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The Lonely City - Olivia Laing

When I was 19, I moved to Tokyo on my own. I had learned some Japanese but knew no one there. I found a job in a company selling industrial robots, in which I was the only gaijin, or foreigner. I stayed a year.

I never thought such isolation possible. I lived in a tiny room, 90 minutes from the office on the train. My lacklustre Japanese and shyness cut me off from colleagues, and I spent entire days without once being spoken to. I had no internet, no mobile phone, no friends and no idea how to connect. I barely made enough to get by, and sometimes resorted to shoplifting groceries. At night I’d talk out loud to myself in my single futon, checking my vocal cords still worked.

My loneliness was absolute, all-encompassing and for months, the defining flavour of my existence. I felt myself vanishing. If I survived it was thanks to works of art, novels and films, and the imaginary connection I drew with the artists who created them. One day I may write about what I discovered during this strange self-imposed exile, and what it taught me about identity, sexuality, work, friendship and happiness.

I mention it because years later, this 13th week of Covid lockdown here in Sydney has brought back a wave of memories from my year alone in Tokyo, especially reading Olivia Laing’s remarkable memoir The Lonely City.

In it, the British writer describes her post-heartbreak move to NYC, and the paralysing, shameful loneliness she found there. With compassion, honesty and a refreshingly queer perspective, Laing threads together thoughtful insights about how loneliness informed the creative lives of seminal artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin or Henry Darger.

It adds up to much more than the sum of its parts, a philosophical rumination which accrues power and wisdom as each artist’s life and work resonates with others, illuminating the value society places on difference, isolation and self-expression. Laing explores loneliness as a product of exclusion and self-loathing, and art’s wondrous power to create intimacy and keep us tethered. Here’s to the stories and artworks that have kept us sane and connected during these isolating times!


The Lonely City - Adventures in the Art of Being Alone is published by Canongate Books

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