The Lonely City Olivia Laing

Read This, Watch That: The Lonely City and In the Realms of the Unreal

The Lonely City Olivia LaingThe Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
Published by Picador on March 1st, 2016
Source: Publisher
Pages: 336
Buy From IndieBound


The hustle and bustle of city life can often be just as isolating as time spent alone, a situation Olivia Laing experienced after moving from England to New York City. Her new book, The Lonely City, is a deep dive into feelings of loneliness through the lens of several artists who personified it, among them Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, and Henry Darger.

While the first half of The Lonely City is interesting, the book becomes truly beautiful as it nears its conclusion. Branching from ruminations on the isolation caused by her discomfort with the rigidity of gender, Laing explores the avant-garde art and queer culture of the Lower East Side in the 1970’s and 80’s. Through the lives and work of artists like David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, and Peter Hujar, Laing pointedly touches on loneliness caused by stigma and the use of art to salve its wounds.

“People make things—make art or things that are akin to art—as a way of expressing their need for contact, or their fear of it; people make objects as a way of coming to terms with shame, with grief. People make objects to strip themselves down, to survey their scars, and people make objects to resist oppression, to create a space in which they can move freely. Art doesn’t have to have a reparative function, any more than it has a duty to be beautiful or moral. All the same, there is art that gestures toward repair…”


In the Realms of the Unreal

While The Lonely City includes a handful of images, most of the work Laing discusses in the book is left up to imagination. My Google/Wiki use skyrocketed while I was reading, but there was one artist I didn’t have to explore: Henry Darger. I watched the documentary about Darger’s life and work, In the Realms of the Unreal, about ten years ago and saw his art completely come to life. Portions of Darger’s 15,145 page fantasy story, titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, are read alongside moving images of his work and accounts from those who knew him. The documentary is haunting and beautiful and a perfect companion piece to The Lonely City.


  • I have yet to see someone say anything negative about this book. I like how you paired it with a documentary of one of the artists. Since seeing this book around, I’ve also added A Trip to Echo Spring to my list. Have you read any of her other books?

  • Meaghan Walsh Gerard

    Sometimes I feel like it isn’t possible to be alone anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman so it’s probably not safe, but I wish I could go hiking by myself until I felt truly ALONE just to get away for a bit.

  • Eve’s Bookish Confections

    I have an ARC of this book sitting on my shelf; it just spoke to me. I can’t wait to read this and check out the documentary! I watched Finding Vivian Meier last week and it opened a Pandora’s box.

  • Heather

    You make me want to read The Lonely City soooooo bad. Definitely shuffling this up to the top of my list of books to read when I’m allowed to acquire books again (I doubt they have it at my library).

  • OH DAMN this looks cool