Independent travelers understand that exploring the world alone can be an enriching experience, leading to unique encounters and new perspectives. Alone, the traveler is free to reflect on what they see and more likely to engage with the strangers around them. But while solitary travel can be enriching, it can often be lonely, wrought with feelings of discomfort and isolation. For anyone who has experienced the alienation of being alone in a new place, Olivia Laing’s new book The Lonely City will be a welcome companion.
Finding herself suddenly solo in New York City, recently rejected by love, Laing uses the space around her to research, reflect and write about loneliness in an urban landscape. “There is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” Laing observes, but loneliness is also “a populated place: a city in itself.” Laing’s medium for exploring her solitude is not just New York, but the lives of the artists who called the city home, particularly in the mid- to late-twentieth century. The figures she follows are selected by one identifying feature: they created art out of the space of loneliness. From Edward Hopper’s discomfiting industrial landscapes to the painful past that informed Andy Warhol’s pop art, Laing explores how artists express, combat and embrace solitude in the city.
Through these creative outsiders—often relegated to the fringes of society based on their gender, sexuality or mental illness—she charts “the complex relationship between loneliness and art.” Laing beautifully evokes New York with all its crude and inspiring spaces. “In the absence of love, I found myself clinging hopelessly to the city itself,” she writes, “the repeating tapestry of psychics and bodegas, the bump and grind of traffic, the live lobsters on the corner of Ninth Avenue, the steam drifting up from beneath the streets.” While she captures the experience of being a misunderstood outsider, she also celebrates the joy of solo travel. “In certain circumstances, being outside, not fitting in, can be a source of satisfaction, even pleasure,” she admits. “There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure.”
These moments of joyous anonymity come when she is out walking in the city or losing herself in a piece of art, moments when “I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist, pleasurably adrift on the currents of the city.” Like the artists she profiles, Laing embraces her solitude as she walks the streets to engage with the city and its inhabitants, following a route that begins with loneliness and ends in a work of art.