Loneliness and Therapy

Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press, $26), by Fiona Maazel, is riveting and wild and often hilarious. From the noisy streets of Washington, DC to the underground tunnels of Cincinnati—even to North Korea and back—Maazel deftly weaves the story of Thurlow Dan, a cult leader drowning in his own unexpected success, and his brilliant and erratic ex-wife Esme, an FBI agent sent in to keep him in check. Thurlow and Esme chase one another around in circles, and it’s rarely clear which one of the two is one step ahead of the other. It reminds me of Salinger’s opening to Franny and Zooey—this is “a love story, pure and complicated.”

By Blood (Picador, $16), by Ellen Ullman, takes a different track. It’s In Treatment meets CSI—a thriller and a drama. The narrator, himself of dubious moral character, eavesdrops on a compelling therapy session next door to his office and becomes obsessed with following the weekly developments. The client, an ambitious, workaholic lesbian, learns that her birth parents were Jewish. Meanwhile, the therapist, a German woman, struggles to keep her own family’s Nazi history a secret. This extremely creepy narrator secretly intervenes in the client’s tortured search for her birth family.

Both of these novels have elaborate and winding premises—rivers with a hundred branches. And both authors run a tight ship, keeping all the balls in the air to make for thoroughly captivating fiction.

But what has most stuck in my mind since reading these two books is the confrontation of the information age with an era of alienation. The characters in these novels are each struggling with crushing loneliness and anonymity, and seek solace in relatively formal therapeutic relationships. Thurlow Dan has founded a cult with millions of members that tackles loneliness head-on. Radical honesty meets group therapy—leading to impulsive confessions of deep secrets across the country and spontaneous intimacy with strangers. (Randomly, in a laundromat: “Hello, I recognize you. My name is Max Chen. I haven’t paid my taxes in three years. I have a wife who doesn’t love me and a girlfriend who doesn’t love me, either, now that I stopped paying for her English classes.”) By taking the pairing of alienation and therapeutic recourse to the nth degree, Maazel explores the clash and paradox of closeness and secrecy—with absurd and darkly hilarious results.

Ullman’s characters similarly yearn to be seen—pushing and pulling at one another while trying to hold on to their most shameful secrets. Their secrets—and their shames—are what keep them alone and what connect them to each other. Defending his schemes, the narrator tells us, “It was a time of the truest lonelinesses (since loneliness is plural, various in its aspects and effects); and by this I mean not simply the absence of companionship but a complete estrangement from all feelings except self-loathing. The world tolerated me, I believed, only because of my subterfuge: the fraud I perpetuated which fooled them into thinking I was human.”

These authors are asking us to think about the price of loneliness, the pain of alienation, and the possibility of connecting. In the words of Thurlow Dan, “Here is something you should know: we are living in an age of pandemic. Of pandemic and paradox. To be more interconnected than ever and yet lonelier than ever.”

Sonia Isard is Lilith’s associate editor.