Olivia Laing has always been a writer interested in other writers: her first book, To the River, reflected on her journey along the Ouse, the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself, and The Trip to Echo Spring explored the relationship between creativity and alcoholism in writers such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. It’s no surprise, therefore, that her first novel, Crudo, should feature a writer, Kathy Acker, as its central character. It is not, however, a fictionalised biography, taking place over seven weeks in 2017, twenty years after Acker’s death. The Kathy of the novel, however, is not the seventy-year-old she would have been had she lived, but forty, the same age as Laing (coincidentally their birthdays are only four days apart):

“Kathy was worried about ageing. She hadn’t realised youth wasn’t a permanent state, that she wouldn’t always be cute and hopeless and forgivable.”

Laing is clear from the opening line that Kathy is both her and Acker:

“Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York.”

(Laing also got married in 2017 and it seems, at least to some extent, the narrative filters events in Laing’s life through Kathy’s persona). The novel begins in Italy on the 2nd of August and ends on the 23rd of September as Kathy boards a plane, bringing us full circle. Such precision with dates is important as Laing wrote the novel ‘live’ and without editing (‘crudo’ is Italian for ‘raw’), incorporating the news of the day into the narrative. Laing has twice been short-listed for the Gordon Burn Prize, and the process of writing (and publishing) contemporaneously is reminiscent of Burn’s 2008 novel Born Yesterday, the difference being that Laing’s news comes directly and constantly to her from her Twitter feed. In interview, Laing has described her intentions:

“It’s summer 2017 day by day or sometimes hour by hour. With Brexit and Trump, things were just changing so fast. So while there’s a narrative going on inside the book about Kathy’s life, as for documenting the real world, it let me get down how feverish, terrifying, and sometimes funny but often bleak that period was. It’s about what it’s actually like to wake up every morning, pull Twitter open and see fascists walking through an American city.”

This perhaps explains why, while Burn’s book concentrated on British news (Blair’s resignation, Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport), Laing’s is largely focused on the US (to such an extent, I felt I had to check she wasn’t American). Obviously Trump’s domination of American politics is partly responsible, but the urgency and immediacy must surely come from being permanently connected to American friends and news outlets, perhaps exaggerating the importance of US politics in the UK. (Though, as Kathy is American, the preoccupation seems more natural).

This unedited newsfeed, though it recreates lived experience, is weakened by the very phenomenon it seeks to portray – that rolling news demands one crisis after another with little sense of which will be remembered and which forgotten. (Some stories mentioned – Sinead O’Connor on YouTube; “Everyone was angry about a thing called Bodega”- had completely passed me by). Trump dominates the headlines: when he fires the Director of the FBI “everyone was saying it was a banana republic…he’s taking a giant shit on our nation.” During Charlottesville we are told:

“That was the morning that white people finally realised the President of the United States was white supremacist, he’d as good as said so.”

The problem here is that Kathy (Laing), completely unaffected, can only be outraged. Laing does touch on Acker’s political involvement during her life:

“She’d been writing about Nazis since 1988, she knew what she was seeing.”

However, what could have been a fascinating comparison is not fully developed. Instead the novel is dominated by Kathy’s character ‘today’ – a ‘live’ novel voiced by a character appropriately full of life and living in the moment. Kathy is restless both mentally and physically:

“What Kathy wanted currently was complicated to explain. She wanted three or four houses so that she could move between them. She was happiest on her travels, like a clockwork toy, maybe happiest unpacking or booking a train ticket.”

This makes the idea of ‘settling down’ threatening – “I don’t like proximity,” she tells her husband-to-be. Kathy’s character swamps that of her husband, just as her moods do:

“Her husband was furious but Kathy’s fury as ever was larger and less ambiguous.”

It is the rawness of her feelings, however, which make her an always interesting companion. At times spoilt and selfish, she is also vulnerable and tender. It is this composite Kathy/Laing character that is the novel’s greatest success, portrayed with wit and verve:

“Kathy had always had unsatisfactory relationships and her current unsatisfactory relationship was with sleep.”

While not perhaps fully releasing its presentation of our crises-strewn world, Katy ensures Crudo is an invigorating read.

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8 Responses to “Crudo”

  1. Tredynas Days Says:

    the LRB Bookshop has an audio podcast of an interview with Laing in which she discusses this novel at length. I listened to it yesterday: it’s illuminating on her purpose, techniques, etc. Link:

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks for that. She did come to Edinburgh and I heard her speak but, as I didn’t take any notes, I found I had forgotten much of what she said!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    She’s certainly an interesting writer. I really liked her approach to The Trip to Echo Spring, which read as a combination of Laing’s road trip across the US and an exploration of the lives of those legendary writers. The writing felt very fluid and natural – effortless in a way, though I’m sure a lot of work had gone into it under the surface. The novel doesn’t appeal to me for some reason, so I’ll probably stick to her non-fiction with The Lonely City!

    • 1streading Says:

      I have a copy of The Trip to Echo Spring which I started but got distracted (by another book, no doubt). Have you read Kathy Acker? I haven’t but I’ve a funny feeling that if she’s not for you, then this won’t be.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It certainly sounds striking, if not entirely successful. I may approach her non fiction first I think.

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