Sunday 22 July 2018


Crudo by Olivia Laing    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Olivia Laing wants to be Kathy Acker but she knows that she is not Kathy Acker even though wanting to be Kathy Acker does make you Kathy Acker to some extent. As ‘Kathy’, the protagonist in Laing’s ‘uncooked’ novelCrudo ('crudo' meaning 'raw' or 'uncooked' in Italian), relinquishes, just as did Laing, her solitary life in her fortieth year to marry a man rather older than her and assume a life of quotidian comfort in a world speeding towards climactic, humanitarian and political crises, the difficulties she has in sustaining confident positivity about a shared life isolates and invigorates (and assimilates) the nihilistic punk provocateur ‘Kathy Acker’ within her, the part of her most resistant to, or most anxious about, the changes in her life that are also of course changes in herself. Will she be able to live happily with this man? What will she need to relinquish? Can she face what she will learn about herself? “You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone, but you don’t.” Kathy is both Laing and Acker, Acker as a sort of archetype for Laing, Laing imagining what it might be like to be Acker if Acker were in a situation like Laing’s (the unlikelihood of which makes this a good interrogatory tool). “Writing, she 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.” It is the disparity between the two poles in herself that makes the narrator so interesting and so believable. If she does not speak with your voice she speaks with the voice of someone you know. The text is peppered with phrases ‘borrowed’ from texts by Acker (these are indexed at the end), and the disjunction between this punk posturing and accounts of buying socks and fossicking for antiques provides much of the humour and spaciousness of the novel: “What’s the novel about if not getting fucked. / That afternoon, she and her husband decided to go for a walk.” The novel is a roman-à-clef related in ‘real time’ over a period of a few weeks straddling Laing’s marriage in 2017, presented as seemingly spontaneous responses to real events on both a political and a personal level. “She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and the ready-made. There was no need to invent, you could make anything from out of the overflowing midden of the already-done. It was economic but also stylish to help yourself to the grab bag of the actual.” The personal is often presented with deadpan irony; the political as an overarching threat: “We are walking backwards into disaster, braying all the way.” Is love possible or relevant in a disintegrating world? “It was happening to someone, it being unspeakable violence, how could she be happy: the real question of existence.” What degree of detachment or attachment is appropriate with regards not only to our collective issues but to our (often microscopic) personal ones as well? “It was all the same thing, it was the world talking. You couldn’t hate it, or you did but that was just more of the same, another opinionated little voice in an indecently augmented chorus.” Form is the only meaning. As the novel progresses the focus narrows, the temporal grain becomes finer, the observations more microscopic, we are told the time as well as the day, the novel, written in the past tense, pushes harder up against the present. “Kathy was writing everything down in her notebook, and had become abruptly anxious that she might exhaust the past and find herself out at the front, alone on the crest of time.” Sometimes Kathy’s ‘she’ almost becomes an ‘I’ and needs to be pushed back into ‘she’. The novel resolves, rather sweetly, perhaps more sweetly than Laing had originally intended, with Kathy’s unreserved declaration to herself of her love for the man who has become her husband, as she is about to board an aeroplane for a flight to America, as Kathy is about to resolve into Laing, as the past is about to resolve into the present: “She was in it now, she was boarding, there was nowhere to hide.”

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