The gifted Olivia Laing channels Kathy Acker, with a few rough spots, in ‘Crudo’
The plot of the slim novel “Crudo” concerns an “I” who, like author Olivia Laing, has recently become engaged to a much-older poet and is planning their wedding celebration during the chaotic world of 2017. But the narrator that speaks is Kathy (“Kathy, by which I mean I”), a channeled version of postmodern novelist Kathy Acker, who died of breast cancer two decades ago.
It is the first novel from the gifted British writer Laing, known for her nonfiction (“The Trip to Echo Spring,” “The Lonely City”). The most delicious moments in “Crudo” are not necessarily the direct quotes from Acker, which are attributed in the endnotes, but those that reflect a wry wickedness back on them both: “She’d once physically pushed another writer off the stage and she had a lot of subtler moves, too.”
Informing the narrative is the fact that the 40-year-old Laing recently married 69-year-old academic and poet Ian Patterson, the widower of well-known British writer Jenny Diski. The novel’s privileged, untraditionally betrothed couple (the man has dinner with another man that “she, Kathy” is sleeping with) moves through the weeks and months leading up to their union: They take a posh Italian holiday, attend a poetry prize ceremony.
The narrator contrasts that privilege with the jarring, unhappy world stage, where American leadership is in shambles, climate change threatens the globe, and senseless violence erupts so often hardly anyone pays attention.
Laing wrote “Crudo” in seven weeks, “in real time” as she has stated in numerous interviews. Inspired by Chris Kraus’ (problematic) biography “After Kathy Acker,” Laing found that writing through Acker’s lens helped her to make sense of 2017’s strange, chaotic events: Brexit, violence in Mosul, Donald Trump’s presidency. “It’s about what it’s actually like to wake up every morning, pull Twitter open and see fascists walking through an American city,” she told British Vogue.
Things aren’t that different, the real Kathy Acker might tell us, than they were when I was alive. That’s how Laing has chosen to tell us that she understands this too.
When Acker was alive, she was a radical: in her physical presence, cultural persona and the form of her writing, which she pushed to extremes. 1988’s “Empire of the Senseless” wrapped sex-positive feminist theory inside a stream-of-consciousness dystopian narrative littered equally with expletives and clinical terms for genitalia and sex acts. Her work genuinely shocked readers and critics.
Laing’s novel does not shock. Laing/Acker bemoans her forays into conventionality and also cherishes them. She might wear an orange coat and lime-green shoes to get married, but she might also wear an Isabel Marant dress (“too short but what do you expect”).
While critics have noted the current events in the novel, it spends as much time grappling with intimacy. Laing/Acker knows she’s happy, knows she wants to marry this “nice” man; she just isn’t sure how to cope with having someone constantly in her sights, or to be constantly in his. If the world is falling apart, are you supposed to spend your time with the one you love best, or keep paying attention and try to change things?
Laing has said she would like to write three sequels to “Crudo” — once per decade. Will they all feature Laing/Acker, or will Laing play with other voices? Either way will be interesting, because instead of knocking a writer off the stage, Olivia Laing has employed a subtler move and used Kathy Acker’s powerful voice to amplify her own.
Patrick is a writer and critic whose work appears in the Washington Post and on NPR Books.
W.W. Norton: 160 pp., $21
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