In a recent feature in Afar magazine, Chris Colin describes three friends he made while traveling in Tokyo. They accompanied him to restaurants around the city, talked with him about relationships and parents, and were paid by the hour to hang out with him.
Colin was reporting on the service Client Partners, which provides simple, platonic friendship to its customers. At first he chalks this up to a phenomenon he calls “Japanese wackiness,” in line with cat cafes and host clubs. But in a country with an overworked, rapidly shrinking population and high suicide rates — a country still recovering from the twin blows of the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster — Client Partners seeks to address a societal crisis rather than fill a niche demand. The deluge of photos on social media and gaggles of people hanging out in subway stations are all a mask, the professional friends tell Colin. There is a deep loneliness there, an unmet need for human intimacy.
In The Lonely City, set 6,700 miles from the young skyscrapers of Tokyo in the older, grimier blocks of New York City, Olivia Laing conducts her own investigation into the way loneliness is expressed in the metropolis, using art as her point of departure: Andy Warhol’s endless audio tapes, the epic bloody watercolors hoarded by Chicago janitor Henry Darger, the terrifyingly public Internet-cum-social-experiments of Josh Harris. “Loneliness,” she writes is “a populated place: a city in itself.” Laing draws on the “fertile as well as frightening” sensation of loneliness — a state of being experienced from Tokyo to New York, felt by a quarter of American adults and a greater percentage of British ones — to tackle not only why and how loneliness is experienced, but the fruit it brings forth. How does art resist the isolating effects of solitude?
The success of Laing’s book is that it doesn’t require the reader to know much about — or even to be particularly interested in — the New York art world. It’s more about the people that populate it and the stories that make them who they are. The Lonely City draws on social science, gay culture, AIDS history, and the influence of technology, weaving in snippets of memoir. Laing’s prose is elegant and concise, with a breath of Joan Didion: a painting is described as a “cool green icebox,” loneliness as a “city, perhaps at dusk, when everyone turns homeward and the neon flickers into life.”
The book moves seamlessly between Blade Runner and Ludwig Wittgenstein, from art to attachment theory, from Henry Darger to behavioral psychology and Harry Harlow’s experiments with “monster mothers.” In its interdisciplinary scope and mix of culture, theory, and memoir, The Lonely City brings to mind other nonfiction hits of recent years, books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. These books are written by complex, fiercely intelligent women with deep capacities for rigorous research, analysis, and synthesis. The topics they tackle are tough and human: queer identity and modern families in The Argonauts; the various trespasses and violences of empathy (as well as its tenderness and necessity) in The Empathy Exams. Laing has likewise done the legwork; her evocations of the various artists that make up her book are penetrating and full of reversals.
There’s Andy Warhol, of whom Laing writes, “[He was] famous for his relentless sociability…almost never without a glittering entourage and yet his work is surprisingly eloquent on isolation and the problems of attachment.” She paints a particularly loving and detailed portrait of David Wojnarowicz, whose first memory is of horseshoe crabs and who liked to hang by his fingers from the window ledge of his bedroom. (Laing refers to him by his first name; the intimacy is startling.) The connections and conclusions she draws are coherent, nuanced, and sometimes surprising. See, for instance, how she juggles the delicate politics of communication and the double-edged blade of confession and intimacy:
It’s about wanting and not wanting: about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego.
The Lonely City is smart and crisp without being jargony, and the wide cast of characters and complex ideas are laid out in easy-to-absorb ways. Laing’s research and insight into the queer art community in New York, both before and during the AIDS crisis, is particularly rich ground. Through Laing’s book we can see the systemic causes of loneliness — an individual experience, but one that comes from an interplay of a broad variety of societal factors of exclusion and inequality. As she tells us, “Loneliness is personal, and it is also political.” This is important, and where The Lonely City is at its best. Laing carefully shows us how social deprivation as a result of poor environment or systemic prejudice can result in a lifelong struggle with socialization and belonging that colors an individual for life.
But this is not just a book of cultural criticism and social research. Like The Argonauts and The Empathy Exams, or Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, Laing also incorporates memoir. Curiously, this is where the book feels most flat. We get snippets of her time in New York, subletting various friends’ apartments and moving around different neighborhoods. We hear about a Halloween party and a little bit about a failed relationship, about where Laing likes to walk for her morning coffee and the hours she spends on Twitter. We know Laing is lonely, because she says that she is. But though her analysis of the lives and motivations of the artists is deep and compelling, she very rarely turns that same analytical lens to herself, and in the rare moments she does, doesn’t push through to any type of conclusion.
In one of the lengthier personal passages, but also one of the most confusing parts of the book, Laing describes a struggle with gender identity:
I was not at all comfortable in the gender box to which I’d been assigned…I’d never been comfortable with the demands of femininity, had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy, that I inhabited a gender position somewhere between the binaries of male and female, some impossible other, some impossible both.
What do we do with this information? It’s striking; we feel it must have some significance to Laing’s project. But as part of Laing’s narrative it mysteriously drops out and isn’t returned to.
This invites the question that arises again and again in popular discourse around writing: what do we want from our nonfiction writers? Confession? Resolution? In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, Leslie Jamison uses her own history of heartbreak and self-harm to talk about the icon of the “damaged” female and the shadow she casts on the modern-day women who are afraid of being her. “I am not a melodramatic person.” It’s personal. It digs deep. Jamison is not afraid to share a lot. Even if she were, today’s readers have such an appetite for these explosive, confessional personal essays that it’s too late to be afraid.
Laing, by contrast, is reticent. She doesn’t share much of herself. Unlike Nelson or Jamison, Laing doesn’t seem committed enough to the memoir strain of her cross-genre book. We wonder, then, why she traverses the personal at all. In some ways this highlights one of her opening precepts: “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorize.” A running theme in her book is the difficulty of tackling loneliness head-on, in writing or in speech — and why, perhaps, so many artists approached it in elliptical ways.
We are aware of Laing’s loneliness as she researches and engages with the artists in the book, so we also see her dogged (but perhaps not always completely truthful) optimism about the ameliorative effects of art for combating loneliness. Was Henry Darger’s disturbing art really about “the reparative impulse” of collaging together the self’s fractured, lonely parts? In all her description of the generative side to loneliness — the stuff that comes from loneliness, Laing never quite answers the question: Were these artists’ lives made happier because of their art?
Reading a book about loneliness when you are lonely is tricky; the reader looks for a solution to the problem. Writing a book about loneliness when you are lonely must be even more difficult. At the end of The Lonely City, Laing does not offer up novel “answers,” either to her own loneliness or the reader’s; it’s not clear, even, whether the book feels loneliness is a problem to be solved. (Indeed, the best conclusion from Laing’s personal experience comes after the book ends, in the acknowledgements: “writing a book about loneliness…has been astonishingly connecting.”) Her closing prescriptions — to be kind, to stay open — are the stuff of motivational blogs. It’s hard to fault her for this; it’s not, after all, a self-help book. As anyone who has been lonely knows, it can’t necessarily be cured — either by friends who are paid by the hour, or by a book.
What really begins in January, besides the calendar? Winter isn’t even close to ending, and nothing but the new year is being born. But we do, nevertheless, like to start things when the year starts. Maybe it’s that the quiet hibernation of the time, after the excess of the holidays, gives us the chance to reflect and resolve. Maybe, for those who believe, it’s that our “decayed world,” as Edmund Spenser introduced his Shepheardes Calender, has recently been refreshed by the birth of Christ. Or maybe it’s just the arbitrary placebo effect of a change of digit and a clear new calendar page. What will you resolve to read in January? A new diet book? Will you try, once again, to finish Getting Things Done? Or will this be the year you’ll read Proust, or Infinite Jest, or A Dance to the Music of Time? Or, might I humbly suggest, you could commence the healthful daily practice of reading a literary almanac.
In the 366 daily pages of A Reader’s Book of Days, I tell a thousand or two tales from the real lives of writers, as well as the lives they’ve invented. I also sum up each month with a short essay and a list of recommended reading, and that, I found, was the hardest part. Not that there wasn’t enough to say. Quite the opposite: there was too much. Talk about arbitrary! No 400 words or short stack of books could fully represent a 12th of the literary year. So it’s with a sense of incompletion that I offer my nine recommendations here for January, books and poems that begin, or hinge, or are contained in the year’s first month. Aside from almanacs like mine, surprisingly few books actually start in January, by the way; one of those that does may be the most appropriate January book of them all, though it’s not included below: Bridget Jones’s Diary, which opens the year not with hope but a hangover.
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy (1909)
What did Tolstoy, in his last years, believe was the great work of his life? War and Peace? Anna Karenina? No, this anthology he spent 15 years gathering, which mixed his own aphorisms with those of the “best and wisest thinkers of the world,” organized by a theme for each day of the year.
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1936)
As the southern summer opens up the South Pole for exploration, a scientific expedition led by professors Dyer and Lake discovers behind a range of unknown Antarctic mountains a vast, dead, and ancient city, one of the most evil and benighted of Lovecraft’s inhuman horrors.
“New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden (1940)
With hatreds convulsing the world “like a baffling crime,” Auden composed one of his great long poems as a letter to “dear friend Elizabeth,” whose hospitality in his adopted home of New York helped him toward this vision of order in art and life during a time of tyranny.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
You are far more likely to know Blade Runner than its source novel, set on a single January day in a post-nuclear 1992, which features, rather than Ridley Scott’s neon glamor, Dick’s equally thrilling and disturbing brand of stripped-down noir.
Airport by Arthur Hailey (1968)
Arthur Hailey wrote blockbusters like no one else, earnest and fact-filled dramas set in a series of massive industrial monoliths: banks, hotels, power plants, and, in this case, Lincoln International Airport in Illinois, during the worst winter storm of the decade, with one jetliner stuck at the end of a runway and another coming in fast with a bomb on board.
“In California: Morning, Evening, Late January” by Denise Levertov (1989)
Levertov’s pastoral is unseasonal in the temperate lushness of its California winter, and unsettling in its vision of the industrial forces invading and managing its beauty.
The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)
Another novel overshadowed by its movie adaptation, The Children of Men, in a startling departure from James’s Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, uses the premise of a world in which human fertility has disappeared to examine the nature and lure of power.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Smith’s debut, which begins with Archie Jones’s failed January suicide, has too much life to begin with a death: it overflows with not only the variety of multi-ethnic London but the exuberance of Smith taking her brilliant talent for its first walk out on the stage.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
One of the omnivore’s dilemmas is how to navigate a world whose technology and global trade have accustomed even New Englanders to unseasonal luxuries like sweet corn and asparagus in the middle of January.
Cormac McCarthy can now add “screenwriter” to his glittering resume. The Counselor, the decorated novelist’s first produced screenplay, is in theaters now. It’s directed by Ridley Scott and stars Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, and Brad Pitt. And it’s a mindfuck.
One reviewer offered this assessment of the screenplay: “McCarthy appears to have never read a screenwriting manual in his life.” I can think of no higher compliment for a screenwriter. I say that as someone who has written a handful of (unproduced) screenplays that more or less hewed to the template found throughout the groaning shelf of books on How To Write a Screenplay. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, for instance, Michael Hauge urges writers to follow the conventional three-act format: “The goal of act one is to establish the setting, character, situation and outer motivation for the hero. The goal of act two is to build the action, suspense, pace, humor, character development, and character revelation. The goal of act three is to resolve everything from both your hero’s inner and outer journey.”
McCarthy, to his great credit, is having none of it. He doesn’t so much break the rules as he ignores them and makes his own. This daring strategy, when harnessed to a talent as prodigious as McCarthy’s, results in that rare thing called originality, and it puts him in the company of such sui generis screenwriters as Orson Welles, Robert Towne, and Charlie Kaufman. The Counselor follows no three-act road map or even the familiar conventions of character development, narrative arc, character motivation, and the rest of it. What it offers, instead, is an irresistible story that’s coheres slowly through the seamless ratcheting of tension. The key to this story’s success, I think, is that McCarthy is working with something far more slippery and rewarding than mere suspense. He’s working with dread — that is, with the audience’s dawning unease that there is genuine evil afoot here and these characters will come to ends that can only be bad.
This dread is injected early and often, in subtle ways — for instance, when the unnamed title character (Fassbender) tells his fiancée Laura (Cruz), “I intend to love you until I die.”
The counselor and Laura live in familiar McCarthy territory, the Tex-Mex border, the setting for his novel No Country for Old Men. It’s a place where sweet nothings can sound like a death sentence, where the drugs flow one way and the blood flows wherever and whenever it is made to. Without telling Laura, the counselor has gotten in on a cocaine deal run by one of his clients, the flamboyant nightclub owner Reiner (Bardem), who frolics in his desert compound with beautiful people and his jaded hottie du jour, Malkina (an astonishingly good Diaz, who gives new meaning to the word meretricious with her two pet cheetahs and her spray on-dresses, six-inch stilettos, silver fingernails, and rings the size of meteorites). Also in on the coke deal is another world-wise customer named Westray (Pitt), who offers the counselor some insights into the world he is getting himself — and his fiancée — into. None of it is pretty.
What could have been just another drug-fuelled bloodbath turns into something much more compelling in McCarthy’s hands: an examination of how a man’s choices become his fate, because they start out inevitable and then become irreversible and finally become lethal. Especially when you choose to play with a Mexican cartel.
It helps that the movie is directed by Ridley Scott, who has shown that he has a deft feel for writers who write literature and serious journalism, as opposed to screenwriters who pump out the formulaic dreck that winds up on the vast majority of movie screens. Two obvious examples are Blade Runner, based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and American Gangster, based on a New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson. Both movies excel because they spring from rich source material and go far beyond slavish imitation of that material.
Scott’s natural gifts may have gotten a boost in the case of The Counselor because the script reads more like fiction than a conventional screenplay. One scene illustrates the point especially well. In it, a man goes about laying an ambush for a motorcyclist who is involved, in ways that are not quite clear, in the shipment of the cocaine across the border:
A LARGE MOTORCYCLE store in the city. A man enters and stands looking. He crosses to where a Kawasaki ZX-12R motorcycle is circling slowly on a motorized dais. The dais is marked off with a blue velvet rope and the man approaches and stands looking at the bike for a moment, then unhooks the rope and lets it fall to the floor and mounts the dais and stands circling with it. A clerk talking to a customer nearby sees him. The clerk comes over to the dais. The man has taken a steel tape measure from his coat pocket and is measuring the height of the Kawasaki at the handlebars.
(There’s one telling difference between the screenplay and what winds up on the screen. In the finished movie, the clerk approaches the man with the measuring tape and asks, “Can I help you?” The man replies, “Nope.” That simple “Nope” carries a ton of freight, and it strikes me as an improvement on McCarthy’s original.) The scene continues:
BORDER CITY. EVENING. An outdoor café adjoining a parking lot. Metal chairs and tables. Traffic. A Mexican man is sitting at one of the tables with a cup of coffee before him and a newspaper. The young man in green pulls up on the Kawasaki ZX-12R. He takes off the gloves and the helmet and puts the gloves inside the helmet and steps off the bike and walks to where the man is sitting and kicks back a chair and sits down.
THE MAN AT THE table rises and goes, leaving the paper on the table. The kid sits at the table and opens the newspaper and reads.
THE KID RAKES AN object from under the paper into his helmet and puts down the paper and stands and puts the helmet under his arm and crosses the plaza to his bike and puts his foot over the bike and starts it and pulls his gloves from the helmet and lays them on the tank in front of him and pulls on the helmet and fastens the strap and then pulls on the gloves and kicks back the stand and pulls away into the traffic.
NIGHT. TWO-LANE blacktop road through the high desert. A car passes and the lights recede down the long straight and fade out. A man walks out from the scrub cedars that line the road and stands in the middle of the road and lights a cigarette. He is carrying a roll of thin braided wire over one shoulder. He continues across the road to the fence. A tall metal pipe is mounted to one of the fence posts and at the top—some twenty feet off the ground—is a floodlight. The man pushes the button on a small plastic sending unit and the light comes on, flooding the road and the man’s face. He turns it off and walks down the fence line a good hundred yards to the corner of the fence and here he drops the coil of wire to the ground and takes a flashlight from his back pocket and puts it in his teeth and takes a pair of leather gloves from his belt and puts them on. Then he loops the wire around the corner post and pulls the end of the wire through the loop and wraps it about six times around the wire itself and tucks the end several times inside the loop and then takes the wire in both hands and hauls it as tight as he can get it. Then he takes the coil of wire and crosses the road, letting out the wire behind him. In the cedars on the far side, a flatbed truck is parked with the bed of the truck facing the road. There is an iron pipe at the right rear of the truck bed mounted vertically in a pair of collars so that it can slide up and down and the man threads the wire through a hole in the pipe and pulls it taut and stops it from sliding back by clamping the wire with a pair of vise grips. Then he walks back out to the road and takes a tape measure from his belt and measures the height of the wire from the road surface. He goes back to the truck and lowers the iron pipe in its collars and clamps it in place again with a threaded lever that he turns by hand against the vertical rod. He goes out to the road and measures the wire again and comes back and wraps the end of the wire through a heavy three-inch iron ring and walks to the front of the truck, where he pulls the wire taut and wraps it around itself to secure the ring at the end of the wire and then pulls the ring over a hook mounted in the side rail of the truck bed. He stands looking at it. He strums the wire with his fingers. It gives off a deep resonant note. He unhooks the ring and walks the wire to the rear of the truck until it lies slack on the ground and in the road. He lays the ring on the truck bed and goes around and takes a walkie-talkie from a work bag in the cab of the truck and stands in the open door of the truck, listening. He checks his watch by the dome light in the cab.
HE TURNS OFF the walkie-talkie and takes the cigarette from his mouth and grinds it into the dirt and shuts the door of the truck. He looks at his watch. Very thin in the distance we can hear the high-pitched scream of the Kawasaki bike flat out at eleven thousand r.p.m.
SHOT OF THE green rider bent low over the bike at a hundred and ninety miles an hour. Suddenly, the floodlight comes on and he raises up and turns his head to look at it.
THE TRUCK. THE desert is suddenly lit to the north of the wire man and he takes the ring and carries it forward and pulls it over the hook. The wire hums.
SHOT OF THE green rider with his face turned back to the floodlight, which is now behind him. Suddenly, his head zips away and, in the helmet, goes bouncing down the highway behind the bike. The bike continues on, the motor slows and dies to silence, and in the distance we see a long slither of sparks recede into the dark.
THE TRUCK. THE man clips the wire at the ring with a pair of wire cutters and the wire zips away. He walks out to the road with the walkie-talkie. In the road, he shines the light down the blacktop and then walks down the roadside ditch until he comes to the helmet.
HE PUTS AWAY the walkie-talkie and bends over and picks up the helmet. It is surprisingly heavy. He goes back to the truck and opens the cab door on the driver’s side and puts the helmet on the floor and shuts the door and goes out to the road and crosses to the fence, where he cuts the wire free from the fence post and begins to wind it up as he walks, passing the wire over his elbow at each turn to make a coil. He stows the wire in a toolbox under the bed of the truck and gets in the truck and starts it and turns on the lights and drives out into the road.
(Here Scott makes another small but telling change. In the finished film, the ambusher doesn’t put the helmet in the truck; he shakes the helmet until the head falls out, making a wet whap when it hits the pavement. Then he removes the vital object from inside the helmet, pockets it, and drives away. Much better.)
The key to the success of this scene is the way McCarthy so deliberately builds the dread, then executes the payoff (and the motorcyclist) in the wink of an eye. The whole movie is like that — the slow-cooked accretion of dread, leading to a flash of violence. And then, almost always, someone is dead.
McCarthy’s script is not flawless. Some of the dialog has a high tin content. As sleazy Westray, Brad Pitt, looking perfect for the role with a slight pot belly, puffy cheeks and stringy hair, says things like “You don’t know someone till you know what they want” and “I’ve seen it all and it’s all shit.” The counselor woos Laura with: “You are a glory. As in glorious. You are a glorious woman.” And finally, Malkina, who proves to be the most dangerous one in this cage full of animals, theorizes that predators in the wild are pure because they are what they do, while we humans have fallen from their state of pure grace: “It is our faintness of heart that has driven us to ruin.”
Listening to Cameron Diaz utter a few lines like that goes a long way, but these missteps are small. The movie is huge, largely because the man who wrote the screenplay is a giant and he has never read a screenwriting manual in his life.