked up the book because I remember being lonely myself in a city I used to live in.  I picked up the book because I’m going to move to another city and I want to try and avoid feeling the same way again.  But that’s not the point of this read.  The point of this read is to look deeply into the lonelier lives and works of artists and the historical and structural prejudices they faced.  Laing wants us to avoid making the same historical mistakes again.  Her own loneliness, or a potential therapy for loneliness, is more of a brief aside, a way to make a larger point.

If you’re interested in that, read the book for those reasons.  I am interested in those issues, and she handles them well with some pretty thorough and interesting research, but I wish I’d picked up the book knowing that was what I was going to get.

My other criticism would be this: out of all the artists Olivia Laing profiled, do you know how many were female?  Two.  One was extremely disturbed, obsessively stalking Andy Warhol, and both were portrayed more as consequences of and connections to male artists, rather than as artists in their own right.  You’re honestly telling me no interesting female artists accurately portrayed loneliness without the catalyst of a man?

Still, it was overall an interesting read into historical and structural issues and famous works of art, doubling as a mini biography concerning the loneliness of the lives of several famous artists.  My one main warning would be that this book contains triggers.  I had to put the book down at some points.  Child abuse and depictions of child mutilation, possible pedophilia, and severe mental illness eventually spiralling into stalking and homelessness are all portrayed in this book – with compassion and reflection instead of cruelty, but honestly and bluntly nonetheless.

If you are easily triggered by any of the above issues, and do not feel you could work past seeing them in a text the way I did, this may not be the book for you.

Background Noise at a Coffee House

I spent a Friday evening out on the town with my sister and a friend.  We walked around the west side downtown area before taking a taxi back home.

We went to a little redbrick pub and coffee house filled inside with fairy lights and bookshelves.  I got a warm slice of apple pie, a Reuben panini, water from the pitcher in a corner, and a Mexican mocha in a mug, finding rustic polished wood seats amid the bustling college town crowd.  I had an acoustic guitar leaning in a corner from my music lesson earlier.

My friends and I talked about the books scattered haphazardly over our table, and about Pokemon Go.  (My friends are trying to get me more into gaming; I like anime and manga, but I currently play video and app games about as well and as often as a retarded goldfish.)  Out around us, people drank, laughed, and chatted, the atmosphere languid and friendly and the lights warm.  A regular host of live music, this was a place of culture instead of drinking, the sort of place where a cup of coffee could last for hours.

Eventually, a pianist started singing and playing keyboard in the background; she was dressed in a checkered flannel shirt and tight jeans.  Like most musicians, she knew enough not to ask me to play something just because I had an instrument, which I appreciated.

I don’t know what happened, but she played for a few minutes, then suddenly grabbed her jacket and ran out in tears.  She’d said something about singing a never before performed song…  Had she expected more of a reaction to her music?  I wonder.  Because she was good – very good.  But the venue was not one that allowed itself to some crazy huge reaction.  The atmosphere was all wrong if that was what she wanted.

And yes, I have sung in front of others before, so I do in fact know a little bit of what I’m talking about.  A word of advice?  If you’re really that sensitive about a song, you should probably wait to sing it until you’re in front of a bigger crowd that’s paid to listen to people sing.  I know that’s scarier, but you’ll also get more noise and reaction that way.

You don’t get wild rounds of applause as the background noise at a coffee house.