The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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I bought this book quite randomly, except, not really – I liked the title, the topic, and the fact that it’s set in New York, which is my favorite mythical city – and it turned out to be a good book. The Lonely City contains a bit of everything: there are autobiographical ruminations about loneliness, there’s a bit of art history, politics, psychology, a bit about the history of New York and so on.

The book grew out of Olivia Laing’s experiences when, in her mid-thirties, she moved to New York to be together with a man, except it turned out that the man didn’t want to be with her after all, which left Laing all alone – alone in more than one sense: in a strange city (and New York at that, the most archetypal alienated and alienating city), with the pain of a fresh breakup, without close friends.

What do you do in a situation like this? You drag yourself out to the street when you really must, but then you run back home as fast as you can, and then spend most of your time lying around in your bed, watching videos on YouTube, and searching online for the illusion of human warmth, without accepting the dangers inherent in real human contact.

Laing does exactly this, but fortunately her brain is still working, so in her case binge-watching videos, wasting time online, and thinking about her poisonous and stinking loneliness leads somewhere: to this book. Laing, just for something to do, starts to research loneliness, looks into the psychology of loneliness, and examines how this is a state/feeling that’s universal and yet weirdly impossible to share with others. Then she moves on to the loneliness of cities, then to artists who lived and worked in big and lonely cities and who were also themselves lonely and/or whose main artistic theme was loneliness.

The book is structured in the way that at the beginning of each chapter, Laing talks a bit about the stages of her own loneliness, and then she jumps into the life and art of one of her heroes (David Wojnarovicz, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Henry Darger), constructs the biographies of their loneliness, and analyzes their work from the perspective of how they expressed or diminished the eternal loneliness of the given artist.

And then there are her digressions, of course. She talks about the AIDS epidemic and how inhumanly society treated those diagnosed with the illness when it first appeared; about sexual and other kinds of transgressions, about enlarging and changing the self; about abnormality and the inability to fit in; about the old and wild and dangerous New York, a city that despite its dangers still provided more opportunity for human contact than contemporary New York; about everything becoming uniform; about online relationships and the disappearance of privacy in this here age.

Even though she doesn’t get too deep into any of these topics (there are way too many topics here for that) and even though I didn’t have any major epiphanies while reading her thoughts about loneliness (maybe, just maybe, I have some experiences of my own with it, just like – probably – most everyone), Laing still inspired me and she made me want to read a whole lot of other books. For example, out of the four artists whose names I so casually dropped two paragraphs back, I only knew Andy Warhol’s name so far, but even knowing his name and some of his work, I had no idea about his loneliness, and as for the other three artists (and lots of others mentioned here), I’ve never heard about them before – and it was great to hear about them because their work seems very exciting, and anyway, everyone’s more interesting and more complex if you look closer. (For example, Valerie Solanas did other things in her life, too, didn’t just shoot Andy Warhol.)

And the gentle ambiguity and irony surrounding the „art of loneliness” in the title is beautiful. Being lonely is not an art – but creating art out of loneliness is an art, and that art might help others feels a little bit less lonely.

I must add, though, that Laing’s style irritates me from time to time: it’s a bit too didactic, a bit too gushingly nostalgic (I bet it was awesome when in the 1970s Times Square was the center of porn and prostitution, and I bet it was just great when during this same era everyone could go and pick up someone for some casual intimacy among the ruins of one of New York’s old ports, so at least the lonely and the dispossessed could find some human interaction, and so on – but I feel it’s a bit of a stretch to treat this era as a wonderful golden age), and a bit too pessimistic (or perhaps I’m the one who’s too optimistic – anyway, I don’t think everything’s becoming uniform, and I do think that in many places it’s easier today to be an outsider, a non-model citizen, or a person with „non-traditional” sexual preferences than it used to be in that supposedly golden age of the 70s that Laing describes with such tearful nostalgia).

And even though her biographies about others are very human, emotional, and often truly touching, the way she talks about her own experience of loneliness just isn’t that interesting. Seriously, who hasn’t yet had the experience of moving to another city because of a love interest that didn’t work out well? True, I haven’t, still, I know the feeling, and Laing’s loneliness in the face of this event (as much as she can or wants to express it) is not a bit more interesting or a bit more unique than the loneliness I also knew at some points of my life.

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

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As it often happens, it was enough for me to read the first couple of sentences to feel that I want to read this immediately.

The novel starts like this:

„Darlings! Welcome! And you must be Danielle?” Sleek and small, her wide eyes rendered enormous by kohl, Lucy Leverett, in spite of her resemblance to a baby seal, rasped impressively. Her dangling fan earrings clanked at her neck as she leaned in to kiss each of them, Danielle too, and although she held her cigarette, in its mother-of-pearl holder, at arm’s length, its smoke wafted between them and brought tears to Danielle’s eyes.

And this here is perfect, and it showcases the greatest talent of Messud: she has an amazing ability to capture the mannerisms, role-plays, and the games people play in elegant society, and to characterize people with their mannerisms.

And from this perspective, the first sentence is not the only perfect and enjoyable one – there are a great many descriptions of such details, and they never feel redundant. Sometimes I wonder when I read novels whether I really need to know what brand of pencils a character prefers (this is a detail from one of Stephen King’s novels), and I often find that: no, I could live without this, because it doesn’t add anything to the humanity and complexity of the character.

Here, though, these kind of details are essential – it does say something about a character when we learn what kind of tea she likes to sip during the evenings – and it says even more about her that she compulsively shares her sophisticated tea-drinking habits with her friend, this way subtly indicating that she is indeed in possession of the elegant habits of the New York elite, even though she hails from a no-name small town.

One of the reviews quoted on the cover says that Messud is a bit like Jane Austen – and as you might guess from the tea-drinking incident I just mentioned, this comparison is not off the mark (even though Austen is more ironic and sharper than Messud). In any case, here, as in Jane Austen’s works, the appearance of things is crucial – the characters are obsessed with the question whether their acts are elegant and socially acceptable, and whether they create the right impression in the observer. The story, however, is much more chaotic than in any novel by Austen – because here there’s no obvious goal the characters could strive for.

Messud’s characters, of course, want success and love, but they are not entirely sure what kind of success and love they want, so despite pushing 30, they are not an inch closer to their goals than they were 10 years earlier, but they are starting to realize that the kind of deliberation, procrastination, eternally childish behavior, and their whole existence based on the knowledge that mom and dad will surely help out – all that was cute and adorable when they were 20 isn’t quite so cute and adorable when they are already 30.

And though the novel is a lot more than that (an ironic love letter to New York, social criticism, and so on), for me it’s mostly a story of disillusionment, through the course of which every character finally loses their sense of entitlement, and learns something important at their own expense. As for the question, though, of what they do with this knowledge – fortunately, that remains open.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

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Roman Polanski’s film of the same title is one of my all-time favorite fear-of-the-unknown movies, I’ve seen it several times. While I was reading the novel, I automatically pictured the images of the film in my mind, and for a while I was struggling to decide how good the book is on its own. After a while, though, I concluded that it’s good.

As for the story: young and bohemian Rosemary and her husband, Guy, an up-and-coming actor suddenly get a chance to move into the most prestigious, most elegant apartment building of New York City. This is such a famous and posh apartment building that it’s enough to tell the cab driver: „To the Bramford, please” – and the driver will immediately know what you’re talking about. So yes, living at such an address is surely a much more trendy thing to do than to tell the driver to take you to a nameless street in the suburbs and then guide him carefully among hundreds of identical houses.

Anyway, I’m digressing.

Rosemary and Guy, of course, gladly take the chance to move to this famous address, even though an old friend tries to warn them, saying that the house doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, and many dark deeds had been committed there. And as it usually goes with evil houses, the troubles start shortly after the couple settle in. The tenants of Bramford slowly start to mentally devour the young couple, and when Rosemary gets pregnant, things really start to spiral out of control.

Rosemary’s Baby is a delightfully multi-layered novel. First, it works as a horror/haunted house story – as an urban haunted house story, where hell isn’t the house itself, but the people who live there. (As for me, I can hardly think of anything more terrifying than an old house, with old-fashioned and dangerous-looking elevators and with a bunch of curious and gently overbearing pensioners for neighbors, who keep insisting on inviting you to dinner, and who knock on your door six times a day just to bring you a little dessert and to kindly ask whether you need anything from the shop.)

And Rosemary also starts to find this state of affairs oppressive, she gets suspicious about the oh-so-kind interest and care the neighbors show in her well-being – but the chances for getting away get slimmer and slimmer, and the world out there slowly recedes to a distance that’s completely out of reach.

It’s truly a horror, make no mistake – and we might even just ignore the accidental little detail that the enchanting tenants of Bramford are supposedly serving Satan. (I think this whole occult-mystical-satanist story-line can be interpreted as symbolic, and all the evil practices of the neighbors can be interpreted as some good, old-fashioned manipulative psychological games.)

And the other layer of the novel is just as terrifying: the story of a marriage crisis. Even though Rosemary and Guy look like the perfect couple, their relationship is tainted with suspicion, distrust and quiet frustration from the very beginning. Rosemary’s and Guy’s marriage games are centered around the topic of having children, and there’s everything here you can imagine to make your blood run cold: a wife who wants to have a baby so badly that she’s half-planning to accidentally get pregnant; a suspicious husband who would prefer to postpone the business of family-making for a few more years to concentrate on his career, so he follows his wife’s periods with the utmost vigilance to avoid any nasty surprises, yet, in a weak or remorseful moment says, OK, let’s make a baby; there’s sex with a sleeping/drugged wife; and then there’s a terrible coldness and growing distance between Rosemary and Guy during the pregnancy, coupled with anger, pain, and silent accusations. Like I say – it could hardly get more dreadful than this.

There’s no need, after all, for any kind of satanist practices here – if I read this novel only as a possible story of a marriage and pregnancy, it’s already more than enough to freak me out.

And what makes the novel especially good is that it’s not easy (or downright impossible) to decide what really happens, and who is in their right mind and who isn’t. Does Rosemary just go a little crazy during her pregnancy? Is it all in her mind? Is it just paranoia? Or is the house and/or its tenants truly evil? Everything is obscure, deliciously ambiguous here. In the end – it’s a dark delight to read this novel, but delight it is.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

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Just Kids is about the friendship/relationship of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; and about the way the two of them became artists; and about how it felt being a young artist in New York at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s.

Let’s start with the question of how someone becomes an artist. I know very little about this process (though I have some hunches), but the way Patti Smith describes her first relevant memories already makes it clear that she had the desire to create something from very early on in her life. Her first memory is this: she describes how once as a very little girl she was walking with her mother and suddenly saw a swan. She had never seen a swan before but she immediately got excited, and her mother – sensing the little girl’s wonder and excitement – told her: this is a swan. But Patti felt this word is not good enough, not precise enough, and she felt a great desire to say something about the swan, to find the best way to express what she sees and what she feels about it.

It took several years for her to find her very own ways of expression, yet it feels to me that  from her earliest years she carried the possibility in herself to become an artist. But becoming an artist wasn’t fast and painless, and she herself often doubted whether she possessed the necessary talent and persistence.

Patti Smith arrived in New York in 1967, without a dollar to her name, with only the conviction that she didn’t want to be a factory worker at home. For a while she lived on the streets, then she found a job, and soon after she met Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of them immediately formed a life-long friendship and moved in together right away. Mapplethorpe was still invisible at that time, but as opposed to Smith, he never had the slightest doubt about the quality of his work, and he was tremendously self-confident. Smith and Mapplethorpe then went on to create art together, they continuously supported and inspired each other, and slowly they found their place in the art world of New York, and finally found success, too.

However, Just Kids is not your classic American success story following on the theme of poor-but-talented country kids working hard and thus becoming successful. This is too personal, intimate, and honest a book for that, and by the way – Patti Smith never underestimates the role of luck and coincidences in achieving success. By luck and coincidence I don’t mean that you have to be at the right place at the right time, you have to build networks, or anything like that – I mean simply how life-changing it can be for someone to receive the words, the inspiration, the support, the belief she desperately needs in a tough moment – in a moment of indecision, in a moment when she doesn’t know whether her work matters at all, in a moment of crisis.

Another reason why this is not a typical success story is that Smith for a long time couldn’t even figure out what would constitute success for her, and where her true calling lies. It also took some time for Robert Mapplethorpe to start to concentrate on photography, but for Patti Smith the road to becoming a musician was even longer and more tangled. Following the milestones of this road is a greatly interesting read – I read with fascination how she figured out the things she could and wanted to do, and the things she couldn’t or didn’t want to do.

For instance, she had a couple of roles in different plays, and finally drew the conclusion from her forays into acting that she liked being onstage, but she didn’t like being someone else onstage – she didn’t like separating her real and artistic personality, so she promptly decided that the next time she’d only stand on a stage if she could be herself there.

Besides the difficulties of becoming an artist – and perhaps I should have started with this – the other main theme of this book is the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is a memorial to their two-decade friendship, and it was written in the first place because before his death, Mapplethorpe made Smith promise that one day she’d write their story. And the way Smith wrote their story is deeply touching and beautiful. The whole book is very delicate, but the sections dealing with Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe are especially pure, sublime, and gentle. I won’t even go into more details about this – my words for this could never be as good as the words of Patti Smith.

And there’s still more to this book. Patti Smith didn’t only concentrate on her art and on Robert Mapplethorpe during the 60s and 70s: even though she was quite awkward in bigger groups of people, she still managed to learn about all the iconic places (such as the Chelsea Hotel, which was home to many artists, or Max’s bar, which was where Andy Warhol and his group used to hang out) and get to know lots of iconic figures (Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Gregory Corso, Sam Shepard, William S. Burroughs, and so on) of the New York art scene. Her recollections about these artists, and in general her stories about life in New York in those decades are sometimes funny, sometimes deeply sad – but they are always vivid and riveting. So it’s clear from reading Just Kids that being a young artist just then, just there must truly have been a unique experience.

Patti Smith writes wonderfully – about everything; she’s emotional, sober and transcendent at once. And Just Kids is a beautiful book, completely devoid of any sentimentality – it’s a delight to read.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

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Joshua Ferris’ new novel started out well enough, but then I got bored or tired of it. Based on my experience with two of his novels (this being the second one), this tends to be the way I react to his work. (Except for one amazing short story of his, Breeze – I wasn’t bored by that, not even after multiple re-readings. I can draw all kinds of conclusions from this fact – mostly about the length of time I can be mesmerized by Ferris.)

Staying in the realm of wild generalizations: the themes Ferris writes about are interesting and relevant to me, and in the beginning, they always excite my mind – and then my excitement slowly drains away. The same happened this time, even though I started this novel with great expectations. I am easily amused, and if the blurb says that this is an existentialist novel, 21st century style, I immediately become interested and put all my doubts aside.

Perhaps I shouldn’t. Especially not with this novel, as it turns out that the main theme here is exactly that: doubting.

The main character, Paul is an alienated New York dentist, a devout atheist, and an eternal doubter. Paul spends his nights thrashing about in his bed in anguish, afraid that he is the only person awake in the whole world during the godforsaken small hours, and spends his days contemplating the sad situation that entropy only increases, teeth inevitably rot, and we will all die one day – therefore it doesn’t make any sense to enjoy anything in life.

Still, Paul keeps trying. For one thing, he tends to get romantically involved with women who come from strictly religious families, and during his relationships, Paul tends to fall in love with the devout Catholic or devout Jewish families of his girl-friends just as deeply as he falls in love with the women themselves. It seems that Paul is looking for tradition, belief, past, history – but he never finds what he’s looking for, or doesn’t feel at home in what he finds.

Then a mysterious online Paul shows up. He advocates the religion of eternal skepticism, and claims that the real Paul is a descendant of an almost-forgotten ancient nation, a nation who used to follow the religion of doubt. What follows is Paul continuing doubting everything – but this time it’s normal and expected, and he at least feels at home in doubting.

I guess this really is existentialism 21st century style. And it’s not bad, but it doesn’t blow my mind, because this is something I already know, and Ferris doesn’t throw an unexpected light on the thing I already know – he doesn’t make it unknown to me.

Anyway, while I was reading this novel, I dutifully flossed my teeth every night – a practice I tend to neglect because – in full agreement with Paul – I also think that flossing is a pain in the butt, something that’s always easier to start doing tomorrow. But if I did something for a long and joyful life during those few days then it was already worth it, and then I’d be willing to read other 21st century existentialist novels about doubting dentists – if any further such novels exist.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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This is such a fantastically enticing novel that halfway through I started to worry that I might just finish it too soon if I’m not careful, so instead of continuing, I decided to pursue a whole array of (half-)substitute activities – I went to the movies, finished two other books, went rollerskating, and so on – just so that the moment when I reach the end might come as late as possible. (If I want to perfectly honest, I first started to worry somewhere around page 10, but the danger didn’t seem that imminent then, given that I still had 760 pages to go.)

But after a while I couldn’t put off finishing it any longer, and the self-denial of the previous days took its vengeance: I read the remaining half in two endless reading sessions. This is not the most perfect way to put it, though – it implies effort and suffering, when reading this novel is, in fact, the exact opposite of that. Pure joy and bliss. And what I didn’t experience when I read Tartt’s The Secret History a couple of years back – the most welcome feeling of forgetting myself – now I got this, too.

This complete relinquishing of the self for the time of reading, this most basic, most urgent curiosity (and then what happened? And what happened after that?), this feeling that I want to learn and know everything: all the streets of New York where the protagonist walks; all the pieces of furniture he touches; the deserts of Las Vegas he inhabits; the feverish cold he lives through; that certain magical bench in Central Park; love’s red hair and thousand-colored scarves; the feeling of walking through icy puddles in soaked-through shoes in Amsterdam around Christmas; the self-destructive, murderous anger, doubt, and remorse of the protagonist. Everything.

I think such strong desire to know absolutely everything is only possible while reading fiction – and what luck that in this novel, we get to know almost everything.

Because this is a slow story, one in which there’s time for events to unfold, for the characters to grow up, and also for them to just fool around sometimes and not move the story forward at all – and when there was a couple of weeks’ or years’ worth of jump ahead in the story, I was almost disappointed because I would have preferred to know even those things that happened in the periods not covered.

So what’s this novel about? As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s written so beautifully and precisely, with such perception and strength that it could be about anything, and I would enjoy it.

But anyway: it’s about Theo Decker, a screwed-up, drug-addicted young man suffering both from PTSD and from a hopeless love towards a miraculous, elusive girl. From the (very long) back-story we learn that Theo loses his mother in tragic circumstances when he’s still a child, and in connection with his mother’s death, he acquires a world-famous painting (this is the Goldfinch), which in turn becomes the most important object in his life.

That piece of art, beauty, reality, purity and bliss to which he can always return. That object he can think about in times of distress because even the thought of its existence is enough to fill his life with something other than pure terror and anxiety.

One of the chapters opens with a quote from Nietzsche: „We have art in order not to die from the truth.” And if I wanted to simplify it, I could say that this whole novel is a beautiful and heart-wrenching illustration of this sentence.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

brightEvery time I re-read this novel, I love it better. I used to like it mainly because of the second-person narrative, but I’ve read several second-person novels and stories since the last time I re-read Bright Lights, and now I don’t automatically swoon if I see something written in this narrative mode. The book has to be good in itself, as well. And fortunately this is a good book.

The novel’s unnamed protagonist (oh, no, he’s not unnamed – he’s you) is a young man in his twenties, and actually his life is (could be/could have been) quite good: a nice apartment in Manhattan; a prestigious job; parties every night; a beautiful wife; and everything you need to fulfill the American Dream, 1980s edition. But the novel opens when everything is already falling apart: his wife left; the prestigious job doesn’t seem to be secure anymore; and it seems that the „nursing a hangover during the day – going out to party during the night” routine the protagonist has been pursuing is not a way of life you can keep up forever.

While following the desperate, grieving, nameless hero (or nameless ourselves) among the sharply shining skyscrapers of Manhattan, through the elite clubs and bright-or-dodgy streets, you learn what you can of course learn from a whole lot of other novels, but for me, this theme is inexhaustible: you learn how very easy it is to screw things up; and also that there are periods when you can’t see anything clearly because your dreams – which will never come true, or not the way you want them to, or not at the right time – simply blind your vision; and also that being in your twenties can be an awfully melancholy, angry, clueless life period – even if you pretend that you’re having a helluva lot of fun.

And this is not a good novel because the second person narrative somehow brings all this close to me. This is good anyway – sad and beautiful (I just realized now that McInerney can often write with the poignancy and tenderness of F. Scott Fitzgerald); clever and funny; and oh-so-true. It speaks to me more than ever before.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let-the-great-world-spinI could hardly say that I suffer from burnout as a reader, still, it doesn’t happen too often that I’m so enthralled by a novel that I can hardly wait for the day to pass until I can continue with it. Let the Great World Spin was such a novel.

This is the novel of an era and a city, and of course of the people who inhabit the city – people who drift together and drift apart in a seemingly random fashion, in New York, 1974. One of the main motifs of the book is the feat of the French high-wire artist, Philippe Petit who walked the distance between the Twin Towers in August 1974, several hundred feet above the spellbound New Yorkers. This event (or the somewhat fictionalized version of it) serves as the core of this novel because it is something every character relates to in one way or the other – they either watched the wire-walk, or heard about it, or took photos of it, and so on.

The story evolves very slowly, and at first it seems that there’s no connection at all between the different story-lines. In each chapter we encounter characters/narrators who live in absolutely different universes and whose fates seem to have nothing to do with each other, even if they live in the same city. There’s an Irish monk living in the Bronx ghetto who does charity work with the whores of the neighborhood, while doing a furious battle with himself and God; there’s an old judge who started out as a young idealist planning to make the world a better place all by himself, and his brokenhearted wife who lost their son in the Vietnam War; there’s the less-than-successful artist couple who cause a fatal accident, and the wife can’t stop blaming herself; and there’s a young prostitute convicted for robbery. The characters move in so different spheres of life that at first it’s hard to imagine how their fates might come together.

But Colum McCann writes with unbelievable ease and grace, and he connects the events – told by different narrators, seen from different angles – without the slightest trace of strain. Reading this novel is sheer pleasure – McCann’s voice is pure and natural, he doesn’t employ any of the usual postmodern tricks and annoying mannerisms, and the way he weaves the story-lines together is simple and effortless.

He writes beautifully and accurately about every character, and the narrative voice and the outlook of each character is unique and believable. But McCann isn’t only excellent at writing about human beings – the most amazing character of his novel is New York City itself. The (fictitious) New York of this book is dark-colorful, enigmatic and effervescent  – it’s not an idyllic city, but it’s very attractive, and it holds infinite promises and infinite dangers for all its inhabitants. McCann’s New York is a magical place where it’s indeed possible for everyone and everything to interconnect. And his city is as memorable and vivid as J. D. Salinger’s and Paul Auster’s New York.