The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

Sophie Putze

It seemed ironic to be craving a book titled ‘The Lonely City’ in the middle of March. It was, after all, days before New Zealand would enter its strictest state of lockdown during the global pandemic. One which would mean going outside for isolated walks in our local areas, to the supermarket or pharmacy and little else. The desire for this particular book seemed to have been mutual. Friends both local and abroad were reaching for Olivia Laing’s words. The purple hued skyscape of the cover peered out at me from behind my glass phone screen-in cities, living rooms and surrounded by linens across the seas.

‘The Lonely City’ is part-memoir, chronicling Olivia Laing’s time spent in New York. A place where it’s remarkably easy to go under the radar. The trip was of course research driven. It served as the foundations of this book. A book which not only explores isolation and aloneness, but in turn what that means through the eyes of an artist. 

Each chapter in ‘The Lonely City’ explores both the work and lives of a different artist. Andy Warhol, a chronically shy person who built a social circle around him. It served as a tool for observation as well as inspiration for his multimedia projects. It was a circle that in turn made him feel less alone. In contrast, Klaus Nomi, a performer faced the unknown and solitude experienced during the AIDS pandemic of the late eighties. Some of the artists chronicled were orphaned, others were outcasts of society. All of them embrace loneliness and it in turn serves and guides their creativity.

At a time when we don’t know when we’ll next be able to hug our loved ones, or travel to far-flung places, The Lonely City was a tonic. Yes, there were some days at Level 4 of lockdown when finding the focus and drive to read was a struggle. That being said, it made having a book like this all the more rewarding and comforting to be able to read.

Laing writes, “loneliness is by no means a wholly worthless experience, but rather one that cuts right to the heart of what we value and what we need.” What we need now are the words and images of writers and artists. Words and images which provide us with reassurance, anchorage and guidance, leading us through these uncertain times. 

Sophie is an aspiring essayist from Auckland, New Zealand. When she isn’t writing, she can be found reading multiple books at once or re-watching Fleabag for the umpteenth time. She also writes the blog, States Of Sophie.