Olivia Laing has been deservedly lauded for her thoughtful works of non-fiction To the River, The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City. Her first novel, Crudo, is every bit as intelligent and provocative, with a roar of energy that comes from having been written, remarkably, in just seven weeks.
Perhaps the novel’s most unusual element is its narrator: ‘Kathy by which I mean I’ is a 40-year-old hybrid of the post-punk icon Kathy Acker and a fictionalised version of Laing herself. Acker died in 1997, but Laing brings her back to life for the politically turbulent summer of 2017. She peppers her prose with quotations from Acker’s writing and merges episodes from Acker’s life, such as her repeated breast cancer and her mother’s suicide, with Laing’s recent marriage to the poet Ian Patterson. All of this is cloaked in a contemporary reality of news stories and Twitter.
This strange Laing-Acker hybrid is part of Crudo’s elastic world. Kathy describes her gender as ‘transitioning; she loved the word, with its sense of constant emergence and zero arrival’, and this seems applicable to the rest of the novel, with its fluid sense of time and place (one minute she is on holiday in Italy, the next recalling a stay in New York, then on a train to London). ‘Other things were going on at the same time,’ notes Kathy, jumping from dozy contemplation of a dragonfly, while sunbathing in her garden, to the disaster of Houston being flooded. Her prose also skips from the domestic to the political, the mundane to the intellectual — a stream-of-consciousness not unlike a more radical Virginia Woolf.
Laing shows writing to be a means of escaping oneself for various characters and different perspectives: ‘On the page the I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly…’ Early on, Kathy compares herself to a drone: ‘Perhaps what she was doing, writing everyone down in her little book, wasn’t exactly gracious.’ It is ‘everyone’ who is written down, not everything; in writing to be someone else, an inescapable empathy is bestowed upon the writer.
Kathy is aware of the privilege of her coddled existence, in which days pass in luxury: flicking through piles of books while sunbathing, buying orange cashmere socks, admiring her Comme des Garçons wallet and gorging on ‘white peach bellini, squid with chilli, a plate of raw sea bass scattered with pansies, rabbit pappardelle, blue beef, panna cotta like a severed breast, a hazelnut cake, white wine, red wine, espresso’. Indulgences are piled on thick to show that being ‘wrapped up in five-pound notes’ cannot truly cushion her from the horrors of the wider world. News stories persistently surface, including Grenfell, Charlottesville, the migrant crisis. Kathy reflects:
The mistake she’d made as so often was to read the news immediately after waking … How could you be happy when you knew the tendencies humans had, their aptitude for cruelty.
Crudo is intensely personal and simultaneously global in its concerns. It forces us to consider the two together and bind our own immediate dramas to those of the wider world. It is an important novel that shouts to the vastness and the urgency of what it means to be alive, now.