Bookshelf Project 2016 #12 & #13: The New York Trilogy & The Lonely City
Coincidentally, both books in this post are centered in New York. The first, Paul Auster’s series of 3 novellas, The New York Trilogy, I didn’t actually finish. I read the first two stories in the book and just wasn’t blown away. They were too similar, too empty. In each, there are characters so jaded and desolate that they give up their lives in search of some weird mystery that ends up forcing them to reckon with their own emptiness. It’s bleak. And bleak is not what I need right now.
I bought my copy of the book at Freebird Books, a dusty used book shop on the waterfront near my apartment in Brooklyn. They had an apocalypse-themed book club and the books were shelved according to quirky categories I can no longer recall, but that made me chuckle when I saw them. They kept weird hours, but I loved to visit when they were open and I happened to be passing by. The receipt, which I found wedged in the last page, is dated 6/22/13. I remember that day, actually–we were on our way to dinner at Pok Pok, one of our favorite restaurants, with a friend who was visiting from Boston, and we stopped at Freebird along the way. I must have bought more than one book because the total reads $19 and the Auster was probably more like $4…but I don’t remember. My brain can only hold so many memories, and then only in fragments, so many things not sticky enough to hold on to. I remember walking down Columbia Street, holding my breath past the poultry plant where you could hear the chickens squawking inside and the smell was something gutteral, avoiding the patch on the waterfront side where some homeless men had set up a tiny ad-hoc living room with a rolling desk chair and a milk crate table, and that view of the Manhattan skyline across the water, with shipping containers and cranes silhouetted in the foreground.
Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is part memoir, part study of loneliness and art. I treated myself one afternoon at my new favorite tiny local bookstore, Papercuts J.P., so I wonder if it even should count as part of the Bookshelf Project, since it wasn’t on my bookshelves when I started, but I want to write about it and it’s my blog and my project so IT COUNTS. I was compelled to buy the book because of its subtitle: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. This was a new concept to me: loneliness as art, as an adventure.
Of course, being single means you deal with loneliness. I think being divorced carries its own special weight of loneliness, though, something I won’t get into right now because it’s far too early, but it’s an idea that I’ve been wanting to explore lately, this kind of loneliness. I have many friends and a good job and I live in a great city that I enjoy exploring and I know how to keep myself busy. But the loneliness creeps in at the edges, always, sometimes when you’re not even alone.
Laing’s book excavates not only the nature of this kind of innate loneliness, the kind that doesn’t go away just because friends are around or you’re busy at work, but how it manifests, and how it can both inspire amazing art and tear you apart from the inside out. She does this by profiling several prominent “outsider artists”: Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, the photographer David Wojnarowicz, Harvey Darger, and disco-era proto-Bowie Klaus Nomi. I knew very little about these artists before I read the book and I found myself Googling images of their work as I read, trying to understand the very specific kinds of statements they were trying to make. I don’t know much about art, especially contemporary art and photography, but Laing does a really admirable job of making these artists people and their art meaningful.
She also weaves anecdotes of her own specific kind of loneliness, recounting her life after moving to New York City as a single woman, knowing no one. It’s a literal kind of loneliness, one rooted in solitude, but Laing describes it in a way that makes it universal.
I loved reading this book, but I wish there had been more women profiled, and I wish that there had been a little bit more about Laing herself. She was curiously absent, despite it being ostensibly a chronicle of her own loneliness. On the other hand, that distance lent itself to the overall feeling of loneliness she’s trying to explore, so maybe it was a conscious choice?
Regardless, what I liked best about the book is its underlying message that loneliness is not bad. It’s not to be avoided at all costs. Rather, it can produce a kind of sublime awareness and inspiration, causes us to “consider some of the larger questions of what it is to be alive.” And that’s pretty special, if you think about it.
Here are some of my favorite passages:
- “…the belief that our whole purpose is as coupled creatures, or that happiness can or should be a permanent possession. But not everyone shares that fate. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and value of some kind.”
- “Loneliness is be no means a wholly worthless experience, but rather one that cuts right to the heart of what we value and what we need.”
- “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”
- “The revelation of loneliness, the omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack, that I didn’t have what people were supposed to, and that this was down to some grave and no doubt externally unmistakable failing in my person: all this had quickened lately, the unwelcome consequence of being so summarily dismissed.”
- “…what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure.”
- “There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure. Sometimes as I walked, roaming under the stanchions of the Williamsburg Bridge or following the East River all the way to the silvery hulk of the U.N., I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist, pleasurably adrift on the currents of the city.”
- “…the spectacle of a woman being forced to participate in the perpetual, harrowing, non-consensual beauty pageant of femininity.”
- “Loneliness as a desire for closeness, for joining up, joining in, joining together, for gathering what has otherwise been sundered, abandoned, broken or left in isolation. Loneliness as a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole.”
- “Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”
And here, one of the best distillations of why we spend so many hours of our lives scrolling blankly through Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, ad nauseum:
“What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there, hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded by superfluity. I wanted to hypnotize myself with data, with colored pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping anxious sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings. At the same time I wanted to wake up, to be politically and socially engaged. And then again I wanted to declare my presence, to list my interests and objections, to notify the world that I was still there, thinking with my fingers, even if I’d almost lost the art of speech. I wanted to look and I wanted to be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen.”
The New Yorks of both Laing and Auster’s books are cold, hard, isolating cities, full of strangers and skepticism. They are not the New York I knew, not exactly. But that’s the thing with cities, especially New York–everyone has their own version. I’m glad mine is peopled with dusty used bookstores and gregarious friends and whiskey/grilled cheese bars and sublime Pok Pok chicken wings and hazy skylines and rusty fire escapes–or at least the memories of these things.