Olivia Laing, Picador, 2018
Olivia Laing’s Crudo is about the intensity, the anxiety and the challenges of identifying yourself when you have all of global politics at your fingertips. I understood this most clearly when, on page 58, The New York Times alerted me to the fact that my ‘morning briefing was ready’ and, with the aid of one notification, I was plunged into the existential reality of Laing’s protagonist Kathy. Arguably it is unnatural to access so much of it all at once. I have often thought this when I feel the pressure to respond to a text immediately; what if you are in the shower or having dinner or ignoring everyone you have already spent the day with? For Kathy this is in overdrive; it is not her social life that weighs on her time and her mind, but the real-time running commentary on how the most important people in the world are threatening to destroy everything.
Crudo is set in summer 2017. Politics is inescapable: Kathy and the reader are constantly faced with tragedy, shock, and scandal delivered via news-feed and push notification. Laing is thorough – we are invited to dimly remember what we were doing the day we read about Anthony Scarammuci being sacked (endless ‘I’ve had X that lasted longer jokes’, maybe some anxiety about Trump’s sanity), Hurricane Harvey (mostly mocking Melania Trump’s shoes, some heart-warming Twitter threads about heroic deeds) or Grenfell (I remember the anger radiating around the kitchen that morning). We are reminded of the very real threat of nuclear war that hung over everything that late summer. Because few things have got better and most things have got worse, it is likely that many of us have not yet thought about the impact that this constant stream of news has had on our lives. What was it doing to our relationships with everyone else? How did it affect our trust in politics? What does constant, low-level fear do to people? Laing’s aim is partly to explore these questions, and partly to record the chaos and confusion of that summer.
Laing is best known as a prolific writer of non-fiction – Crudo is her first novel. The question, then, that immediately suggests itself is: Why is Crudo a work of fiction rather than non-fiction? Why use a single voice to capture all of these experiences? Laing’s justification is simple:
I knew the summer of 2017 was a turning point, and that it would be written about by historians in the future, acquiring a shape and coherence it absolutely didn’t possess at the time. It was the messy moment itself I wanted to record, the limited perspective, the perpetual anxiety of not knowing what was happening or why.
Laing reveals that she took note of everything that happened and never allowed herself to deliberate over a sentence. For a non-fiction writer, this was quite a significant shift in discipline, but she thoroughly believes that her previous writing style would have been too laboured to capture the essence of this moment. ‘The now pours onto you day by day and I just wanted to write down what it was to be drenched by it.’ Only fiction was fast enough to record everything.
The form of Crudo is masterful. Rapidly paced, it feels like a series of tweets. Few of Laing’s clauses are likely to be rejected by the 240-character limit. Popular culture is namedropped with ease. There is little punctuation. The summer of 2017 came at us thick and fast, and this is entirely recreated in the novel. We often check in with dates – anchors that keep us afloat when Kathy’s thoughts spiral entirely out of time constraints or reference points. This is something like a stream-of-consciousness, and also something very different. ‘Woolf’s project’, Laing calls it. Just a further attempt to try and understand how to capture the ‘now.’ Ali Smith delightedly refers to it as plagiarism: plagiarism of the moment. The twenty-first century feels totally present. Something about the form and the single experience it presents manages to feel wholly reminiscent of every other single experience of living that summer. Crudo is about us, all of us, from the reader to Laing herself to Kim Jong-Un, and the girl who Instagrammed her rape.
It is also intensely about Kathy. But who is ‘Kathy, by which I mean I?’ Firstly, Laing’s notes at the back (aptly named Something Borrowed) tell us that she is Kathy Acker, the late American punk-experimental novelist. Laing was fascinated by how many of Acker’s stickiest subjects have become relevant again – abortion, nuclear war, pornography. She wanted to see how seamlessly they would marry the current political moment. The more brutal language, the more complex considerations of oneself in relation to everything else, are borrowed from Acker’s works. The project itself is something of an homage to Acker’s methods of working: Acker used to sit in public libraries and totally immerse herself in the figures she was researching. She used to basically become them. In turn, Laing has tried to become Acker. This is true on at least two levels. On one level, Kathy is a fictional character who was written into life by Olivia Laing and bears a close resemblance to Kathy Acker. But Kathy is also very similar to Laing herself. A quick online search reveals some of the parallels with Laing’s own life – the timing of the wedding, the dress, the husband figure, his birthday meal at the River Café. Kathy, then, is not just a fictional character with many of the characteristics of a dead writer. She’s also, somehow, the author herself. Crudo has been described as a roman à clef, a work of autofiction, and a ‘biographical pastiche.’ We can be sure of one thing: It isn’t like other novels.
I understand that it may seem a little unsettling to pass so much fact off as fiction. Earlier this summer I read What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, and was really quite disheartened to discover that the most crucial plot points were autobiographical. It felt somewhat exploitative, like two fingers up to imagination. This is not how Laing sees it. ‘The single life is irrelevant’ declares Ali Smith in an interview with Laing in theLondon Review of Books, and Laing seems to concur. Perhaps Kathy is Acker, and Acker is Laing, but only because these twin viewpoints are the only way that she can access and understand the moment in question. In this case, Laing’s defence of her fiction–autobiography is compelling. This quote from the novel is particularly enlightening:
She [Kathy, definitely Acker] liked to steal other people’s stories, just lift them wholesale. I am Toulouse Lautrec, I’m a totally hideous monster. I’m too ugly to go out into the world. I am Laure the schoolgirl, I thought you didn’t notice me because I’m so invisible. I’m born poor St Helen’s Isle of Wight. 1790. As a child I have hardly any food to eat.
Laing doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that people were always engrossed in the events playing out in the wider world. I certainly know that I was not always glued to my phone during the summer of 2017. I was holidaying with my family and awaiting the start of university. Laing acknowledges this other side of reality; Kathy is not wholly weighed down by this constant stream of alerts; often her priorities are closer to home. Like us, she has her own worries, her own problems and concerns. Kathy’s marriage looms over the narrative as much as any international event; she has more anxieties about her ability to share a single space with another person than she does about the government. Politics is always in the picture but it moves in and out of view. It acts as a reference point, a way for Kathy to orient herself in a world that is larger and more complex than she had imagined. Crudo is a novel of approach: Kathy is learning to navigate the personal and political as they hurtle towards her. Her wedding grows ever closer, and then it passes and nothing is fully resolved; Kathy is still unsure if she can really love, unsure if she can really adapt to her new life. Her engagement with the media gives her the opportunity to situate herself in a bigger picture and allows her to take comfort in the contrast between the small struggles of her daily life and the broader dramas that are playing out elsewhere.
For the most part, the global horror stories remain international, and Kathy is rarely directly affected. But there are exceptions. On page 16, Kathy overhears a conversation about ‘the tower block that had burned down.’ On page 92, she travels past ‘the blackened skeleton of Grenfell Tower. Somehow, she had not realised how many houses and flats were nearby, how many people must have watched the children at their windows.’ Here, something dimly relevant becomes crucial, and it shocks Kathy that the nebulous world of international chaos is more than a series of notifications on a screen. There are real consequences. This is significant for her situating of herself; it is impossible for Kathy to be most anxious about this state of affairs, she cannot be the primary concern at the heart of them. Laing captures what it was like for the average reader to be continually overwhelmed with second- hand suffering, and to only sometimes feel its direct consequences.
The same is true of America. As a concept, it permeates the narrative through a series of present tweets and past memories. Laing calls on Acker to define it:
‘How did America begin. To defeat America she had to learn who America is’/ ‘a minor factor in nature, no longer existed’ / ‘what are the myths of the beginning of America’ / ‘the desire for religious intolerance made America or Freedom.’
The formless picture of America grows, until suddenly Kathy is confronted with it. She has enrolled to teach a course for a term at an American university, and the reality of facing this shifting, unkind mass, head on and identity-less, engulfs Kathy. It is bad enough witnessing it; Kathy’s final great challenge is working out how to live and work and create there without allowing the government to overwhelm her to the point that her mind is “numbed”. For this, she calls on the help of the painter, Philip Guston.
He’d [Guston] been thinking a lot about the Holocaust … especially the concentration camp in Treblinka. It worked, the mass killing, he told Feldman, because the Nazis deliberately induced numbness on both sides, in the victims and also the tormentors. And yet a small group of prisoners had managed to escape. Imagine what a process it was to unnumb yourself, he said, to see it as it actually was. That’s the only reason to be an artist: to escape, to bear witness to this.
Crudo captures the inevitable numbness that ensues when tragedy or scandal inundates the media day after day. Withstanding the flood is a struggle – one must try to resist the normalisation of the exceptional. The novel makes it clear that such resistance is essential, even though it takes a great deal of effort and is often unsuccessful. It is our only weapon for living at a time when we are constantly subjected to the bad news of the world. Laing helps us to realise that we must never not be shocked.
Art by Abigail Hodges