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13th of November 2018

Books



Olivia Laing’s “Crudo” Is Made from the Raw Material of the Present

“How small, of all that human hearts endure / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure,” Samuel Johnson once wrote. But Samuel Johnson didn’t live through the summer of 2017. It was the worst of times—remember? Donald Trump threatened to bomb North Korea. North Korea threatened to bomb Guam. Obamacare was nearly repealed. Neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville. Houston flooded; Grenfell Tower burned. Johnson’s point was that politics have little effect on personal happiness, because “our own felicity we make or find.” He gave these verses to his friend Oliver Goldsmith to use in the poem “The Traveller,” which is basically an eighteenth-century TED talk, in heroic couplets, on the importance of self-actualization, even within tyrannical regimes. Tell that to the contemporary human heart, battered and buffeted by the relentless present, surging each time the phone vibrates with a fresh news alert, another portent of disaster.

And yet happiness, that tough weed, can sustain itself in even the most hostile of environments, as Kathy, the protagonist of the English writer Olivia Laing’s first novel, “Crudo” (Norton), discovers. The novel is set last year, from May to September, with its bulk concentrated in August, the nadir of the whole rotten summer, which also happens to be “the best month of the best year of Kathy’s life.” Kathy is forty, and in love. When the novel opens, she is about to be married, and since this is not the sort of book that relies on suspense, aside from the universal, existential kind (“Enjoy August she read on a site she’d only opened to read a book review: conspiracy theorists say it might be your last month on Earth”), I can tell you that she ties the knot on August 18th. She is eating her wedding cake when a guest shouts that Steve Bannon has resigned: “They all checked their phones.” This disconcerting interplay between public climate and private weather is at the core of Laing’s book, as it is at the core of most things now. Here is Kathy, sitting at home, worrying about the nuclear standoff between the United States and North Korea:

How had all this happened? Some sort of gross appetite for action, like the Red Wedding episode only actual and huge. It didn’t feel actual, that was the problem. It felt like it happened inside her computer. She didn’t watch the news or listen to the radio, in fact she’d imprisoned the TV inside a cupboard she’d had specially built. If she walked away from her laptop what was there: a garden, birches, that Malcolm XXX man chatting in the queue. Walk back, Armageddon. A bird had landed in the tallest birch. She couldn’t make it out with her glasses on, or with them off. 40, not a bad run in the history of human existence but she’d really rather it all kept going, water in the taps, whales in the oceans, fruit and duvets, the whole sumptuous parade, she was into it thanks, she’d like that show to run and run.

There is a delightfully comic, head-in-the-sand logic at work here. The world’s manifold terrors are transmitted to Kathy through the computer screen; shut it, and the proximate peacefulness of trees and birds and street noise takes its place. The two feel completely irreconcilable. How can both be real? Then, there’s the jolt of Kathy’s comparison of the threat of nuclear war to the Red Wedding episode from “Game of Thrones.” It might seem slightly perverse to contemplate the prospect of our annihilation through an analogy to fake bloodshed on a fantasy television show. On the other hand, the events that take place onscreen within the “Game of Thrones” universe feel more familiar, more concrete, than our own imminent nuclear apocalypse. Certainly, they are easier to picture.

Processing reality through fiction is part of what good art helps us do, and Laing’s novel does it more explicitly than most. The word “crudo” is usually seen these days on menus at chic Italian restaurants, where it refers to pearlescent slices of uncooked fish. It means “raw,” which is how Laing has chosen to serve her material to us. The origin of her novel can be traced to August 1st of last year, when Laing tweeted, “Tipsy over dinner, I have come up with a quartet of novels which I am going to write in the first year of the next four decades,” and then, three minutes later, “argh the titles are so good!!!!!!” The next morning, she told her followers that she had already written the first paragraph of the first book (“it is very amusing”); by evening, she had two thousand words. At the time, she was vacationing in Tuscany, which is where the novel itself gets started.

From there, things went quickly. Laing wrote “Crudo” in seven weeks—she finished it in September, at Heathrow, just before a flight, which is also when, and where, the book ends. It is a short novel, a hundred and thirty-three pages, and it can be read, in part, as a record of a brief but consequential period of her life. Like Kathy, Laing got married last August 18th; in the fiction, as in reality, the groom is Ian, a poet twenty-nine years his bride’s senior. It is her first marriage, his third. (Laing’s husband is Ian Patterson, who was married to the writer Jenny Diski until she died, in 2016. Diski is not mentioned by name in the novel, though she is alluded to, as when Ian and Kathy go to the awards ceremony where the real Ian won a prize for the elegy he wrote for Diski.) Kathy moves into her new husband’s house, as Laing moved into Patterson’s house in Cambridge, and, like Laing, she considers buying a studio apartment in the Barbican, in London, as a kind of insurance for her own privacy; she reads the London Review of Books and obsesses over the turmoil of the news.

And she writes. “Kathy was writing everything down in her notebook, and had become abruptly anxious that she might exhaust the present and find herself out at the front, alone on the crest of time—absurd, but sometimes don’t you think we can’t all be moving through it together, the whole green simultaneity of life, like sharks abruptly revealed in a breaking wave?” The metaphor, vivid and slightly unstable, captures the superheated intensity of Laing’s project. She set two rules for herself: to write every day, and not to edit. When she finished the book, she later wrote in an essay published in the U.K.’s Sunday Times, “I felt as if I’d come out of a fever, as if I’d coughed up a snake.”

In style as well as in substance, “Crudo” marks a break with Laing’s previous work. Her first three books are nonfiction, hybrids of biography, natural history, memoir, and criticism. In “To the River” (2011), Laing walks the length of the River Ouse, where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, thinking, along the way, about the history and the myth of rivers and their significance to writers. “The Trip to Echo Spring” (2013) is an account of six classic American twentieth-century writers and their struggles with alcoholism; in “The Lonely City” (2016), Laing meditates on loneliness and the art that is made from it. Each of these excellent books is better than the last—“The Lonely City,” in particular, is a model of critical creativity and empathy—but the effort that goes into producing them must be painstaking: sifting through archives, reading, making notes, piecing together bits of information, selecting and discarding, and, finally, writing, which, even when it is going well, has to stay soberly tethered to fact.

When “Crudo” sprang upon her, Laing had been working on a nonfiction book about bodies, and was stuck. How marvellous it must have felt to break free from her biographer’s careful diligence and plunder “the grab bag of the actual,” as she puts it in the novel—to be the artist and not the interpreter. That exuberance shows in the novel’s sentences, which rush by, fleet and frenetic, nearly tripping over the speed bumps of their own commas. “Everything was hotting up, going faster and faster,” Laing writes. You can practically see the steam rising off the page.

But there is more continuity between “Crudo” and Laing’s other books than might at first be apparent. Paying such close attention to other people’s lives has given Laing an appreciation for “the great jumbled inconsequential endlessly unfinished business of ordinary existence,” as she wrote, in “The Lonely City,” of Andy Warhol’s obsession with recording daily ephemera. And Laing has written about herself in each of her other books, sparingly but significantly. In “The Trip to Echo Spring,” she describes the fearful childhood years she spent living with her mother’s alcoholic partner. In “The Lonely City,” we learn that she passed an agonizing stretch alone in New York after a bad breakup, which gives extra poignancy to her choice to write now about marriage and love.

Laing has not entirely given up her biographer’s taste for burrowing inside other people’s skins, however. If Kathy is Laing’s alter ego, she is also an homage to Kathy Acker, the iconoclastic postmodern punk writer. Laing’s Kathy is, like Acker, the author of the novels “Blood and Guts in High School” and “Great Expectations” (“I expect you’ve heard of them,” Laing writes, sounding a bit clubby); her father, like Acker’s, abandoned the family before she was born and her mother, like Acker’s, committed suicide. She enjoys travelling, is apparently sexually voracious—“she’d barely ever not had some kind of STD”—and has had cancer twice and a double mastectomy, though she is not sick now. (Acker died, from breast cancer, in 1997, at the age of fifty.) Sometimes Acker’s phrases slide directly into the text as part of Kathy’s stream of thought. Some of these—“Wants go so deep there is no way of getting them out of the body”—merge so seamlessly with Laing’s voice that it comes as a surprise to discover Laing didn’t write them. Others (“the only thing I want is all-out war”) are obvious intruders from an alien consciousness, appealing, if sometimes puzzling, in their weird, retro dissonance. (Laing’s Kathy is terrified of the world’s destruction; all-out war seems like the last thing she, or any other sane person, wants at the moment.) Acker herself was a first-rate stealer of other people’s writing, and Laing’s theft pays tribute in kind. She is picking Fagin’s own pocket, though the assiduous biographer cannot entirely shed her scruples: a tidy list of citations is included at the back of the novel.

Why Kathy Acker? Well, why not? Laing was working on a review of Chris Kraus’s biography of Acker when she began to write “Crudo.” Like the resort in Italy and the adventure of getting married, Acker presented herself as found material ready for the taking. Also, Laing clearly likes her, as she likes all the people she writes about. Her genuine intellectual warmth is a strong point of her criticism; even in her more straightforward biography, Laing gives the sense of thinking through people, rather than merely about them. But Acker is not a subject here, in the biographer’s sense, or even really a protagonist, in the novelist’s. Instead, she functions more like a patron spirit, a persona that Laing can slip into when she wants to summon some bravado. There is a productive friction between the two identities. “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married” is the book’s first sentence, and it has a warping effect—for a moment, we are looking at them double, Laing’s true “I” and her “Kathy” standing side by side just before they merge. The third person can be a useful distancing device for a writer, especially one practicing autofiction that blends the speculative and the real. It both lets the author see her private “I” more clearly and helps her escape it when “her own contemptible identity,” in Laing’s sharp phrase, becomes too claustrophobic.

Escape from oneself, or, rather, its impossibility, is one of the novel’s preoccupations. Kathy, nervous about so many things, is supremely nervous about marriage. It means the end of a life of wanton independence, of living where she wants and leaving when she pleases. Ian, her husband-to-be, is “indisputably nice, everyone liked him, it was impossible not to,” which may be part of the reason that Kathy can’t stop picking fights with him over small matters, such as the unfortunate shade of brown that the porch of their house has been painted. He is already comfortably domestic, the household’s grocery shopper and cook; touchingly, he insists on preparing their wedding lunch and baking their cake himself. Meanwhile, Kathy’s intimacy issues keep bubbling up. “She had no idea what to do with love, she experienced it as invasion, as the prelude to loss and pain, she really didn’t have a clue,” Laing writes. The marriage is supposed to be “openish”—Kathy has had another lover as recently as May—but that doesn’t solve the problem of getting used to having someone else in the bed every night. Answering e-mails, exasperated with herself, she thinks, “Human relations, how.” The little punch of the period perfects the sentence, as if it were a reference to be filed away in some unsearchable index of life.

Kathy’s two great fears—the prospect of spending the rest of her life with someone, and her terror of the imminent end of all life on Earth—aren’t entirely different from each other. Both are confrontations with forever. “She missed the sense of time as something serious and diminishing, she didn’t like living in the permanent present of the id,” Laing writes, nine days before the wedding, an observation that elegantly conveys the frantic momentum that time now seems to have. The thought that gives rise to that observation is just as familiar, if less fresh: “She missed Obama. Everyone missed Obama.”

The risk of prose that tries to capture the sentiments of the immediate present is that it tends to take on the rubbery chew of an op-ed. Fortunately, Laing’s novel is too headlong for that. There is no sense of slowing the mad dash of the present to make it more comprehensible to some hypothetical future reader. For that reason, “Crudo” could turn out to be a novel that we pick up years from now to remind ourselves how these times felt, should we have the stomach for that. If there were moments when my attention lagged in “Crudo,” they had to do with the narrator’s casual, diaristic way of name-dropping friends and places; it sometimes gave me the feeling of standing alone at a party, waiting in vain to be introduced—or of watching someone else’s social-media feed, which may be part of the point.

Marriage is what puts time back into its proper perspective for Kathy. Once the deed is done, there is no scheduled disaster left to count down to, only disasters to try to keep at bay: sickness, death, the unthinkable inevitabilities that will bring everything to an end. Kathy now finds herself worrying that Ian might vanish in the night. (He has sleep apnea: “It had killed Carrie Fisher.”) “Just let me learn that love is more than me,” she prays, after she loses her temper about the porch paint. By the end of the novel, there is still the usual anxious, bilious taste regarding the outside world, but now, inside, there is sweetness, too:

She listened to him breathing, the long apnoeic gaps. She wasn’t the first person to do this, she wasn’t even the first person to write down what it felt like. She was breathless with love for him, the warm sleeping animal, the golden eyes that opened and peered at her fondly.

When Laing writes that “she wasn’t even the first person to write down what it felt like,” she means that she has a specific literary precedent to draw on for her specific love: Jenny Diski wrote about Patterson when they were together. Yet this turns out to be reassuring, not threatening. In the bigger sense, too, love is all about repetition. You get your heart broken, like Laing, or like Kathy, and somehow you find yourself going back in. You’re not the first person to do it, and you have to hope that the world goes on long enough that you will not be the last. In August, Laing and Patterson got married all over again, with “a proper fête,” she has said, to make up for the haste of the proceedings last year. That sounds just right. Love may not be original, but this funny, fervent novel is. ♦

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