Out on its own: Blurring the lines between personal memoir and critical essay

The fastest growing genre, it seems, is 'unclassifiable'. Perhaps the greatest influence on the current wealth of innovative non-fiction is the work of the late WG Sebald, and writers as diverse as Geoff Dyer, Rebecca Solnit, Paul Collins and Helen Macdonald have written in the interstices between memoir and essay, critique and portrait, polemic and elegy.

Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City puts her in the first rank of the form. Its subtitle is “Adventures In The Art of Being Alone”, and it braids together personal reminiscence of the agony of being lonely, and alone, in New York, with scintillating studies on artists obsessed with loneliness. But it also divagates into the history of activism especially around Aids, the influence of technology on intimacy, Hitchcock, Billie Holiday, Melanie Klein and much else: part of the joy of such books is the manner in which, as Laurence Sterne wrote in Tristram Shandy, “great wits jump”.

There are four major figures in Laing’s aesthetics of loneliness: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger; the Chicago janitor on whose death were discovered hundreds of surreal artworks, voluminous autobiographical writings and a 15,145 page novel. Darger’s work is sometimes condescendingly referred to as Outsider Art (or Art Naïf, or Art Brut) as if, even in recognising his formidable talent, he has to be isolated. Hopper is an obvious starting place, but Laing finds new things to say about his work. Although he painted many lit windows, Laing notes how his most famous work, Nighthawks, paints the glass itself, leading to meditations on how our own transactions with reality are now mediated via a pane. But it is Hopper’s wife who emerges as the figure of true loneliness. The gallery which accepted her husband’s work destroyed her own when it was included in the bequest; her own career was subsumed into his.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Warhol might be depicted superficially as a social butterfly, but Laing’s picture of him is of a brittle, self-created carapace: again, she writes tellingly about Warhol’s “cyborg” nature, bristling with tape-recorders, cameras, with TVs constantly chattering in the background.

There is also a sensitive, sympathetic reading of the work of Valerie Solanas, who becomes not Warhol’s gun-wielding nemesis but a kind of parallel. Like Hopper’s wife, she is another silenced woman.

With regard to Wojnarowicz, Laing traces an arc from crippling self-consciousness to hedonistic abandon to un-ignorable social conscience and martyrdom. The famous picture of Wojnarowicz with his lips sutured shut stands in stark contrast to the earlier photograph with the provocative graffiti “The Silence Of Marcel Duchamp Is Overrated”.

Laing shows how loneliness, often seen as an extremity of withdrawal and non-engagement, is actually a political phenomenon. At the outset, she describes loneliness as something which “can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair”; by the end she shows how loneliness is built into the fabric of society. Who do we alienate? Who do we ostracize? Who is deemed unattractive? These are questions which novelists like Michel Houellebecq have made central to their aesthetic concerns. The ignis fatuus of the internet – the millions of atomised individuals looking for “communities”, “friends”, “likes” and “connections” – merely clarifies the problem.

In looking at artists from the pre-digital world, Laing shows how loneliness was always already, as it were. Or as Eliot put it in The Waste Land, “each in his prison / thinking of the key”. Loneliness exposes the neuroses of our society. It is a strong and toxic taboo not to be happy.

Without wishing to sound too much like Garbo, I don’t think anything makes me more lonely than being around people with the inane grinning ebullience of children’s television presenters.

This is a beautifully written and intellectually sparkling book, with a steeliness and anger that offsets any maudlin self-obsession.

It is also strangely ironic. It is so companionable and generous in its intelligence that the last thing one would feel when reading it is lonely.