Read 03/05/2022-08/05/2022

Rating 4 stars

Crudo is Olivia Laing’s first novel. I read her excellent exploration of how loneliness informs art, The Lonely City, a handful of years ago and kept meaning to read more by her.

In The Lonely City, I liked the way Laing included memoir in what is, essentially, a biography of eight artists. Her first novel is a memoir of sorts, a fictional one this time. Inspired by Chris Kraus’s biography of Kathy Acker, as well as by Acker’s own approach to literature, Laing has imagined an alternative Kathy who is also partly Laing, too.

I haven’t read anything by Acker. I didn’t even recognise her name, but when I read the Guardian review of Kraus’s book and saw the photographs, I remembered her from my teenage years, when I read the NME and The Face. Acker would appear in The Face as a post-punk icon, but I wasn’t post-punk, and the bands I loved sent me on a different reading journey to the Southern Gothic of Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and William Faulkner.

Laing’s novel uses the character Kathy as a vehicle to examine the shifts in society during the administration of the 45th President of the USA and in the aftermath of the EU Referendum results in the UK. She has written a novel about the times we are living in, but it’s also a novel about love and an admission that women struggle with commitment as well as men.

Kathy is getting married. She’s also been seeing someone on the side, but he dumps her the day after he has dinner with her future husband. Two weeks before the wedding, Kathy and her husband/not husband holiday in Tuscany, at a hotel that caters to the extremely rich.

One of the things I loved about this novel was the eavesdropping, taking snippets of other people’s conversations and using them as background for Kathy’s story. Those brief moments that open up and reveal something of the unknown person are deliciously tantalising. Kathy feeds on these moments for her writing, and they also shed light on who she is, both in the self-reflection they occasionally trigger and in her judgement of the people she finds herself among.

Kathy is at some sort of crisis point, struggling to accept that her forties have arrived. This personal crisis is amplified by the global crisis happening around her, with the open rise of the far right, unmasked in positions of power, such as the White House. At one point, in reaction to the news of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, Kathy wishes for all out war. She likes the world that existed before, she wants the planet to continue, but war seems the only thing that could break the tension. Almost five years on from Charlottesville, four years from the publication of Laing’s novel, there is a war in Europe that seems set to only increase that sense of a stable way of life crumbling.

Elsewhere, there are observations on the mechanisms employed in the drift to the right: the speed of change, matched by the speed of its reporting; the manufacture of outrage at each more egregious step; the hiding of parts of the truth, requiring a never-ending hunt to gain the full picture. The tools intended to make people so numb that they feel helpless to stop things, that they accept the inevitability of it all. It’s what the Nazis did. It’s what the fascists are doing now, however you want to name them. Why aren’t we rising up? Because we’re comfortably numb, functioning but anaesthetised.

These reflections on the state of the world punctuate the depiction of the state of Kathy’s life. About to commit, in theory, to one person, she considers all of the men she has been in relationships with, concluding that, far from being “cursed with evasive non-commital distant men” as she had told herself for years, she had in fact chosen such men as a “bulwark between her and any actual emotional demands”. This is a portrait of a woman who is not comfortable with the traditional role women are expected to occupy in heterosexual relationships. She is no help-meet.

She felt blank. She felt blank and mildly hysterical, she was itching to do something but it wasn’t clear what. She wanted to get in the car and drive to somewhere entertaining and ideally hot, she wasn’t prepared to bed down just yet.

Packing up her house that she has clung to for the first year of living with her husband/not husband, she realises that it’s not just the expensive trick pad that her friend Joseph has named it, not just a place to sleep with her someone on the side, but also a place where she can sleep alone. As someone who lived alone for more than a decade before moving in with my now husband, I could relate to that sense of not wanting to let go of having a space entirely your own. Kathy considers buying a studio flat in London. Kathy’s husband/not husband lives in rural Cambridgeshire. There’s no allusion made, but I was reminded of the way Virginia Woolf yearned for the city when she and Leonard moved to East Sussex.

Four days away from the wedding, Kathy panics because she can’t remember how to be alone. She visits an artist’s studio and meets a friend in a pub, where they discuss how not to be buried by marriage and the way it enshrines gender norms, even when you don’t comply with those norms. Two days from the wedding, she is a feral animal trapped in the car with her husband/not husband, screaming at him because she has no idea what to do with love.

Seven and a half hours from the wedding, the knowledge of cohabitation versus living alone brings a revelation.

You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone, but you don’t, you believe you are a calm untroubled or at worst melancholic person, you do not realise how irritable you are, how any little thing, the wrong kind of touch or tone, a lack of speed in answering a question, a particular cast of expression will send you into apoplexy because you are unchill, because you have not learnt how to soften your borders, how to make room.

It’s funny because it’s true. If I think about my mum, who lived at home until she married at 19, and then lived with my difficult dad for fifty difficult years as a wife and mother, she had no other option but to soften her borders and make room. But she was frustrated by it and always dreamt of living alone, which made the dementia diagnosis the year after my dad died seem even more cruel. If I think about myself, resolutely single and living independently, bar a house share in the late ’90s, until my late 30s, I didn’t have to soften my borders. I’d say that I did know myself but I was oblivious to how others saw me in close proximity. There’s no easy path to cohabitation, it seems. But we get there eventually, as does Kathy, who, in the weeks following the wedding, as she repeatedly almost bolts, realises that love is a rich emotion that captures passion, mundanity and rage, and doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of self.

At the end of the book is a list of quotes that Laing has magpied from other writers and then squirrelled into her narrative. It’s a clever way to infuse a book with a sense of authenticity.

I enjoyed reading it very much, but I didn’t quite love it. There is something hard about Kathy for most of the book. She’s funny and an interesting narrator, but I found it hard to care about her.

Laing’s writing style made me think of Joanna Hogg’s style as a filmmaker. There is a running on of scenes, a distractedness that skirts around the edges of big topics, and a focus on the frustrations and miscommunications of relationships. Hogg, though, infuses her films with a warmth that never quite happens in Crudo.

4 thoughts on “Crudo

    1. I know what you mean! This paperback cover shouts beach read, which the novel is and isn’t. The original hardback cover of smashed up crustaceans is more true to a key scene in the novel and Laing chose it because of its Renaissance memento mori aspect, which ties in with themes in the book, but I don’t think it works as a cover design. It’s too cluttered to work it out on a first glance.

      The other two I’ve seen are easier to scan visually but a bit of a stretch in terms of getting across what the novel is about. I might have been curious about the dismembered fly, but if I’d seen the floral still life on a book stand, and didn’t already know Laing as a writer, I’d have passed the book by.

      I wonder if you’ll read it. I’ve read mixed reader reviews. I’m full of admiration for the writing and the concept, but clever writing isn’t always enough to make a story sing.

      Liked by 1 person

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