Thea Hawlin reviews Olivia Laing’s Crudo

While she was writing her novel Crudo, Olivia Laing was reviewing Chris Kraus’ After Kathy Acker (2017), a biography of the experimental postmodernist. One particular passage caught her attention: it described an exercise in which David Antin told a young Acker in San Diego to head to the library, take out a biography, and rework it in the first person. “I liked the idea of that kind of theft, that illicit act of appropriation”, Laing confessed in a recent interview with the literary magazine Guernica. Appropriation twins with possession, provoking two questions that seem to propel Laing’s fictional début: to whom do words belong and to whom do we belong? It seems that we choose our own authors. Crudo is peppered with sentences from Acker, and just as Acker herself favoured a sprinkling of Dickens or Don Quixote, Laing, in turn, attempts to honour Acker with her own echoes.

Crudo centres on Laing, I, Kathy — a composite character formed from the parallels between Laing’s and Acker’s lives. Kathy, like Laing, is about to get married. Kathy, like Laing, is in Italy in an expensive hotel while the world continues turning and the news keeps on worsening. In a time where fiction is being made into fact, Laing seems to say that it’s time to make some facts fiction. Crudo becomes a chance for Laing to shift the boundaries of self, to present herself openly and invisibly at the same time. She turns our attention to how we internalise the world around us, how we engage with it and how it affects us. While writing the book over the eventful summer of 2017, Laing refers to her “travels through Twitter” each day. These cyberspace voyages into the internet become bountiful fishing trips; Laing’s mind, like that of her protagonist, returns laden with nets that contain everything from the hyperbolic vitriol of Donald Trump to the news cycle trauma of global warming. The process of constant exposure proves dangerous: “stories like that displaced her, they displaced everything, how could you be happy when you knew the tendencies humans had, their aptitude for cruelty”. This is a central preoccupation: how do we carry on in a world that feels increasingly out of our control as we witness its every move? The damaging effects of sinking too deeply into the news cycle begin to show through physical signs of trauma: “she felt the numbness moving up her body. The speed of the news cycle, the hyper-acceleration of the story, she was hip to those pleasures, queasy as they were”. There’s an addiction at the root, a taste for the pace, an appetite.

Laing reminds us that this appetite, this numbing, this damage, is nothing new. “Numbness mattered”, she writes, “it was what the Nazis did, made people feel like things were moving too fast to stop and though unpleasant and eventually terrifying and appalling, were probably impossible to do anything about.” After all, caring, like not-caring, is catching. The speed of internet news makes it easier for it to fly by barely noticed. People become dependent on “the reliable shots of 10am and 3pm and 7pm outrage”. Reactions become rehearsed, and real action rare. The routine of horror paraded over television and computer screens becomes a show, a flicker away from the normalcy of life that offers us a brief taste of trauma from the outside world before we retreat to our comfortable interiors. In a way, we are all the crabs on the cover of Crudo, hiding within our own shells, reluctant to let anyone or anything else in.

In picking parts of her own life and slotting them in next to the imagined in her act of self-declared “plagiarism”, Laing causes the two to collide. When reading the novel, we can hear which parts speak truly of Laing herself — the comforts of the academic world, of plush sofas and dinner parties — and we can also hear her fantasy of the woman she has dedicated so much of her life to discovering. At times, Kathy uncharacteristically mirrors Laing exactly, taking on not only her Isabel Marant wedding dress but her own authorly self-consciousness: “She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and ready-made.” Yet when listening to Laing discuss her experiment, it becomes apparent that these parallels, along with her splicing of Acker’s words and the rifts they create are also conscious: “I want the reader to know that there are gaps between my words and hers”, she insists. When addressing the lines that she has lifted from Acker’s prose, Laing notes that she enjoys “being constantly interrupted by somebody else’s voice”. This rupturing echoes the intrusion of  voices in the internet forums and social media networks Laing attempts to critique; we can’t help but listen. Kathy’s habit of eavesdropping into conversations becomes mimetic of tuning into and out of different radio stations; one conversation dwells on Grenfell Tower and the devastation caused by the fire, moments later our attention is turned to an Italian lawyer talking about Catholicism and the Mafia. Subject matters, world-views, and voices converge; there seems no end to the possibilities.

At one point, Kathy looks at her own body and her gender, and experiences herself as a “state of constant emergence and zero arrival.” The definition feels apt for Crudo itself: it is “a hot chrysalis” like its central subject, ready and waiting to burst open into a new form. In another scene, Kathy visits an artist she is interviewing for an article, a sculptor whose work presents a physical embodiment of Kathy and Laing’s own. The artist creates constructions cobbled together from fragments, with cohesion  the objective but violent collision and contrast key: “the new pieces were kinetic and disturbing, they contained dangling entrails and slabs of bacon, hide, balls, a donkey’s head, women’s dainty ankles and bare Barbie doll feet, petals, guts, cloaks and various internal organs.”

Laing’s title, Crudo, means “raw” in Italian, and it may be exactly these details of “dangling entrails”, “guts”, and “internal organs” that inspired the book’s title. The image of the crab, the resplendent coral creature that adorns the book’s dust jacket also conjures fleshy tenderness through the violence in which we encounter it: “She hit the back of the crab as hard as she could. Nothing happened. She hit it again. A network of cracks appeared. She pried at it with her fingers, tearing out small white chunks of flesh.” The process of eating, of ingesting, consumption, becomes one of destruction and dismemberment. We are what we eat. We are what we consume. What does a diet of daily horror form? What does a diet of fake news form? Kathy is once again fluent in the art of fragmentation, picking apart a creature in order to assimilate its flesh into her own. Later, Kathy snips at her own form, gently clipping her hair in front of a bathroom mirror. This is a different kind of alteration but also one that echoes the cracking of the crab, as Kathy becomes hyperaware of her shell, her gender, her body. As she comes closer and closer to the date on which she will bind herself to another, she finds herself asking the same questions over and over in different forms: Who am I? What am I made of?

Laing’s initial concept for Crudo was to experiment with establishing a new kind of fiction that would engage with the present in quasi-real time. Like Ali Smith’s quartet of the seasons, which began with Autumn (2016) and continued with Winter (2017), Laing conceived a series of novels that would seek to portray, instead of seasons of time, seasons of her life. In this way it might be easier to draw comparisons to the work of Deborah Levy and her “living memoirs”: the first, Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), a response to George Orwell’s famous essay ‘Why I Write’ (1946), and the second, The Cost of Living, released earlier this year, an evocative portrait of Levy’s life in the wake of divorce. Laing, like Levy, like Smith, seeks to capture something of the sensation of the age through which we are living. The turbulence of the times seems magnified by our awareness of it. New media and new technologies ensure we remain constantly plugged into the changing environment around us — often literally — yet also feel powerless to slow its momentum. Laing herself has described the writing of Crudo as a process that was “meant to be this slam-down experience, an exact accounting of living through a very turbulent period in time.” Her phrasing itself is revealing, the idea of the novel as a “slam-down” encapsulating the violent velocity that she struggles with in the online world. In reality the very same mechanisms of speed, turbulence, and uncertainty soak through to the core of her book. Like a Twitter feed, the novel darts from subject to subject, and from place to place; it’s also linear, has little plot, and gets distracted easily. All of these features sources of annoyance and allure in equal measure.

The central, sustained arc of the novel — if there is one — sees Kathy come to terms with her new identity as she enters into married life. She is at a point of transition, as the summer draws to an end and she begins a new chapter. Here is Kathy, I, Laing, a woman about to commit herself to a man she loves. Here is a woman about to lean on a fellow human being, about to give up her single life and enter into a legally binding relationship that will see her joined to another. Laing’s words are propped up by those of the world around her, most notably propped against the figure of Acker herself. Laing and her character come to reconcile themselves with their own fallibility, the fallibility that leads us to crave dependency no matter how much we desire independence. We are built from the DNA of those who created us, we ourselves are works of plagiarism: a set of blue eyes here, a gene for curly hair there, a tendency for speaking too fast, a certain accent, a certain mindset, a way of talking with our hands. To come to terms with the fact that our “original” selves are themselves composite, and dependent upon those who have come before us, helps to establish how Laing sees both herself and her work.

Kathy despises the idea of dependency: “She’d never loved anyone before, not really. She’d never known how to do it, how to unfold herself, how to put herself on one side, how to give.” She also despises the idea of becoming dependent on her husband and of her husband becoming dependent on her: “she detested being responsible for anyone else’s happiness”. Yet what are the alternatives? To dare to open up, to listen, and risk pain in the world? Or to remain alone and hidden within your own shell, and not feel anything at all? Laing’s answer is clear: stay Crudo, raw. Work to remain tender.

About Thea Hawlin

Thea Hawlin is a writer, artist, and cultural critic based in Italy. She writes for publications such as the Times Literary Supplement, LitHub, Review 31, and AnOther. She has also managed social media for Asymptote, the online journal of literary translation, and was a contributor to The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, the acclaimed collection of essays from O/R Books. Thea tweets @TheodoraHawlin.