Pinning down the raw summer of 2017

The novel’s title translates to “raw” in Italian and Crudo is Laing’s attempt to record in “real time” what felt like the end of the world. A season when social media was an ugly stream of polemic; when news alerts of tragedies and absurdities buzzed continuously on mobiles; when everything seemed to just keep shifting.

“You must remember that summer too. How extraordinary it felt to go on Twitter and see more and more horrifying things that were happening,” Laing says on the phone from Cambridge. “I was paranoid and terrified and so was everyone I know.”

Laing is acclaimed for her non-fiction books. They are heavily researched and lyrically written with a style that genre hops across memoir, literary and artistic scholarship, history and cultural criticism. To The River (2011) follows the Sussex river, the Ouse, where Virginia Woolf drowned, and is a discursive meditation on Woolf, landscape and Laing’s own past. The Trip To Echo Spring (2013) focuses on alcoholism and literature through the lives of six writers. Laing’s previous, The Lonely City (2016), explores what it means to be alone and followed her move to New York in her mid-30s.

They are the kind of books that take years to percolate – thoughtful, nuanced, complex. The kind of books that seem in stark opposition to the contemporary climate of instant headlines and “fake news”. It was another of these books – on bodies, gender and violence – that Laing was struggling to write when she went on holiday to Italy in the summer of 2017. But reading Chris Kraus’ biography of post-punk artist and experimental novelist Kathy Acker (Laing had been commissioned to write a review of After Kathy Acker for The Guardian), she unexpectedly found the momentum she had lacked.

Crudo by Olivia Laing.

Crudo by Olivia Laing.

“Reading this thing about Kathy Acker just sort of ignited something for me and I thought, what would happen if I start writing about everything that is going on but I write it from the perspective of Kathy Acker? If I just steal the Kathy Acker perspective and just start putting down everything that is happening in the world, almost like I am plagiarising the news.”

Acker herself, who died when she was 53 in 1997, extensively borrowed from other writers, including Dickens, Keats and Cervantes, reinventing and transforming their words in her work.

The game Laing decided to play had two rules: she had to write every single day and she could not edit anything she wrote. Trying to catch up with the news cycle, Laing says, gave her the most thrilling writing experience she has had.

“I’m the sort of writer who writes one sentence a day and then rewrites it for 100 days and then discards it. That’s what my writing life is like. It’s horrible. I hate it. I find writing completely miserable.

“With this book it wasn’t an exercise in good writing or clarity, it was an exercise in recording, so I was liberated from my own super ego. I was liberated from that necessity to sort of perform good writing.”

This sense of electric movement marks Crudo, whose deliberately disjointed narrative is propelled forward by a sense of things caving and falling apart, of a centre not holding.

“The world just kept tipping, the news stories kept coming. So things like watching Charlottesville, I was writing it down as it happened.

“I knew that in two years’ time or in 10 years’ time there would be a historical record of that summer and it wouldn’t feel like what it actually felt like to inhabit the summer, so what I wanted to do was record all of it as it was emerging.”

Or as she writes in Crudo: “Kathy hated it, living at the end of the world, but then she couldn’t help but find it interesting, watching people herself included compulsively foul their nest.”

The narrator is a fusion of Acker and Laing, and their autobiographies blur seamlessly into one another. Their subjectivities continuously slip as the novel’s opening line establishes: “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married.” The result is a mesmerising piece of autofiction in the style of recent practitioners Rachel Cusk​ and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

The plot itself is relatively bare bones. Kathy has just turned 40 and is about to get married but she is troubled by what that kind of stability means and how it might effect her sense of self. When she wrote the novel Laing too had recently turned 40 and was struggling with the demands of commitment and intimacy ahead of her marriage to poet Ian Patterson, who was previously married to writer Jenny Diski who died of lung cancer in 2016.

The intersection between the mundanities of everyday life and globally significant events lies at the core of the novel.

“So it was an insane summer for everyone in the world and also for me personally and I really wanted to get some of that down,” Laing says. “I wanted to record as much as I could of what the intersection felt like and how queasy the intersection is of our small little lives and then these events of such magnitude and of such fearful consequences.”

Part of the joy of creating Crudo came from the fact that Laing did not initially intend to publish it. She had signed book deals before she started writing her other books; here she was released from a sense of a looming audience. But finishing the novel at Heathrow airport – where the book’s last scene is also set – Laing immediately sent it to her publishers. By the time she got off the plane, they had made the decision to publish.

Laing didn’t make things easy. She was adamant that Crudo should be released within a year and no major editing was allowed.

“I really wanted to preserve the rawness. It is called Crudo for a reason. It was supposed to be a very raw presentation of somebody’s psyche in this intense condition,” Laing says. “This was what it felt like and this was the experiment I was carrying out so it felt sort of honest to let it go through like that.”

Laing has now returned to writing her original non-fiction book, which she tentatively attempts to articulate as “something that is about the internal experience of a lived body’s life”.

It is a subject that has been of long interest and relevance to Laing. Her mother was gay and Laing came out as gender queer in The Lonely City writing, “I’d never been comfortable with the demands of feminity, had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy, that I inhabited a gender position somewhere between the binaries of male and female, some impossible other, some impossible both.”

Laing says she has always felt divided from the straight world and on reflection wishes she had been more emphatic in The Lonely City about identifying as queer.

“It was a scary thing to write down in the book and it was a scary thing to talk about. Now I would be more confident about talking about it at a bit more length.”

Writing the book, Laing says, has become much less painful since she returned to it after finishing Crudo.

“It feels like I was just trying to write it at the wrong time. I needed much more time to digest what was happening and to really think it through.

“There’s such a rush for hot takes at the moment. It seems to me spending three years mulling over something is a worthwhile thing to do.”

Which is not to say readers have seen the end of Laing’s fiction, or Kathy. When she initially started writing Crudo, Laing conceived of it as a part of a quartet capturing a woman’s life at the ages of 40, 50, 60 and 70, with the final instalment to be called Burnt.

Crudo is published by Picador at $29.99.

Melanie Kembrey the Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.

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