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Provocative Book Explores The Connection Between Loneliness And Art


This is FRESH AIR. In her 2013 book, "The Trip To Echo Spring," Olivia Laing wrote about the complex relationship between drinking and writing in the work of writers like Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Her new book, "The Lonely City," explores a more elusive subject, the connection between loneliness and art. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: When Edward Hopper is the most upbeat artist whose work is discussed in a book about loneliness in the city, you know your reading experience is going to be a pretty bleak one. Hopper, of course, gave us "Nighthawks," his desolate 1942 painting of three customers and a soda jerk sharing space alone together in a late-night diner. But "Nighthawks" looks positively warm and cozy compared to some of the other depictions of urban alienation that Olivia Laing surveys in her strange hybrid book of memoir, biography and criticism called "The Lonely City." Take, for instance, the thousands of hours of tapes made by Andy Warhol in his famous factory in which he recorded people in conversation not connecting with each other. Or consider the photographs and diaries of the transgressive artist David Wojnarowicz who wrote about his attempt to be freed from the silences of the interior life by losing himself in the nightly carnival of anonymous sex at New York's derelict Chelsea Piers in the 1970s and '80s. Or perhaps most disturbing of all, force yourself to look closely as Laing does at the outsider art of Henry Darger, a loner who worked as a hospital janitor for 54 years. Darger returned every night to his rented room in Chicago where he created over 300 paintings, many of them filled with images of violence inflicted on children. Offensive and off-putting as they are, those paintings are now fought over by private collectors and museums because of - to use Laing's phrase - their supernatural radiance. Why even go there, right? Why even embark on this difficult walking tour through urban loneliness and the art that's been created out of it? Probably the best reason I can think of is to spend time in Olivia Laing's company. As she demonstrated in "The Trip To Echo Spring," Laing is an astute and consistently surprising culture critic - one who deeply identifies with her subjects' vulnerabilities. Laing reveals that the spur for writing "The Lonely City" was her own move from England to New York to be with a man who then rejected her after she relocated. Laing tells us that in the absence of love, I found myself clinging hopelessly to the city itself. And so she sublets a series of apartments from rundown walkups to a dismal room in a converted Times Square hotel where many of her unseen neighbors are the long-term homeless and the mentally ill. Here's how Laing describes her life in one of the apartments she sublets. (Reading) People had been coming and going through those rooms for years leaving jars of lip balm and tubes of hand cream in their wake. During the day, I rarely encountered anyone in the building. But at night, I'd hear doors opening and closing, people passing a few feet from my bed. It was becoming increasingly easy to see how people ended up vanishing in cities, disappearing in plain sight, retreating into their apartments because of sickness or bereavement, mental illness or the persistent, unbearable burden of sadness and shyness, of not knowing how to impress themselves into the world. Laing says her own extended experience of raw loneliness made her hyper-receptive to visual images of loneliness and that studying those images made her want to learn more about the isolated souls who made them by, as Adrienne Rich put it, diving into the wreck of artifacts like Andy Warhol's time capsules, David Wojnarowicz's "Visual Aids" photographs and scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's ultimate tribute to urban voyeurism "Rear Window." Laing bravely illuminates the dark contours of these difficult, sometimes even repulsive works and the extreme deprivation that produced them. In doing so, she campaigns against what she calls the gentrification of cities and of emotions. By that, she means the homogenizing, whitening, deadening effect that causes us to deny the existence of the shameful and the unwanted. "The Lonely City" is an odd and uncomfortable book - not consoling, but always provocative. And like so many of its weird solitary subjects, it's absolutely one-of-a-kind.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Lonely City" by Olivia Laing. Tomorrow one FRESH AIR...


LOUIE ANDERSON: (As Mrs. Baskets) You know, Chip, jobs are supposed to pay the bills. That's why they're called jobs.

GROSS: That's comic Louie Anderson playing Zach Galifianakis's mother in the new FX series "Baskets." I'll talk with Anderson about taking on the role of a woman and drawing on his own mother for the character. We'll also talk about the dark, autobiographical material from which he draws his standup comedy. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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