The rawness of reality: Olivia Laing on Crudo
Olivia Laing introduces her first novel, Crudo, a blend of punk prose and the all-too-real events of seven turbulent summer weeks in 2017
Trump, Brexit, Grenfell and the constant and seemingly imminent threat to nuclear war all sit at the forefront of Crudo, Olivia Laing's debut novel and summer 2017 time capsule. As Kathy, the protagonist of Crudo, reflects, "2017, fire and fascism, she'd never forget it. "Though known as one of Britain's most exciting non-fiction writers - most famous for The Lonely City - Laing's fiction debut is as experimentally deviant and thrilling as those to come before. A year on from when she began writing this fictional foray, we speak to Laing about being creative in today's political climate, the role Kathy Acker plays in the novel and the art of giving a shit.
“I wasn’t actually planning on publishing Crudo,” Laing tells The Skinny over a crackling phone line. “I was really writing it for myself.” The book materialised when Laing was working on her next non-fiction book last summer. “I was trying to write a non-fiction book about bodies, which I’m still trying to write, and finding it incredibly difficult. Post-Trump and Brexit, it felt like the world kept changing every four seconds.” At the same time, Laing was reading Chris Kraus’ biography of the American punk writer Kathy Acker. “There was a really fascinating thing in it: as a young writer, Kathy would go into libraries and she’d pick up biographies and copy them out but she’d change them into the first person. Suddenly it would become a different, more exciting book. I read that and thought maybe I’ll start writing down everything that’s happening but I’ll do it from the perspective of Kathy Acker, just to see what happens. And suddenly it was like I’d found a form where I could record that summer. I found this way where I could get it all down and handle the turbulence – it’s sunny, it’s tragic, it’s frustrating, it’s horrifying. It let me do that in a way I couldn’t with non-fiction.”
Written in ‘real time’, Laing started and finished the novel over the seven weeks in which its events take place. “My rules were that I had to write at least once every day and I couldn’t go back to edit anything.” Her book is named after the Italian word for ‘raw’ because it is just that – while it has had some polishing, it’s effectively what she wrote day in and day out.
As much as it is a work of fiction, it’s also a reflection on current events as they happened. The novel also picks up the beginning tremors of political fallouts we’re dealing with a year on. “There’s a bit in it where I talk about something in Spain which may or may not be anything,” she reflects. “Later on that turned into a major constitutional crisis but at the time it looked like it was just a little tremor. I wanted to record the big things as well as the small and I wanted to capture it as it was shifting and changing.”
For a time as turbulent as summer 2017, Kathy Acker is the perfect guide. Any time Crudo’s Kathy writes something down, she’s writing something from a real Kathy Acker book. Laing discovered almost perfect parallels between what was happening today and what Acker was writing about in the late 20th century. “Her writing is incredibly relevant and prescient. She saw the rise of the far right, she saw the terrorism and violence we’re facing now, she saw the battle for abortion. We’ve re-inhabited a universe that’s very similar to hers. Her writing really speaks to right now in a way that ten years ago I don’t think it did.”
In the book, Kathy writes that her novels are “populated with the pre-packaged and readymade”, and the novel itself could be described similarly. The news, the internet, and Acker’s own writing turn Crudo into a collage of voices. “I’m lifting all sorts of stuff from the news and all sorts of stuff from Twitter,” explains Laing. “I was trying to create a magpie novel. It was so fun to pick up a massive stack of Kathy Acker novels and open them, sometimes completely at random, and so often the words would speak back. I would watch Grenfell footage on TV and then I would find a Kathy Acker quote that spoke to that. That project of collage was really exciting to me. It’s like drawing the past back out and bringing it into the present.” Acker’s novels are a ripe field for magpie-ing. An infamous plagiariser, Acker gleefully stole voices from everywhere, particularly other writers from the literary canon – in Great Expectations (1982), she rewrote parts of Dickens’ classic. As a magpie herself, Acker was the perfect pair of eyes for Laing to write about today’s world. “She’s someone who’s so fearless and aggressive as an artist – she steals things, she takes what she wants, she says what she wants, so it was really fun for me to play around with what this fantasy version of a 21st century Kathy Acker might do or think.”
In Crudo there are two narratives running parallel to one another: newly married Kathy is grappling with commitment as she also grapples with the ever-shifting world around her personal life. As the news cycle keeps spinning, she describes feeling like a “beached somnolent whale”, incapable of thought and action, a feeling familiar to anyone attempting to keep up to date with current events. “It felt hellish,” Laing says. “That endlessness of the news cycle where you’re constantly getting new news but you never get the chance to make sense of yesterday’s news and the day before’s news. It just keeps coming like a wave breaking over you.” For her, art and writing are the antidotes for breaking that wave. “Art is incredibly powerful as a force for change. It’s a space to reflect, a space to think about different possibilities and different ways of organising the world and our emotional lives.”
“It’s why the novel’s called Crudo,” Laing continues. “It’s all about rawness and that’s why there’s a crab on the cover. This idea that everyone is so armoured against each other and the ways we can soften up – that’s Kathy’s thing throughout the book. How do I learn to soften? How do I learn to take in other people? There’s a political argument in being less selfish. You have an obligation to kindness or to generosity. Kathy is an incredibly selfish character who has to learn how to be less selfish, and that feels like a personal thing, but at the same time that’s what’s happening in the world. All these forces of selfishness and the horrific consequences that they have, for example, when somebody like Trump gets into power – it’s the same dynamic but writ large.”
Art is rising up to this task of radical empathy. In music, artists like Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are writing music in and for the here and now, and in literature, there’s a move towards the same. “There was this point, maybe a decade ago, when everything was so ironic and whimsical and distanced from reality,” recalls Laing. “Now there’s a huge amount of writers who are both trying to engage with the times that we’re in but also doing things that experiment with form, like Ali Smith and Deborah Levy. Exciting writers who are totally not complacent about what art is, and who are trying to reinvent art for this moment. That feels to me like an incredible time to live in. I mean, I’d rather not have Trump and Brexit, but art rising up as this force to be reckoned with, as something that provides not just consolation but the possibility of change – now that feels really exciting.”