For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.
Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.
Whereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)
Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.
In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).
A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.
The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.
The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)
With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.
With this four-part post (one per day for the rest of this week) I think I will finally have caught up on the 2015 reads I needed to review. These four books have daunted me for ages because I spent much of last year with them – one because I wrestled with it (vacillating between admiration and frustration), another because it was a daily bedside book, and the other two because they were long and rewarding yet tough to read more than a bit of at a time. Knowing full well that I won’t do any of them justice, I’ll offer a few thoughts.
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
“I go into homes all the time and I save children. It’s what I do for a living, you see? And I didn’t save my own daughter.”
If I take nearly a year over a novel, stopping and starting, that’s usually a bad sign. But I forced myself to finish this one, just like I did with The Orphan-Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. In the end my feelings were roughly similar, too: I appreciated the skill behind Henderson’s writing but never fully warmed to it. This is the story of Pete Snow, a Montana social worker in the early 1980s. His cases are uniformly distressing, but the one that most captivates his attention is Benjamin Pearl, raised in the wilderness by his father Jeremiah, a fundamentalist anarchist who drills holes in coins to show his antipathy to the government.
Since his wife and their teenage daughter Rachel left for Texas, Pete has been adrift in a fog of alcohol and sex, driving obsessively between remote locations in an attempt to save his doomed clients and criminal brother. When Rachel runs away, though, life’s dangers come home to Pete for the first time: “He’d seen so much suffering, but he’d only ever suffered it secondarily. To have it fresh and his own. The scope of it. He’d had no idea. He’d known nothing.” His search for his daughter is what saved the book for me. However, what actually happens to Rachel I found melodramatic, and how it’s narrated – through a third-person rendering of an interview, rather than a you/I back-and-forth – seemed odd.
Indeed, there are unusual narration choices throughout, such as the occasional second-person phrase in reference to Pete. The prose style is by turns fragmentary (as the above lines attest) and expansive, as in this long, alliterative sentence:
Shattered chants and ceaseless invective morph into a nearly simian cacophony of hoots and throaty shrieks as a white cloud of gas composes and insinuates itself into the small crowd that yet churns forward from the rear and backward from the front as the agitators break into two scattering bodies, fanning and choking and wild-eyed, coursing up and down the road.
Ultimately I found this novel to be very hard work. The one scene I’ll remember most clearly is Pete and the Pearls stumbling on a pile of animals, from a raccoon right up to a black bear, that were all killed by a downed telephone wire. I’d recommend this if you’re a dedicated reader of dirty realism and you accept the violence and the detached writing style that genre tends to involve. If not, you should probably start somewhere else, like with Ron Rash or David Vann.
Ever since Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell came out, I can’t help but hear his song “Fourth of July” in my head when I think about this book: “What did you learn from the Tillamook Burn and the Fourth of July? We’re all gonna die.” It’s that oppressive, depressing, even apocalyptic atmosphere I’ll return to when I think about this book. Fourth of July Creek – a real place in Montana – is nowhere I’ll want to revisit.
With thanks to Windmill Books for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.
Over the August bank holiday weekend, my husband and I went to Manchester for the first time. Big cities aren’t our usual vacation destinations of choice, but we were going for the Sufjan Stevens gig at the O2 Apollo on the 31st and wanted to do the city justice while we were there, so stayed two nights at a chain hotel and worked out everything we wanted to see and do there, including two literary pilgrimages for me: Elizabeth Gaskell’s House and Chetham’s Library, where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels met and discussed ideas in the summer of 1845. Armed only with a two-page map sliced out of an eleven-year-old Rough Guide, we felt perhaps a little ill-equipped, but managed to have a nice time nonetheless.
In preparation, I read The Communist Manifesto on the train ride north. It’s only 50 pages, and even with an introduction and multiple prefaces my Vintage Classics copy only comes to 70-some pages. That’s not to say it’s an easy read. I’ve never been politically or economically minded, so I struggled to follow the thread of the argument at times. Mostly what I appreciated was the language. In fact, it had never occurred to me that this was first issued in Marx’s native German; like Darwin’s Origin of Species, another seminal Victorian text, it has so many familiar lines and wonderful metaphors that have entered into common discourse that I simply assumed it was composed in English.
After leaving our bags at the hotel on Sunday afternoon, we wandered over to the Gaskell House. It’s only open a few days a week, so we were lucky to be around during its opening hours. All of the house’s contents were sold at auction early in the twentieth century, so none of the furnishings are original, but the current contents have been painstakingly chosen to suggest what the house would have looked like at the time Gaskell and her family – a Unitarian minister husband and their four daughters – lived there. I especially enjoyed seeing William’s study and hearing how Charlotte Brontë hid behind the curtains in the drawing room so she wouldn’t have to socialize with the Gaskells’ visitors. The staff are knowledgeable and unfussy; unlike in your average National Trust house, they let you sit on the furniture and touch the objects. The gardens are also beautifully landscaped.
Talk about a contrast, though: look across the street and you see council housing and rubbish piled up on the pavement. In Gaskell’s time this was probably a genteel suburb, but now it’s an easy walk from the city center and in a considerably down-at-heel area. Indeed, we were taken aback by how grimy parts of Manchester were, and by how many homeless we encountered.
I’ve read four of Gaskell’s books: Mary Barton, North and South, Cranford and The Life of Charlotte Brontë. She’s not one of my favorite Victorian novelists, but I enjoyed each of those and intend to – someday – read Sylvia’s Lovers and Wives and Daughters, which was a few pages from completion when Gaskell died of a sudden heart attack in their second home in Hampshire, aged 55, in 1865.
Afterwards we stopped into the city’s Art Gallery and then headed to Mr Thomas’s Chop House for roast lamb and corned beef hash, then on to Sugar Junction to meet a blogger friend, the fabulous Lucy (aka Literary Relish), who I’d been corresponding with online for about two years but never met in real life. She graciously treated us to drinks and dessert at this cute café (one of the city’s many hip eateries) where she often hosts the Manchester Book Club, and we chatted about books and travel spots for a pleasant hour and a half.
On Monday we explored the Castlefield area with its canals and Roman ruins and went round both the Museum of Science and Industry and the People’s Museum, which together give a powerful sense of the city’s industrial and revolutionary past. We also toured the cathedral, took a peek at a Special Collections exhibit on the Gothic plus the main reading room at John Rylands Library, and browsed the huge selection at the main Waterstones branch. (On a future visit we are reliably informed that we must go find Sharston Books, a warehouse-scale secondhand shop out of town.) After a necessary pit stop for caffeine at The Foundation Coffee House and the best pizza we’ve ever had in the UK at Slice (including a Nutella and banana calzone for pudding), we headed over to the gig, which was terrific but not the purpose of this blog post.
Our trip only spanned a Sunday and a bank holiday, so we missed seeing the inside of the hugely impressive Central Library and the 19th-century Portico Library. On Tuesday morning, though, we had just enough time before our train back to stop into Chetham’s Library. It’s a beautiful old library with rank after rank of leather-bound books sheltering amidst dark wood and mullioned windows. I love being in these kinds of places. They smell divine, and you can imagine holing up in a corner and reading all day, with the atmosphere beaming all kinds of lofty thoughts into your brain. We had the place to ourselves on this sunny morning and sat for a while in the bright alcove where Marx and Engels studied.
Apart from The Communist Manifesto, my reading on this trip was largely unrelated: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, a delightful literary memoir (review coming later this month); Number 11 by Jonathan Coe, a funny and mildly disturbing state-of-England and coming-of-age novel (releases November 11th); and The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger, an atmospheric family novel set in the forests of Canada.
What have been some of your recent literary destinations? Do you like to read books related to the place you’re going, or do you choose your holiday reading at random?