“Two thousand and seventeen was turning into a bumper year, a real doozy, everything arse about tit,” says the narrator of Crudo, Olivia Laing’s first novel. A lot of things happened in summer 2017, and Crudo is punctuated by them: the turmoil and absurdity of the Trump administration, the battle of Mosul, floods in Houston, the inferno of Grenfell, celebrity deaths, the rise of the far right. Under this deluge, numbness threatens, but Crudo’s narrator resists. “That’s the only reason to be an artist: to escape, to bear witness to this,” she says. But for the novel’s purposes, the two most significant events of the year aren’t drawn from geopolitics or current affairs, but from the domestic and the literary: a marriage, and a book.
The marriage is Laing’s own, to the poet Ian Patterson, the widower of Jenny Diski, who died in 2016 (Crudo is dedicated to “Ian, of course”). The book is After Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus’s biography of the late cut-and-paste punk writer, published last year and read by Laing (the dedication continues “and for Kathy”). “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married,” begins Crudo. This narrator sounds like Laing, but has the life of Acker, except that this Kathy is in her forties in 2017, rather than dying aged 53 in 1997. It’s as though the ghost of Acker has taken possession of Laing, or a fugue-state Laing is escaping into the persona of Acker.
The pattern for this piracy comes from Acker. Whatever material was available, she would snatch at it – pulp fiction, pornography, Charles Dickens, her own STDs – and incorporate it into her work, all written from this strange, unstable “I”. The dissolving effect can be infectious to readers: Kraus has said that, while she was writing After Kathy Acker, she experienced “this incredible frisson of feeling that often I could write ‘I’ instead of ‘she’.” And although Kraus’s book is actually a fairly conventional (and very good) piece of life writing, rather than a radical merging of author and subject, Laing has taken that frisson and turned it into Crudo.
Which is not to say that her book reads like Kathy Acker, though it does make use of some of her favourite techniques: that slippery first and third person of the narration, the collaging of found material (including Acker’s writings and snippets of news reports and tweets). But where Acker smashed everything together in the pursuit of extremity, Crudo is actually a fairly conventional (and moderately engaging) piece of autofiction. Its instincts are less the bratty destructiveness of Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School or Great Expectations (both recently reissued by Penguin), more preservationist, like a high Victorian realist trying to scratch down the texture of life before the railways.
“This was the problem with history,” says Crudo’s narrator. “It was too easy to provide the furnishings but forget the attitudes, the way you became a different person depending on what knowledge was available.” The book attempts to recover – or approximate – a raw self before these constant shocks, a self still capable of being shocked. It offers not just a catalogue of 2017’s daily trauma, but a representation of who we were just before we got habituated to the “speed of the news cycle, the hyperacceleration of the story… the reliable shots of 10am and 3pm and 7pm outrage”.
It is, of course, stylish. Laing is a very stylish writer, here as in her non-fiction. But she uses her style like a magician uses sleight-of-hand, palming away a hinted-at revelation while your attention has been directed towards the dazzling arc of her sentences. In her 2013 book about alcoholism, The Trip to Echo Springs: Why Writers Drink, for example, Laing didn’t answer her own question. The unglamorous possibility that writers drink, not because they are exceptional artists, but because they are regular drunks who happen to be writers, was lost in her pantheon of brilliant lushes.
Crudo’s misdirection is that arresting amalgam narrator – Kathy but not-Kathy, Laing but not-Laing. With your attention focused on that bit of flair, you might not notice that this novel is largely a list of 2017 headlines, set within the not-all-that-exciting story of two writers negotiating a relationship, going on a retreat in Tuscany, winning an award (the husband wins a poetry prize on 21 September 2017, the same date that Patterson won a Forward Prize for his elegy to Diski). Take out the Acker, and you have the resoundingly uninteresting story of someone reading the news on holiday. Leave in the Acker, and you could reasonably ask what she’s got to do with anything anyway.
“You take what you find, it’s all material,” says the narrator, making the author’s case for annexing these literary remains. “I mean what is art if it’s not plagiarising the world?” (I was relieved to check the index and see that this, at least, was not a plagiarism; that would have been an archness too far.) But despite this assertion of loyalty to Acker’s grab-bag method, the surprise of Crudo is how little it contains, how few exhilarating swerves it makes. Laing has chronicled a summer of too much, and made it oddly empty.
Picador, 176pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis