Some people, it seems, are born lonesome. Others are made so by geography, rejection or loss.
At times, everyone is lonely to the bone. But it’s chronic, not circumstantial, loneliness that haunts British writer Olivia Laing. It is, she says, “a taboo experience whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.”
Dark and sophisticated, “The Lonely City” looks at how life in a teeming city can intensify isolation — and creativity. Laing finds illustrations in the works of several artists, including Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol.
Similarly, she writes, technology designed to build connections often exacerbates loneliness; the “magic bean” of the Internet is a cold substitute for the heart-and-skin contact most humans long for.
Most chronic loneliness has its wellspring in childhood, she reminds us. The neglected, abused or rejected child never fully shakes that damage. Especially if he grows up to be someone who doesn’t fit into society’s primary place of connection — the family — loneliness can be abiding, and sometimes fatal.
Those who are marginalized, bullied, persecuted, become incurably lonely, Laing says, using as her chief illustration the lives of American gay men in the past century, many of whom were cast out by their families and fled to New York, only to fall into the maw of AIDS. Artist David Wojnarowicz provides a heartbreaking example.
Like Laing’s 2013 “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking,” “The Lonely City” is a genre-bending book — part cultural criticism, part history, part memoir. It’s brilliant — but only in shards.
Its arguments aren’t always convincing. For instance, her assertion that Chicago recluse Henry Darger’s grotesque art of naked, brutalized children was the result of loneliness and love of children more than mental illness and pedophilia is hard to accept.
Still, the book is absorbing, partly because it is so personal. Laing suffered deeply from loneliness in New York City, far from her native London and her troubled family. That interlude helped her to understand how lethal loneliness can be.
Yet, she says, there is beauty and meaning to be found in it.
On an artistic level, that’s a fetching argument. But on a psychological one, it is not. The lonely people in this book, including Laing, are damaged and struggling.
Thus does her courageous attempt to celebrate loneliness fall short. But there is bravery in helping us recognize and ease it, in ourselves and others.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
By: Olivia Laing.
Publisher: Picador, 336 pages, $26.