Disappearing in the big city is one of its allures: the invisibility granted by the heights and volume of the metropolis, being among bodies, speaking to no one. But there’s a tipping point between slipping by unseen and becoming non-existent, between wanting to be absorbed and being subsumed. In the first pages of The Lonely City, Olivia Laing describes the habitual contradiction of feeling alone in the city’s multiplicity, and the “uneasy combination of separation and exposure” that comes with emotional isolation.

Like Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, The Lonely City combines a collection of artistic biographies with psychological inquiry; this time the focus is on the interactions between loneliness and creativity, with New York as stage-set. There is a “dangerous visual intimacy” to city life, she writes — being overlooked by one’s neighbours, or catching sight of a single diner through a street-level window, like the head-bowed figures of Edward Hopper’s paintings, the first artistic example the author reaches for.

This relationship between the hidden away (feelings, traumas, asocial lifestyles) and the laid bare (Hitchcock’s rear windows, social media, the outlets of art or writing) echoes through the book, as Laing detours from her experience of moving to New York, without anyone, through the histories of bohemian neighbourhoods and their artists. The Lonely City is peopled by marginals who were, through the 20th century, still able to frequent Manhattan’s centre, where today there are fewer and fewer cracks to reside in. Not that the likes of artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz, to whose cut-short story Laing seems closest, or Valerie Solanas, author of the radical feminist SCUM Manifesto (and known as the woman who shot Warhol), ever led a comfortable existence: the image of Wojnarowicz waking up on a rooftop, blackened by chimney dust, reveals the kind of out-of-sight spaces left to him.

Where society’s structures exclude her characters, Laing sides with them: her slight foreignness as a Brit within American English, and the daily mishearing of her coffee order, segue into Andy Warhol’s shaky grasp of his second language (he came from a Slovakian family) and the lack of linguistic home felt by first-generation immigrants. If “speech is by no means a straightforward route to connection”, it is a relief that words written with such tender observation can be.

While the main cast of artists are now-renowned men, their oddness and queerness portrays a lack of belonging in masculinity that matches the author’s difficulty with the demands of femininity; as she observes in the women of Hopper’s portraits, “in the grips of a loneliness that has to do with gender and unattainable standards of appearance . . . increasingly toxic and strangulating with age”.

For there’s also a privilege to falling off the city’s map, as invisibility is less available to feminised and othered bodies than it is to those who are pale, male and able. Indeed, in Laing’s writing there’s a fantasy — occasionally promised by the interfaces of technology — of escaping the limits of the body entirely. “That’s the dream of sex, isn’t it?” she asks, in relation to Wojnarowicz’s casual encounters on the unregulated playgrounds of New York’s old piers. “That you will be liberated from the prison of the body by the body itself.”

The idea of entrapment without privacy appears in the figure of glass, used to describe how loneliness creeps in: “It advances . . . cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing”; a hardened but fragile transparency that returns in a quote from Wojnarowicz’s journals towards the book’s — and the artist’s — end. “I am a glass human disappearing in the rain. I am standing among all of you waving my invisible arms and hands.”

Laing cuts close to the bone of a universal yet often unrelatable state, to home in on sensations that, she suggests, we are predisposed to forget; and to find solace in artists who, were it not for their work, would have been forgotten. These are the strokes of Laing’s portraits: glowing souls in the middle of a long night.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, by Olivia Laing, Canongate, RRP£16.99/Picador, RRP$26, 336 pages

Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article