‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing book review: Is this a novel I see before me?

Say you wanted to write your own reactions to, and feelings about, what’s happened this week, the news as it’s reported on the internet alongside things that have happened in your personal life. 

You can blog or tweet, write articles for print and online newspapers and journals, but any stream of your consciousness is always already out of date, and overtaken by the next thing happening. 

Your words, picked up and swirled around like confetti in an autumn wind, can’t keep up with events, a fact of the digital age that is ludicrous and exhausting. 

The addictive gobbling of e-news and bulimic spewing of half-digested information as a tweeted opinion, is exhausting just to watch. It certainly makes Olivia Laing’s character Kathy very tired. In the short “novel” Crudo, Kathy obsessively checks Twitter to make sure she’s having a better time on holidays than her friends as well as to see if Trump’s bickering with Kim Jong Un has escalated into nuclear war at any given moment. It’s August 2017 at the start of the story, and she’s lying by a pool in a fancy Italian hotel anticipating her marriage back in London in a few weeks’ time, and then a trip to New York to follow. And she’s thinking about how “she was completely alone, but utterly surrounded”, the crazy ambivalent state of internet individuality.  She’s also zooming out for a wide-angle view of the world: “This is how it is then, walking backwards into disaster, braying all the way.”

Laing herself was lying by that Italian pool on that day in August 2017 and boarded a plane seven weeks later. The wedding she describes matches her own, to the poet Ian Patterson, that month. She has told interviewers that it was reading novelist Chris Kraus’s “biography” of the experimental cult writer Kathy Acker that set her to write this little book, not about Acker (who died in 1997) but as though she were Acker… sort of. An Acker who occasionally quotes herself but who is living in London in 2017 and would rather like to buy an adorably chic little flat near the Thames. An Acker who is a haunting, a projection, a memory – an idea.

Crudo is certainly slick and very readable, and it might even be very relevant. Or it might be an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole to a place of cartoon violence and joyful anarchy.

This novel has many reflecting surfaces: it’s a hall of distorting mirrors, where, as Laing herself says, “she [that is, Kathy/Olivia/the narrator] can be anyone. On the page the I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly. Kathy takes on increasingly preposterous guises, slips the knot of her own contemptible identity.”

That quote is pretty much nonsense, of course, a grandiloquent phrasing of something that sounds like it might be interesting but which is hollow at the core. That you keep reading, and might even feel that so many hollows can make a whole, is the puzzling attraction of Crudo. It is certainly slick and very readable, and it might even be very relevant. Or it might be an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole to a place of cartoon violence and joyful anarchy.

 Writing that challenges the novelistic genre’s accepted conventions about distinguishing between what’s made up and what’s real is not new – Laurence Sterne was pretty good at mucking around with audacious contempt for authorial boundaries, so it’s been going on for 250 years. There are all kinds of more recent examples, from the sublime WG Sebald to the verbose Knausgaard, that upend categorisation and dissolve limits. 

crudo xxcover

Crudo, on the page, doesn’t have the beauty of Sebald’s sentences – indeed, as that quote above might indicate, it can be rather ugly. Not in the way Kathy Acker tried to be ugly, by describing abject behaviours (Kathy/Olivia has a dream of turds in a bath, which is a shorthand way of reminding us about Acker’s shock-tactic writing), but more in a jumbled, jangly way, that mimics the mind of the narrator, protagonist and presumably the author. 

“Let nothing happen, just for a bit,” this trinity says, “let the minutes toll in the stunning air, let us lie on our beds like astronauts, hurtling through space & time. Kathy closed her eyes. For once, Kathy had let go of anxiety.”

This describes a feeling that might evoke empathy – who hasn’t yearned to let go of anxiety and to turn off the buzzing in our heads, both self-inflicted as we check in to the twitter feed and also an inescapable part of being human, with a human capacity to have a mind receptive to so much sensory information? Read fast (and on a screen, perhaps), this might even sound profound, rather than trite.

I’ve no idea really, what this book is on about, and whether it matters.

That’s why Crudo is interesting: it reflects its own triteness as profundity, which is a reflection of our communication landscape, which is a reflection of what’s happening with our minds, both individually and collectively. We flicker and flame and it feels exciting and “stunning”, in both senses of that word, as Laing uses it in that quote from Crudo. The loss of self in so many mirrors has that dizzying attraction of newness and a new kind of unfettered power – maybe. It may also be annihilation. 

I’ve no idea really, what this book is on about, and whether it matters: the cover of one edition has a cooked crab – the meal described in a dinner party scene – with a fly on it. That image is a crude metaphor suggesting how the delicacies of life are so easily tainted, perhaps. It also suggests the publisher struggled to know how to signal what the book is about too. 

Here’s the moment in Crudo where that crab is described: “She put the claws on the table and hit them hard. It was brilliant, she would have been happy to smash many more things. 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.”

Until we can come up with something better, the categorisation of this clever and entertaining writing has to be “novel” – “experimental novel” if you must.

Like the entire little book, this can be read as a sharp and strong metaphor for the emotional and physical state of a 21st century individual and society. Or it’s just what it is, a description of eating a crab. 

In those few publications that still devote space to literature, the reception of Crudo has been enthusiastic bordering on ecstatic. Laing, who was previously a books editor with the Observer and writes for both The Guardian and the New York Times, already had something of a cult following for genre-bending books such as To the River and The Lonely City, but this one is definitely being called a novel. 

It’s nonsensical, really, to call this a novel but between the classifications “fiction” and “non-fiction” there’s all that quicksand into which truth can fall and drown. So, for now, until we can come up with something better, the categorisation of this clever and entertaining writing has to be “novel” – “experimental novel” if you must, but that is usually a term we apply to books that are tough to read. 

The other question about Crudo is whether, like tweets and blogs, it is only relevant for the moment in which it’s written and for the length of the reaction time that follows. In which case, I guess it could be categorised as an “ephemeral novel”. There.

Crudo by Olivia Laing (pictured above by Suki Dhanda) is published by PanMacmillan

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