I read like a child wandering through a garden. I start out with the intent to explore within a form, or to trace a genre. I set my path, only to be distracted by unusual blooms from out of unexpected corners. I chase the shimmering wings of a dragonfly down a verdant dead end. I become tangled in an unfurling vine. I crisscross the garden at intersecting angles and ramble in looping trails.
I start the year reading new release fiction and get sidetracked by memoir and essay. I go on a tangent with novellas and poetry and I emerge blinking in the borderlands between experimental, speculative and dystopian fiction. I am guided on my meandering by enthusiastic book reviews, seductive bookstore displays, the obligations of book club, the hype of awards long and shortlists, and the insistent recommendations of friends.
Somewhere along the path, I stumble into Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit opens with this quote: ‘How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is unknown to you?’ Solnit explores how and why people get lost and how it changes them. Her work is a perfect companion to a reading journey. Books are, after all, a gateway into unfamiliar terrain. Books catalyse the way I see the world. I think of reading as a series of small transformative miracles; the chance to get lost and in doing so, extend my boundaries of self.
But there are risks and dangers in getting lost. If I wander too far beyond the neat edges of the garden I discover a wilderness. I look up. The sun is sitting low in the sky and casting long shadows. Without quite realising it, my reading has coalesced around a theme: loneliness. Its dense canopy weighs heavily on me; the path gives way to decaying undergrowth.
I read the dispatches of Emily Witt from the front line of San Francisco’s sexual subcultures in her book Future Sex. At the age of 30 and finding herself still single, Witt sets out on a solitary journey to explore desire and connection. She experiments with orgasmic meditation and internet dating and joins the audience of live shoots of kink porn. Witt gives a voyeuristic insight into the polyamorous relationships of a group of Google employees and their friends, and immerses herself in the world of live webcammers, where she finds technology-enabled community amongst the socially isolated. Witt discovers a web of possibilities that are open to people seeking out intimacy.
While some of the encounters in the book are dispiriting, Witt manages to make fleeting contacts that bring her a temporary reprieve from loneliness. But she fails to find deep connections. As she says: ‘love is rare and frequently unreciprocated’.
From Witt’s San Francisco, I venture to New York in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. A relationship breakup is the catalyst for Laing’s excursion into loneliness in her adopted city. Like Witt, Laing explores connecting online: the seduction of instant social gratification weighed against the ‘bleak sense of having failed to make contact’. Both authors explore a distinctively urban experience of loneliness; living in a city crowded with people but failing to connect or find intimacy.
Laing faces her loneliness head on and steeps herself in the state in order to unravel and transcend it. Loneliness becomes Laing’s familiar as she tracks it through the city, investigating loneliness as a motif in the work of artists in order to better understand her own despair. It brings her comfort to know ‘someone else had grappled with loneliness, and had found beauty, even value in it’. Laing’s conclusion is that the real pain of loneliness lies in the compulsion to conceal it. The cure for it: admission and honesty.
It is the human condition to be lonely, at least sometimes, so it is not surprising that a raft of literature grapples with loneliness and with what Laing describes as ‘the essential unknowability of others’. As Laing points out, loneliness is a repellent to those around us and can be shameful to endure. Perhaps that is why we turn to literature to understand the universal truth of it; the everyday experience is too confronting.
This ‘essential unknowability of others’ echoes strongly through Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers. Howrey asks if we are alone in the universe. This is a space tale, but Howrey is not interested in the search for alien life. In her novel, a crew of three elite astronauts trains in the Utah desert for a mission to Mars. They are isolated from their families and from other humans for 17 months. This physical and emotional solitude tests them. Howrey explores the crew’s interior lives and their relationships to each other and their families, which are at best elliptical, as they drift in and out of each other’s orbits, never quite connecting.
As an aside, Howrey calls up the image of Michael Collins, the least famous crew member on the Apollo 11 mission. Collins piloted the command module Columbia, circling alone in lunar orbit while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon’s surface. The image of Collins sticks with me. It is difficult to imagine being lonelier than at that moment, far from your home planet and from your kind.
Only the alien/cephalopod character in Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck could trump Collins on loneliness. Rawson constructs the archetype of ‘essential unknowability’, a slippery shape shifter who materialises as an octopus, a cat, a fish, a birthmark and as a human. With no fixed form to anchor her, intimacy is elusive. Bridget, as we meet her in human form, mourns her lost world, which has been destroyed through cataclysm. Bereft, she searches for her kind across the bounds of the universe: an endless quest from the depths of the ocean, to the expanses of space, and finally on Earth. The loneliness in this novel extends beyond a human-to-human yearning for intimacy. Rawson explores the idea of a universal connection, an eco-intimacy between species where humans are not apart from, central to, or dominant over nature. Rather, they are just one element of it. Empathy for other creatures and the world around us is Rawson’s tonic for loneliness.
Connection can still evade us even when we are contained in an immutable human form. Laing contends that the experience of loneliness can be illuminating; a terrain in which to get lost and to consider what it means to be alive and in doing so, to discover something about oneself. This is the kind of transformation Solnit was also probing in her book. What do I discover by reading in the key of loneliness?
Loneliness can be a transient state, where I can see the border and know it will be possible to pass. Self-imposed solitude is restorative and liberating. I think about the license of solo travel, the thrill of wandering unfamiliar streets, eating alone, and interacting only fleetingly with strangers. The pangs of loneliness are tolerable because they are temporary. At these times, loneliness is a membrane. I can push my hands against it and stretch it out, feel its sinewy edges and peer at the world through it.
Loneliness can also be acute, with no end in sight. I think about the experience of growing up as a queer teenager in the western suburbs of Sydney, of holding a crying newborn: all alien hands and hungry mouth, of being a child locked in a room with a man with his hands on me. At these times, loneliness is an abyss. I stare down into it and it is like the edge of death. Its only saving grace is that it is explainable; it is a symptom of a life catastrophe, a response to grief.
Where I get stuck is fathoming the inexplicable loneliness that, from time to time, crushes me. This is where my reading path lands me; I am ejected from the garden and cannot find my way back. I look to Laing for consolation: ‘loneliness is a special place, I’m certain of it: adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.’ And I wait for the return track to open up.
Justine Hyde is a director of the State Library Victoria, a freelance writer and a wannabe literary critic. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Meanjin, Newtown Review of Books, Women’s Agenda and Wheeler Centre Dailies. Twitter: @justine_hyde