Like a lot of people, Olivia Laing came to New York to join a lover. Like a lot of people, she soon became unjoined. She stopped eating and drifted, moved from sublet to sublet, wandered the streets in a desperate daze. She craved intimacy and shied away from it, was painfully self-conscious but also anxious that she was in danger of vanishing. What does loneliness feel like? It feels, she says, ‘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, increasingly estranged.’
The Lonely City is memoir, art criticism and a portrait of the Big Apple seen through the eyes of an accidental flâneuse. Laing, who is careful to distinguish between being alone and being lonely, is sensitive to pain. She mentions that after her mother came out of the closet in the 1980s they were driven out of the coastal village where she’d grown up. Her mother’s partner was an alcoholic, and Laing herself dropped out of college and lived for some time in junkie-filled squats. There is a way in which New York, whose Statue of Liberty sports Emma Lazarus’s words, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’, is her natural home.
It’s in the lives and work of artists, many of them queer, many of them associated with downtown New York — David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Klaus Nomi, Nan Goldin — that she finds companionship, examples of how to ‘resist loneliness, to make a joyous art of difference’. Individuals, often seen as cool, edgy, fearless transgressors, are portrayed as scratched, nervous humans. Her Andy Warhol is Andrej Warhola, the bullied child of Slovakian immigrants, disfigured by acne, self-conscious about his speech impediment.