On Olivia Laing's Crudo: Who is Kathy Acker?
Who is Kathy Acker?
Who is Kathy Acker? As I slide down the pew in St Vincent’s chapel and sit down, this question seems to me particularly tricky. It’s a sunny day in Edinburgh, one of many in a probably unprecedented long spell of warm sunny days, and the light gets in through the stained glass windows. An established author is about to sit in front of us and present her first novel. After having published carefully researched and masterfully written books on drinking, writing, and loneliness, Olivia Laing put out Crudo last week. The obvious question that has been asked before and I know will be asked again in a few minutes: why fiction, why now? A fictional story set in a very non-fictional moment in time, Crudo is in essence an attempt to capture, and make sense of, the experience of living through the summer of 2017, and going through that experience one moment at a time.
The event starts with Laing reading a passage from the beginning of the novel, where the third person protagonist, Kathy, is just days away from her wedding. She is thinking about her circumstances, the person she is at 40, Ed Miliband’s Labour manifesto, and the NHS. I have read this passage just yesterday, and in fact I was reading Crudo up until the moment I left the house to come to the event. When Laing stops reading, I know what follows, and I know that this train of Kathy’s thoughts is relentless. Summer 2017, Grenfell, Brexit, Hurricane Harvey, Trump’s tweets, Steve Bannon, James Comey, Russia collusion, Kim Jong-un, nuclear tests. Summer 2017, Kathy is getting married, Kathy who finds it hard to give up some of her isolation, who can’t settle in one house or city or country for a long time, who is constantly getting mad and wishes she hadn’t.
Who is Kathy? The main character of Crudo is a fascinating amalgamation of Olivia Laing and Kathy Acker. Laing was in fact on vacation in Italy last summer, and was to be married, and wrote the book during that time, incorporating world news into her own preoccupations. But seriously, who is Kathy Acker? Radical feminist, punk poet, and experimental writer, Acker was as famous/notorious in the 70s and 80s for her boundary-pushing writing as for her public persona. Kathy Acker died of cancer in 1997 aged 50, so who is Kathy Acker in a novel set twenty years after her death? As Laing tells us, Acker was a thief and a plagiarist who would pull entire sections out of classic works of literature and make simple changes, like switching their narrative to the first person, to create something new. So the idea behind the main character of Crudo is a metafictional one.
Crudo incorporates many direct quotations from Acker, but the way the book is written, it’s hard and often impossible to see where Laing’s words end and Acker’s start. There are no quotation marks, not when quoting Acker and not when quoting Donald Trump’s tweets, obvious commas are missing, and most paragraphs build up a certain momentum through this structure, reminiscent of the speed of the news cycle of the last few years. Of course, capturing the feeling of being in the eye of this news storm is the very purpose of this book, so the question is, how was that accomplished? Laing tells us she imposed rules on her writing. Her previous books required meticulous research and a precision of language that could only be achieved by rewriting each sentence dozens of times. So for Crudo, she did the opposite. “One of the rules was that I was not allowed to edit, I was not allowed to read back,” she tells us. The immediacy of each moment stays in the writing, and virtually no structural edits were done between writing and publication. On her wedding day, the news broke that Steve Bannon was fired from his position of Trump’s Chief of Staff, and Laing took time out of her day to sit down and write about that. It was August 2017 and the news of Steve Bannon being fired was a shock. Now it’s July 2018. Who is Steve Bannon?
So why Kathy Acker? Laing decided on using the fiction genre because the aim was not to document but to capture. That’s why this is not a memoir of that period in time, and why it’s not in the first person. Appropriating Laing’s life in a narrative where Kathy Acker is making sense of the chaos and insecurity the world felt to be plunged in last year works because Acker presents the perfect way of capturing it. A lifelong fan of hers, Laing says that Acker is “very much a writer of the 80s. But the world we’ve found ourselves in in the last couple of years is very much Acker’s world. Her themes are terrorism, her themes are abortion, her themes are the rise of the far right, and that is absolutely the architecture of our moment.” It’s important for Laing to point out the shifting nature of this architecture of the moment; Crudo captures those weeks in 2017 with the knowledge that future hindsight will alter them. This project of preserving the feeling of experiencing a moment before more information has eroded it or altered is addressed by Kathy in Crudo, when she is trying to remember the AIDS epidemic in 1987 New York.
Kathy Acker is the original radical figure that opposed the forces that have been resurfacing in recent years, using both her art and her body. Kathy Acker is the embodiment of the changes building like tidal waves against the malevolent chaos. Kathy Acker gives us perspective in Crudo. One last question. Laing is writing about the immediate experience of living through a particular moment, knowing that something drastic is coming up, knowing that at this moment no one knows how this will pan out but we are here right now. With the news cycle never slowing down, with everything seemingly only getting worse, how do you know when Crudo is done?
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.