Lonely in New York

Lonely in New York

Event: Lonely in New York: Olivia Laing, Teju Cole and Megan Bradbury

Venue: Southbank Centre 

Report by Sam Pryce

We are attracted to the idea of living in the city for its constant buzz, its limitlessness and its variety. But, despite the density of population, it is also a place where one can experience intense solitude and alienation. Certainly when I first moved to London last year, having come from a small Welsh seaside town, I was stunned by the vastness and diversity of the city, yet I felt utterly isolated and adrift. These three writers – columnist and cultural biographer Olivia Laing, Nigerian-American author Teju Cole and debut novelist Megan Bradbury – have all experienced this mixture of wonder and isolation in New York and, in their respective books, investigate the psychological landscapes of this issue, with a wider awareness of other artists’ experiences of feeling alone in the city’s crowds.

Olivia Laing’s latest book The Lonely City explores the connection between isolation and artistic expression in the realm of the city. She reflects on the work of typically metropolitan artists such as Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper and David Wojnarowicz and how their life and art converged and captured the hostility and estrangement of the city. Interspersed with these, much like her other books, are autobiographical interludes in which Laing writes personally of her own experiences. In this event, she said, ‘I was living in New York after the end of a relationship, moving from sublet to sublet.’ She cited the brilliance of Hopper in his evocation of loneliness in his painting Nighthawks: ‘Hopper gives you that sense of loneliness by putting you on the other side of the glass.’

The restless modern city

Lonely City

Laing explores isolation and artistic expression

Most of the artists she considers bear some relation to queer culture and Laing found herself identifying with them intensely. Similarly, Megan Bradbury’s debut novel Everyone Is Watching takes four eminent New Yorkers – photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, poet Walt Whitman, novelist and memoirist Edmund White and city planner Robert Moses – and how their interconnected stories reach towards some kind of impression of what defines the Big Apple. The writing process began for Bradbury in becoming ‘obsessed by the idea of the connections between these artists’ and the novel grew out of mapping these out and layering these experiences. Thus we get an idea of the city bouncing lives off each other like atoms, building to create an energetic picture of the restless modern city.

Teju Cole, whose debut novel Open City realises the city through the idle wandering of its protagonist, emphasised the difference between ‘aloneness’ and ‘loneliness’. ‘Loneliness is a metaphysical condition evoked by different means […] The unnatural, physical landscape of the city induces a metaphysical loneliness. The architecture, everything is so amplified; it does the same to what you’re experiencing.’ He added, ‘it’s a megaphone for your emotions. That’s why it’s so hard to go through misery there.’

My queer tribe

A more optimistic question from the audience was much welcomed by the panel: when have you really loved New York the most? Laing, with glee, replied, ‘It’s the place I love more than anywhere else, where I found my queer tribe.’ It seems the other panellists shared this happiness in discovering their own kind in the city’s multitude. Cole laughed and spoke of how he loved ‘partying with African people in New York, because I like to be around people who dance really well.’ He also recalled his first reading of his 2012 novel Open City which pulled in a huge crowd at a New York bookstore. ‘There was so much love and goodwill in that room,’ he said. ‘It felt like I’d written it for them.’

It appears then that the solution to our loneliness is to communicate with each other and to find, somewhere in the city’s veins, your own kind. A preposterous statement recently made by Theresa May was discussed: ‘If you are a citizen of everywhere, then you are a citizen of nowhere.’ But the dream, of course, as Teju Cole said, is to one day not feel alienated anywhere; for us all to become citizens of everywhere.

Report by Sam Pryce

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