I first saw The Lonely City by Olivia Laing on NPR’s Best Books of 2016 List. I picked it up because I was interested in the concept of loneliness, and I wondered what Laing had to say about it. I am an introvert. I enjoy, and often need, time to be alone to recharge. My job is often very people intensive, which can be fun, but also exhausting. So I find that when I’m not working, I enjoy my alone time. But I’ve also felt that lately, I’ve been spending more time alone than before. As I’ve become more independent, I’ve realized how nice it is to just do whatever I want, whenever I want, without planning or compromising. Sure, there is something to shared experiences that I’m missing out on, but right now I think I’m happier this way–or maybe I’ve just gotten too lazy to put the effort in.
Anyway, I didn’t know what to expect from The Lonely City, but Laing dove right into a loneliness much deeper and darker than I have ever been familiar with. “I was getting a taste of it, all right, but what on earth would it be like to live the whole of your life like this, occupying the blind spot in other people’s existences, their noisy intimacies?” (136) This alienation is especially marked in New York City, where you are always surrounded by people. Sometimes feeling like a college thesis, Laing discusses the idea of loneliness, a number of New York artists, how they lived, what kind of loneliness marked them, and how it affected their art.
Although I had heard of many of these artists, I knew very little about their lives or their art. It seemed that each one had a life a little more desperate and sad than the one before. “Why do you put yourself in unsafe places? Because something in you feels fundamentally devoid of worth.” (108) They were isolated by mental illness, physical defects, AIDS, and mental health issues, but it also seemed to drive their work.
Laing discusses what drove her to write this book, and that was her loneliness when she moved to New York City in her early thirties. She’d just broken up with her boyfriend, and she found herself in this city where she knew no one and had no purpose. It sounds like she was just lost for quite a while. “I think part of what informs this book is the pain of having grown up for years and years believing I was from another planet.” (132)
Finally, Laing brings up how society treats loneliness. This part of the book was rather sad and hopeless–not that the rest of the book was exactly uplifting. Happy people can sense the discomfort and sadness of lonely people and instinctively want to avoid it. Thus, lonely people, starved for human contact and affection , receive even less. Then they become more anti-social and withdrawn, which leads to even less social contact. “This is the other driver of loneliness, the reason why certain people – often the most vulnerable and needy of connection – find themselves permanently on the threshold, if not cast entirely beyond the pale.” (153) “What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy…” (254)
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