I who would have and would be a pirate: I cannot. I who live in my mind which is my imagination as everything—wanderer adventurer fighter Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces—I am nothing in these times.
— Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless (1988)
May 13, 2017: This is the date that Olivia Laing’s new novel Crudo opens. The heroine, Kathy, has just gotten off a plane from New York, and she is “crazy as a bedbug.” She is getting married. Kathy has written several books—including Great Expectations and Blood and Guts in High School—and she expects you to have heard of them. (They are, in fact, titles by the real-life Kathy Acker, who died in 1997, and whose writings and letters are liberally quoted in the pages of Crudo.) Fans of Acker will recognize the punk poet’s voice immediately: youthful, irreverent, manic, hilarious. Fans of Olivia Laing’s distinctive style, on the other hand, will need to pause after the first page, take a deep breath, and marvel at how ambitious this endeavor is. In so expertly channeling Acker, Laing has not only demonstrated her amazing versatility as a writer, but also offered a surprising guide for our times.
Admirers of Laing’s previous books, To the River, The Trip to Echo Spring, and The Lonely City, will have noticed her knack for hybrid genres. Her nonfiction books weave historical research, memoir, and art criticism into astonishingly fluid and illuminating texts. In nonfiction, however, there are guidelines and conventions that generally restrain an author’s wild side; this might lead readers to assume that Laing’s metered and elegant way of thinking is her only way. Crudo, however, tosses these assumptions to the wind. “I grew up wild and I want to stay wild,” Laing writes, and: “Wants go so deep there is no way of getting them out of the body.” Her brilliant ventriloquizing of Kathy Acker brings the fringey, sex-positive, queer feminist, punk icon effortlessly to life twenty years after her death, so that we may easily imagine her drinking champagne and driving in a car with her fiancé.
From this point on, the story stomps and lilts in a thousand directions at once—as in much of avant-garde literature, this is a byproduct of how the book was written. The story behind Crudo’s genesis is almost more compelling than its plot: The novel was written in real-time over seven weeks in the summer of 2017. This was the first summer of Donald Trump’s presidency, and Laing has explained in interviews that her goal was to simply record that moment in history, unedited, in all its anxiety, upheaval, confusion, and sensory overload. For instance, in the story, Kathy’s pre-wedding festivities keep getting interrupted by news alerts on her phone:
August 12, 2017: At a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a peaceful counter-protester named Heather Heyer gets killed when a car drives into the crowd.
August 27, 2017: Devastating floods in Houston surface images of an elder care facility, in which residents in wheelchairs, many of them black women, are up to their chests in dirty water.
August 9, 2017: Donald Trump tweets about expanding the nuclear arsenal and maybe bombing Guam.
These events are so fresh in memory that readers might even remember where they were on the days of these tragedies. Perhaps the news jolted us, as it jolts Laing’s Kathy, out of a moment of peace as we were cutting flowers in the garden or lounging with our soon-to-be husband. The effect of these interruptions is a kind of immediate sympathy for the character. Kathy is trying to decide how she feels about getting married, and her deliberations on the page are very sweet and honest (and notably out of keeping with Acker’s typical ways of discussing romance, which tend to highlight violence). Laing’s own life shines through her character here: The summer of 2017 also saw the announcement of the writer’s engagement. This came as exciting news to readers who loved Laing’s previous book, The Lonely City (2016), in which she describes haunting empty apartments and tiny hotel rooms, struggling with her singlehood and researching lonely dead artists. In addition to alchemizing the biographies of these troubled artists from history with remarkable sensitivity, The Lonely City is a beautiful work of memoir. So it is hard not to feel deeply happy upon learning that Laing went on to fall in love, and it is impossible not to pause, when stumbling upon these slightly incongruous passages in Crudo, and smile and think: what a gift Olivia Laing is to the world, to any of us who might be struggling to find health and comfort in these times. Only for a second, though, because then another distressing event pops up in the news.
In the novel, Kathy spends an increasing amount of time scouring alt-right blogs. Readers will remember these stories from 2017: The Dylann Roof trial is ongoing, drug addicts are injecting themselves with poison for a cheap high, and climate change disasters are displacing refugees from all over the planet. Crudo is already a slim novel, and the amount of attention it gives to these topics makes for an often uncomfortable reading experience. Several of Donald Trump’s tweets are quoted in their entirety, for instance, and it is especially jarring to encounter his language—unpleasant in any context—printed tastefully within a work of literature. Re-living each and every catastrophe of that summer is alarming, as well; reflecting on how these events have continued to develop underscores all the fear and insecurity of these last two American years. Crudo is thus an odd mix of anxiety and elation, and overall, it comes together as a well-executed experiment in postmodernism and pastiche. It accomplishes what Laing set out to do: Crudo captures our current moment in political history in a manner that is eerie, enlightening, ambient, diffuse, funny, genuine, and mildly psychotic.
“What are the myths of the beginning of America?” Acker asks in her 1986 book Don Quixote. Laing’s fictional Kathy echoes this question, and shrieks out an answer: “The desire for religious intolerance made America.” Kathy is frantic. The spirit of the punk art scene of Greenwich Village, of the 1970s and 1980s, where Acker first gained recognition, feels very much alive here. So much so, in fact, that the question is worth asking: What is it about Kathy Acker that makes her a perfect counterpart to Donald Trump? More than her spunky brand of intellectualism, her uncontained girlishness, her queerness, her involvement in protest art, pornography, the AIDS crisis, and New York City—there is something about Kathy Acker’s way of operating that translates well to 2017. It is even easy to imagine her voice on Twitter: acerbic, edgy, and fun.
Acker’s own experimental writings (pre-internet, of course) anticipate the kinds of collage techniques we now associate with digital technology and media. She, too, wrote from the points of view of well-known figures, including Toulouse Lautrec and Pier Paolo Pasolini. She had a way of freewheeling through vast spectrums of cultural references: Andy Warhol, Samuel Beckett, French critical and feminist theory, curse words, mysticism—all occasionally interspersed with crude drawings of penises. This way of writing was famously rejected by the literary establishment, and it was not until the 1980s that publishers and academics began to slowly take an interest in Acker’s manic style of pastiche. Today, gender studies departments around New York are devoting ever more scholarship to her work. Three volumes of Acker’s books and letters have been re-published since her death, given an added boost by Chris Kraus’s acclaimed biography, After Kathy Acker, which came out last year. Crudo appears inside this larger trend as Laing’s particularly inventive contribution, as cruel as it might be to subject the fictional Kathy to a Donald Trump presidency. Yet somehow, Laing’s desire to resuscitate Kathy Acker—to bring her back from the dead, to reanimate her as part of today’s resistance rhetoric—makes sense.
In Crudo, Laing moves through cultural references with all of Acker’s own agility. This fluid mimicry shows Laing’s own sensitive ear and training as a critic, and it comes across as a smart and endearing homage to Acker. More important to the year 2017, though: this playfulness, with its mixing-and-matching of disparate nods to art history and current events, emerges, as the novel advances, as a commentary on how technology and being online have come to shape our current way of engaging in discourse—how we read books, talk about books, think about books. The “Twitterization of the novel” is a notion that many serious students of literature have been slow to give credence to, but the premise of Crudo seems to be, quite simply: Isn’t this fun to consider? Even the title, Crudo (which means “raw”), and the cover image (in which decadent, cracked pink seafood husks take up the entire frame), seem to denote a brave vulnerability, a spirit along the lines of: “I don’t know, but let’s see!” Even if Crudo does not quite measure up to the achievements of Laing’s nonfiction books, it will likely earn its spot in history as a thought experiment that was not just weird and frustrating, but also politically savvy, clever, and worthwhile.
Some of the most valuable passages in the book—particularly to readers like me, who might feel inclined to identify with both Laing and Acker on a personal level—have to do with Kathy’s upcoming wedding. Especially as Crudo’s plot advances, and the wedding storyline becomes increasingly significant, Laing manages to convey the daffiness—as well as the giddiness—of the strange bridal universe with uncommon brilliance. It is not that Laing abandons Acker’s punk feminism, but rather, that she carries the exploration of questions raised by Acker, about being a woman in the world, into gentler territory. In the scenes in which Kathy relates to her beloved, sometimes with shyness and confusion, but always with sincerity, the prose relaxes and unfolds into something suppler and lusher, lovelier, more reminiscent of Laing’s typical style as a memoirist. These passages are almost like an instruction manual in how to live a happy life, how to be in love, how to learn to be in love, even on the edges of mass chaos:
She had no idea what to do with love, she experienced it as invasion, as the prelude to loss and pain…
She’d never loved anyone before, not really. She’d never known how to do it, how to unfold herself, how to put herself on one side, how to give. His dear old face, his dear new face, all hers. He kissed her very hard three times and then he got into the lift and she looked and looked until the door removed him.
When we remember that Laing jotted this novel off as a simple summer side project amid work on her next nonfiction book (Everybody, about “prisons, protest, violence and bodies”), her virtuosity and precision becomes all the more apparent. In real life, Kathy Acker died of breast cancer at the age of fifty, after receiving a double mastectomy, nearly alone in a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. So the kindness Laing bestows on her in Crudo, in writing her a happy ending, seems to be a message of sorts. It might be inspired by Laing’s own wedding joy, for one thing, but also her fondness for Acker. It may also be a reflection of the overall impulse in the arts, especially during times of political uncertainty, to send comfort, positivity, and beauty into the world. In many ways, Crudo represents a great risk: It deviates from genres Laing is already known and respected for, and it breaks many standard novelistic conventions. Readers who trust Laing enough to go along on this journey, however, will find themselves amply rewarded.
Rachel Veroff is a writer from New Mexico now living in New York. Her work has appeared in Guernica, The Huffington Post, and Vol 1. Brooklyn. She is working on a novel.
Banner image: Photograph, “Cold,” by Pedro Figueiredo.