on the lonely city

An ambitious study of New York artists, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City examines a few of the many forms urban loneliness takes.

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Across eight wide-ranging chapters Laing considers loneliness as it appears in the works of realist painter Edward Hopper, pop artist Andy Warhol, transgressive writer David Wojnarowicz, and outsider artist Henry Darger. Mixing together biography, psychology, criticism, and cultural history, the author analyzes how these men’s abusive childhoods and marginalized milieus informed their artworks’ complex representations of isolation, connection, desire, and violence.

The starting point for the study is clear. In the introduction Laing outlines how, after moving from London to New York to be closer to a newfound partner, she found herself suddenly dumped, single, and alone in an unfamiliar place, amidst masses of people. Agonized, the acclaimed writer sought solace in the paintings, collages, photographs, and memoirs of New York and Chicago artists whose work is tinged with melancholy.

At a brisk pace Laing breezes through considering the productive careers of Hopper, Warhol, Wojnarowicz, and Darger, as well as a handful of related women artists. The author acquaints readers with the eclecticism of these famous figures’ art, and draws attention to how the loneliness they represented is always social in origin, produced by the emotional toll of urban decay, gentrification, oppression, and more. As a kind of cultural survey the book’s engaging, if not groundbreaking.

The individual chapters are successful as introductions, but the book feels aimless. Laing jumps from the postwar paintings of the notoriously bigoted Hopper to the apolitical works of Warhol and Darger to the anti-racist prose and photographs of Wojnarowicz. The connections between the four men are near nonexistent, and while the book’s second half extensively discusses Wojnarowicz’s transgressive art scene and the AIDS epidemic, those parts aren’t well integrated with the rest.

The lack of purpose is worsened by the fact that interspersed throughout the book are bits of memoir—about Laing’s recent break-up, her experience of New York, her childhood identification with gay males. So much is hinted at, so little expanded upon. Worse yet the link between the life writing and the criticism is tenuous: Laing never clarifies what about her situation attracted her to the four men at the core of her study.

Nor does the writer address why she chose to center male experience and art. The decision to relegate women artists like Nan Goldin and Valerie Solanas to the sidelines of history, considering their careers only in relation to those of their male counterparts, feels regressive as well as bizarre, given that Laing’s a woman writer who’s nominally supportive of feminism. Sadly the work’s problems with diversity don’t end there.

The book actively erases the contributions of people of color to New York’s transgressive subcultures of the seventies and eighties, the second half’s main subject. Basquiat, house music, and drag balls are but a few of the subjects Laing should have addressed had she wanted to write a compelling account of the time; the author’s erasure of Black and brown lives re-enacts the gentrification she rightly identifies as dehumanizing.

The goal of The Lonely City isn’t obvious. It’s too reticent to work well as memoir, too scattered to be cohesive cultural history, too superficial to come across as incisive criticism. The chapters on Darger and Warhol stage convincing recovery readings of much-critiqued artists, but otherwise the book seems best skipped or skimmed.

22 thoughts on “on the lonely city

  1. Ah, bummer. I read this a few years ago and really, really liked it, but you’re absolutely right about the erasure of Basquiat, the ball scene, and contributions of artists of colour in general. Now I’m wondering what else is missing from the books of hers I’ve enjoyed.

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    1. I enjoyed it while reading, though a Goodreads conversation changed my mind a bit about the book as a whole. I think Laing’s a solid writer and has an engaging voice – I’m interested to read her book on Woolf sometime.

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      1. Haven’t read that one, but The Trip to Echo Spring (on writers and alcoholism–Berryman, Cheever, Carver, etc.) left a deep and favourable impression on me a few years ago.

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  2. This was a strange book because I liked it when I read it, but I remember connecting more to the memoir elements about loneliness despite being in a big city, and the rest of it is a big blank spot. I think because, as you point out so well, it was so poorly formed and not cohesive. I’ve just finished my second book of hers, To the River, and it’s somewhat similar – rambling, memoir interspersed with history, literature, and culture, none of it actually gelling together. And also, the journey in that earlier book was also connected to a breakup.

    Great review of this one!

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    1. Thanks! Ah, that’s disappointing to know that To the River isn’t cohesive either. I feel like this book would have been better had it been more about her life, with occasional reference to the artists’ work. The times she brought up her past and her experience of NY were interesting, I wish she’d had lingered and fleshed out those moments.

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      1. I completely agree. I think To the River wasn’t even as well done as this one, unfortunately. I still want to keep an eye on what she does in the future, these two feel like they could be working up to something positive, just not quite there yet.

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    2. If that’s the part of the book (I haven’t read it, myself) that appealed to you most, you might enjoy Emily White’s Lonely, about her experience of feeling on the outside while living in the heart of Toronto, which is less psychology/philosophy (but it’s still there) and more memoir-y.

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  3. Well, that just got worse and worse! This review reminds me of my recent review of A Detroit Anthology. The pieces were too short to make a point, and yet whole sections of Detroit culture were skipped, such as the ruling gangs of the 90s, particularly Young Boys Incorporated, or glossed over, like how Detroit has one of the biggest Arabic speaking populations in the States. I hope your next book is a winner!

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    1. Thanks! I thought of this book while reading your review of the anthology too haha. They both feel like the kind of project that falls apart the more you think about it, with so many bizarre choices on the part of the writer/editor.

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    1. It’s interesting you mention that – this reminded me of a book that would’ve been well received in the ‘00s. It’s in the same vein as work like A Field Guide to Getting Lost (which is more inclusive) and Bluets (less so), but it feels fairly out step with 2019.

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  4. This one is on my list, but I haven’t made it there yet. I recently finished Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear and I could see where it might seem aimless for some readers and maybe for me, too, in another reading mood: so many subjects, sometimes only considered for a paragraph, or a single line even, but I just loved that feeling of touching down, lifting off, touching down, lifting off.

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    1. That does sound nice! Thanks for all the great recs. I love aimless books when I can get lost in them, when it feels like the prose is drifting rather than simply scattered.

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  5. It’s a shame the book doesn’t live up to the interesting premise it rests on. I find in creative nonfiction, there seems to be a grey, blurred area between “wide-ranging” and “unfocused” where a lot of writers struggle to find balance. When I read Ellen Meloy’s Anthropology of Turquoise, her essays were extremely wide ranging and held together tenuously by the premise blurbed on the dust jacket, but her memories and insights were so fascinating that I did not find myself thinking of it as unfocused or problematic. But if she had shifted just a little more to the left or right, the center probably wouldn’t have held.

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    1. I think you’re exactly right – it’s difficult striking that balance, and of course what comes across as cohesive’s subjective. So much depends on how fresh what the author’s saying is, or how interesting you find them. In this case it felt like she was haphazardly regurgitating arguments she’d read elsewhere, but my tolerance for “scattered but insightful” is usually high. I’ll have to check of Anthropology of turquoise, thanks for the rec!

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  6. Interesting that reticence, that was my criticism of To the River, which was an interesting premise but frustrated by avoidance of the obvious, obvious questions raised in the reader’s mind, willfully ignored, or self conscious inhibition. I wonder if this book suffers from the the narrow lens of privilege which might create blind spots in one’s vision.

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    1. You raise an interesting point — she does seem to avoid considering fairly obvious questions, though I’m also not sure whether it’s due to inhibition or a conscious lack of interest. Her discussion of her own life is incredibly vague/evasive, so my sense is that it’s the former.

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  7. Great review!
    I have this on my shelves but DNFed it a while ago because I just couldn’t connect and thought her writing was unfocused and a bit frustratingly vague. Your review is convincing me that it was probably the right choice.

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    1. Thanks so much! Frustratingly vague describes her style perfectly. It often felt like she had nothing new to add to the conversation, so she relied on rehashing others’ work and being as general as possible.

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