A Tale of Two Novels and What it Means to be Lonely

After hearing lots of talk about the debut novel ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman I have finally gotten myself a copy and am getting stuck in the mind of its quirky protagonist: a strange girl who relishes routine, is happy on the outskirts, lives off Tesco pizza and 2 bottles of vodka and speaks to no one after leaving the office on Friday evening to arriving back at her desk on Monday morning. A Guardian review of the bestselling novel commented that:

Given the number of books about dementia, memory loss, and other mental health issues, it is surprising that it has taken profound loneliness this long to take centre stage” - Jenny Colgan

We’ve become increasingly sensitive to loneliness in the elderly, but this is not to say that its effects stop there. We are often misled into thinking that loneliness is synonymous with solitude. However, Olivia Laing negates this in her novel ‘The Lonely City’, a memoir about uprooting her broken-hearted self from native England to New York City:

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.

So why is this interrogation into what it means to feel profoundly ‘alone’ resurfacing? I think for us, there was a draw to this topic, a home truth to be found about the isolation of graduate life. Despite the knowledge that most of our peers are experiencing exactly the same crisis, we can’t help but existentially question what we want our life to be. Smothered by freedom and possibility. Eleanor despairs that: “these days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way.” So, perhaps in talking about how lonely we can feel, in renouncing the stigma of it perhaps we can find each other and realise we’re not alone.

There are so many things that art can’t do. It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.

Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.” - Olivia Laing ‘The Lonely City'

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