The Lonely City
Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
Out now from Canongate, £16.99 hardback/Ebook £14.99
Let’s cut to the chase. The Lonely City is so accomplished that I’ll be catching up on Olivia Laing’s earlier books, The Trip to Echo Spring and To The River. Her writing is lucid, erudite and empathetic, and her subject matter is emotional pain and its creative outlets. Curiosity holds hands with courage; she’s unafraid to follow threads into the labyrinth, and doesn’t shy away from what’s hidden there.
Laing focuses on urban isolation and “the particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living surrounded by millions of people.” It’s not surprising, she notes, that unhappiness caused by the lack of companionship flourishes in a crowd, where it’s so easy to be anonymous and overlooked while you’re bombarded by evidence that others are more connected and, the lonely person presumes, more content.
During a period of personal heartache and loneliness, in the wake of a failed relationship and far from home, Laing found solace in images. This prompted her to seek out artists who addressed isolation and loneliness. Though many more people working in a variety of artistic mediums are part of her narrative, Laing particularly focuses on visual artists Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz.
The Lonely City is a solid biographical springboard to their personal stories, but Laing doesn’t stop there. This is a work combining not only biography but philosophy, sociology, psychology and anthropology. It has vast scope, yet she reins it with the precision of a dressage rider.
Through Warhol she looks at how we use technology, wondering whether we’re as connected as we purport to be, a theme revisited later when she ponders the internet’s role as an alienating force. Warhol’s story is enmeshed with that of Valerie Solanas, who shot him. Her own isolation was a key factor in this near fatal incident.
Darger is her lens for viewing some of the social forces driving isolation, and the imagination’s response. For Wojnarowicz, work was a much-needed method of communicating, and by immersing herself in it, Laing felt less alone. As for Hopper, he gave us the most enduring, potent images we have of urban isolation.
Because she’s lived it, Laing gets it. “Loneliness feels like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated.”
Loneliness is self-perpetuating. It’s painful and shaming. A lonely person craves attention yet feels “dangerously exposed.” It damages the immune system and exacts other physical tolls. Yet when someone opens up, admitting they are lonely, instead of drawing nearer, people flee, as if it’s contagious.
Many of the artists under her microscope were gay, and Laing delves into their millieu, becoming fascinated by the netherworld of the Hudson River piers, where, in abandoned Beaux-Art departure halls, men met for sex and connection. A later chapter, built around “Mutant Chantant” Klaus Nomi, encapsulates a devastating survey of the isolating and stigmatising effects of Aids, especially in the early years of the epidemic, when it was little understood. It left me in bits.
All the artists’ stories — but especially Wojnarowicz’s — show how magic happens if a destructive impulse is turned into a creative one. What Wojnarowicz could not speak about, he revealed in his art. “He wanted to make images that somehow told the truth, that acknowledged the people who were left out of history or otherwise disenfranchised, excluded from the record.”
Art is alchemy that can transform tortured emotional states into something precious and tangible, something to connect with, which will reveal the human condition if one is willing to look often and look closely. “[Art] does have the capacity to create intimacy,” Laing writes. “It does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.”
Give this marvellous book your time. It’s a treasure.
Out now from Jonathan Cape, £16.99 hardback/available as an ebook
Eileen practically begs for its own web comparison site. Describing it, John Banville speculates, “If Jim Thompson had married Patricia Highsmith,” and the press release tells us it’s a blend of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor.
True enough, and add a dash of Miranda July while you’re at it, for Eileen is a prickly, off-kilter narrator whose presence is simultaneously funny and unsettling. She is a collection of curiosities, many of them alienating for being all too recognisable. It’s as if she was the embodiment of every secret you tried to bury — and then some. Eileen is preoccupied with bodily functions, dislikes bathing, wears her dead mother’s dowdy clothes, and lives in deliberate and disgusting squalor with her alcoholic father (a retired cop). She is fascinated by all things sexual but repelled by her own and others’ carnality. Deceptively placid outwardly, she seethes with unreleased fury. She’s obsessed with violence, seeing everything as a potential weapon. Her driving ambition is to escape her hometown, her father, and her life. Who can blame her?
Her story unfolds in a coastal New England town in the days leading up to Christmas. It’s set in 1964, when she is 24, but narrated by a much altered Eileen, fifty years after the fact, raising questions in the reader’s mind about her reliability.
Moshfegh deftly plunges us into Eileen’s world. From the first page it’s clear we’re in safe hands. Eileen sweeps us along with the magnetic force of her personality and the promise that her long-postponed rebellion is imminent. “In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.”
For roughly the first hundred pages I nodded in agreement at John Burnside’s endorsement, hailing this as “A modern masterpiece.”
But somewhere around the final third of the book my patience wore thin and my energy for Eileen flagged. Awful detail piled on top of awful detail, and I wondered why — I had Eileen’s measure by then, the repetition, which did not amplify her character, felt unnecessary. There were too many epic bowel evacuations, too many grubby details. Eileen’s stench seemed to waft off the page. I wanted something to happen.
Her catalyst for change is Rebecca Saint John, a new counsellor at the prison where Eileen is a secretary. She is movie-star glamorous and Eileen is instantly transfixed. But Rebecca is not what she seems. Before Eileen twigs to this, Rebecca involves her in a crime that precipitates Eileen’s permanent — albeit delighted — exile.
Everything that I admire about this novel, notably Moshfegh’s assured, assertive writing and her unflinching gaze, outweighs my minor frustration with its pace. Against all odds, Eileen herself is compelling and sympathetic, which tells you everything you need to know about the author’s skill. Reading this got me thinking about that clutch of quiet, ill-kempt girls I went to school with, outsiders who were ostracised and universally mocked. How had they turned out? Were they Eileens? If so, what secrets made them that way?
Cape is bringing out a collection of Moshfegh’s award-winning short stories soon, and they are going onto my wish list. She’s got bags of talent, and plenty to say.