30 Books # 28 Michele Filgate on Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City

by Michele Filgate | Mar-15-2017

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Michele Filgate offers an appreciation of criticism finalist Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Picador).

“Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee,” Olivia Laing writes in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Reading her latest book, a work of nonfiction that so artfully combines autobiography and criticism, produces the opposite effect, however. Instead of turning away, the reader can’t help but want to keep reading, to get at the root of why this pervasive sadness haunts so many people.

Laing writes about artists who dealt with loneliness in their own work, including Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz—and she diligently digs into her own life, describing a time when she lived in New York City and felt a sense of wanting “to be seen” but also feeling “dangerously exposed.” She wonders if it’s the “fear of contact that is the real malaise of our age, underpinning the changes in both our physical and virtual lives.”

What Laing really excels at is analyzing her own life through the example of others. She did this beautifully in her previous book, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking. The Lonely City feels like the book that she was born to write: a book that proves, as she suggests, that “looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.” Whether it’s Hopper’s paintings, which often depict “a feeling of separation”, or Warhol’s belief that “technology liberated him from the burden of needing other people,” Laing writes about the many ways that people can isolate themselves.

As I say in my Lit Hub essay about The Lonely City and Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today: “Is loneliness worth it if it sometimes leads to great works of art? It’s a feeling that won’t ever go away for some people, no matter the good fortune that surrounds them. But loneliness can lead to despair, an inability to function, and suicide. Isn’t it crucial, in that case, that there’s an open dialogue about it? It’s a relief, then, when writers address the subject with a certain amount of vulnerability and emotional honesty.”

Laing does exactly that in this sharp-eyed and compelling book. 

Michele Filgate is the VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle and a contributing editor at Literary Hub.

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