Book Review: The Lonely City


Few books come as a balm to the soul.

Loneliness is something I have been experiencing right from the time I was a little child, and have never really been able to shake it off since. So when I found this book doing the rounds in everyone’s recommendation lists in the interwebs, I decided to pick it up.

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is a sublime reflection on the experience of being lonely in the city. She talks about loneliness being a city in itself, habitable, navigable. Arriving in New York “in pieces”, with her heart broken and she alone, Laing meditates on her own experience of the novel, unpleasant state she finds herself in. But the way she seeks to explore loneliness is not through subjectivity or a diarising of personal experiences. Instead, she looks at how other people have sought to express the feeling – that is, through art.

She draws from the lives and works of varied artists like Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and Henry Darger, exploring their art, their lonely lives, and how they brought those two elements in a harmonious conjunction. My favourite chapter is the one on Henry Darger, an artist I will not be getting over any time soon. A sweeper working in a hospital and living by himself in a cramped little room in New York, having hardly any friends and no family, Darger leaves behind him luminous works of art as well as writing that feature children in a fantastical realm. The sheer richness of his inner life, with seemingly nothing feeding his imagination from the outside, in the wake of being completely, completely lonely, baffles and moves me. And, surprisingly, also proves healing for me.

Henry Darger

Laing also talks about the state of wholeness, of integration that the self bends towards. In analysing Strange Fruit (for David), a marvellous artwork by Zoe Leonard consisting of fruits sutured together after their contents are eaten and their skins have dried up, she talks about responding to “damage and to the inadequate, attentive, hopeful, stubborn work of mending that has been done to them, stitch by stitch, zipper by button.” The act of repairing, in other words, through art.

Strange Fruit (for David), Zoe Leonard

Reaching a crescendo with Henry Darger, Laing arguably totters in the second half of the book. In her analysing the current phenomenon of the virtual-reality-induced loneliness, not all her insights are new, and she fails to keep hold of your interest. Besides this, what I found absolutely incredulous was that in her describing of loneliness and difference, she leaves out the most obvious – the experiences of people of colour and immigrants. In talking about New York of the 70s, it is appalling that she excludes experiences of African Americans and immigrants, who arrived in waves in the 70s and 80s.

However, I was really moved by the book, especially towards the ending, where Laing states that loneliness is a collective experience, and how art has “a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds…”

Read this to understand loneliness. Or, perhaps, read this to understand how loneliness can be translated into luminous works of art that has the capacity to heal, to move, to repair.


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