Summary: What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens?
When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives – from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to the depredations of the AIDS crisis – Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.
This was a book that I realized that I wanted after reading an excerpt in ELLE (UK edition, May 2016) since the premise sounded really cool. Or at least the excerpt did.
The excerpt was ‘Life for Rent’, and it discussed Liang’s experiences of subletting in New York City as she moved into different neighbourhoods and unconsciously slipped into temporary lives of others while subletting at their place. Her article discussed her relationship with the city as she slowly came to understand and embraced all the different neighbourhoods in New York City. Another really important theme that Liang explored was the loneliness and almost excitement that one could experience from living alone. It also hinted at the newfound independence that she found along the way. I finished the article feeling very inspired and absolutely wanting to learn more about Liang’s story and how she had coped in the Big Apple for three years just renting and moving every few months into a whole new ecosystem. More importantly, I loved the way that she described her relationship to the various neighbourhoods and I wanted to know more about her life and New York City.
However, when I picked up the actual book I quickly realized that Liang’s book was not merely a recollection of her times in the city. Instead, she used her loneliness in NYC as a starting point to discuss the various lives of very brilliant (but very eccentric) artists who also had to cope with the extremes of a dual life—people who had a creative/artistic side and another side as a human. This book was actually a great blend of social history, art history, mini-biographies of artists and personal reflection on living alone in one of the busiest cities in the world. It was an oxymoron yet it was the perfect opportunity to talk about being extremely isolated despite being surrounded by millions of other individuals.
Unfortunately, my interest in art (particularly anything ranging from the late 20th century to 21st century) was scant at best. I would consider it a great artistic achievement for me to spend an entire day in an art gallery admiring at paintings, sculptures and other beautiful artifacts. While I appreciate the cultural value of the artwork, I simply am not someone who relishes and breathes art all the time. And this was where the disconnect began.
Liang spent the majority of the book by providing a brief biography of each of the individual she featured—particularly Hopper, Warhol, and Darger—as well as any social commentary surrounding their lifetime such as AIDS/sexuality, and a further commentary on the art. I found the social commentary to be rather interesting as an added bonus, but since most of the commentary is firmly in the 20th century it seemed remote from present day. The memoir parts were used as an introduction to weave into the larger narrative of the people that Liang was trying to explore, and she sometimes drew parallels or remark upon similarities with the artists depending which aspect of her life that she was trying to tackle. However, I failed to become excited about any of the artists’ lives (although I was intrigued by certain pieces of their works) and if I really did want an in-depth exploration in each person’s life, I would probably go pick up a biography of the person. As I was disconnected from the art world, I failed to see the connection between the artists that she chose to feature in the book besides that they reminded her of loneliness in some way and that they resided in New York City (or Chicago).
The strongest parts of the book included Liang diving into the personal, discussing the struggles of her life and enlightening the reader about her journey with loneliness and what lessons she learned through loneliness. However, I felt that the memoir portion was not enough for my taste and I much rather read an entire book about Liang’s personal insights on her loneliness, particularly in relation to New York City. She actually did talk about various parts of her life, not just her time in the city. However, it is worth mentioning that Liang seems almost aloof when talking about her own life, making the read a more alienating and lonely one, which in this case serves the book well.
In the end, this book just is not my cup of tea. I enjoyed a third of the book, which was what the ELLE article had presented. IF you want to look for a book that will explore so many topics in a concise and intelligent manner, love 20th century art and love the idea of how lonely artistic lives may be similar to an individual’s time in a metropolis city, then this is the book for you. The writing is strong and thought provoking. But for others, I would say read the article first and gauge a feel of what you are trying to get out of Liang’s writing. Before writing this review, I re-read the article itself and I feel a much more poignant connection to the article than the entire book.