The Lonely City: adventures in the art of being alone by Olivia Laing

Book review

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing provided a journey of connections, rich reflection and re-discovery. What she writes about is profoundly human, visual, full of life and passion yet achingly sad and disturbing. Laing evokes recognisable images of glass (see but do not touch), noxious city scape colours of electrical green and yellow, photos that are sometimes violent, transgressive, deeply intimate or disturbingly alienated. She also captures the allure of the virtual world and the very human tension between our desire to connect intimately with others with the opposing desire for solitude and personal creativity. She has something essential to say for today – with conservatism, protectionism and ‘stigmatisation’ of ‘being other’ gaining frightening ground politically and in society, we urgently need to discuss and elevate the issues Laing raises. We should be talking about this and very publicly. Reading Laing’s account of her experience of being temporarily paralysed in a feeling of rejection and loneliness in New York City, and the rich experience that also opened for her, prompted me to go back to other wonderful books I have read, books that also explore creativity, loneliness, solitude and loss, such as Patti Smith’s M Train and Edmund White’s City Boy. She explores in an accessible yet deeply informed way what it is like to be outside the ‘conforming middle’, shamefully outside of the deadening surface appearance of conservative norms. Her account of what AIDS did to so many is heart breaking. Yet what Laing does is brings us wonderful images from the artistic life of New York. She shows that art cannot mend human failure or loss, but it can create intimacy, connection, compassion and understanding.

 

Thankyou to Studio Anthro bookclubber Miranda Taylor for this thoughtful review.