The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

Canongate, £16.99

“WHAT does it feel like to be lonely?” Olivia Laing asks near the beginning of this affecting, compelling, deeply humane book. “It feels like being hungry,” she continues, “like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”

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What follows for the next 280-odd pages is an exploration of that idea of loneliness as a lack. A lack of communication, a lack of intimacy, a lack of love, a lack of belonging, a lack of empathy (these lacks do not belong only to those who are lonely). And it’s an exploration of the things people to do to fill that lack, be it drugs or sex or the internet or art. It’s the art that is at the heart of Laing’s book.

Set adrift in New York after the breakdown of a relationship, Laing begins the book alone in the big city and in trying to understand what she is experiencing she seeks answers in the experiences of artists who also made their home there. So here, among many others, is the voyeuristic big-city sadness of Edward Hopper, here is Andy Warhol’s quest for comforting perfection, here is the singer Klaus Nomi wearing a ruff to hide the tell-tale purple lesions of Karposi’s Sarcoma.

Laing outlines the loneliness of their lives and the way they addressed the subject in their art. It is an account of damage done and an account of how the artists tried to mend and knit the brokenness of their lives in their work. And in the margins it is an account of how she sought to fix her own.

It is a book that gets stronger as it goes along. It accumulates attention. Perhaps that’s because Laing struggles to feel at ease with her first artist Hopper (she recognises the talent but is less sure of the man whom she later describes “a peeper, a creeper, a connoisseur of open windows”; much of this may have to do with the way Hopper treated his wife Jo).

There is more empathy for her other subjects. She even speaks up for Valerie Solanas, author of Scum and the woman who shot Warhol. Solanas died of pneumonia in April 1988. Her body wasn’t found for three days.

In some ways then, this is a reclamation of artists from the reductive glaze of celebrity (in Warhol’s case) or the dusty veil of indifference. The book finds its greatest hero in David Wojnarowicz, a gay outsider artist who became an Aids activist. In his story she tracks how otherness (in his case sexual) can lead to rejection, which can lead to loneliness, which can lead to being stigmatised. All along the line she tots up the cost. The passages where Laing traces the hysterical and frankly odious political reaction to the Aids virus are both painful and powerful, animated by anger and distress.

The big picture here is that art is not about market value. It’s a statement of humanity. This is a book that calls for acceptance of difference, for an honest accounting of the price of loneliness and a recognition that we can all feed the hunger for a touch or a word. Only connect.