Perceptions and Collections  

Last night I finished up The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. I powered through 200 pages in one sitting. It wasn’t a true page turner, though. 

Laing has a real talent for stitiching all the different examples of city induced loneliness together, but there’s something stiff about this book. When she’s writing about Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanis, and Henry Darger, the book is interesting. Their lives are interesting. She is also a character in the book, but you never really know her. 

Or at least you don’t know her as well as you get to know Cat Marnell in her first book. Marnell describes her outfits down to the label. You know what she smells like. You know what she probably tastes like (cigarettes and candy lip gloss). Laing describes herself headed to a party as anonymously as possible. Without the picture on the back cover I know nothing about her except that she writes academically, with proper citations and well considered paragraph transitions. That doesn’t seem enough to me. I’m an addict for more personal information. I want more sensory descriptions. I want more visceral hooks. 

Laing’s subjects all seem to have in common a tendency to hoard things and make creative nests. Their environments  become worlds of art. Not just works of art. 

Laing’s book seems related. It is loaded with biographical facts about her chosen loners, assembled with precision. She tells us about Darger’s packed apartment. Warhol’s time capsules are carefully considered. What does Laing’s house look like? She describes the decor of various sublets and uses those details to flow her story into descriptions of art installations. A cloak in her friend’s apartment becomes a meditation of Strange Fruit (for David), an instillation made out of rotting fruit skins sewn together. 

This stitiching seems to be what artists really do. They sew together realities. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman do this with borrowed myth. Maybe being a good writer is really just an axe of hoarding stories and assembling them just so. 


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