“KATHY, BY WHICH I mean I, was getting married,” Olivia Laing writes. “Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York.”
Known for her nonfiction, Olivia Laing has explored whether loneliness was inherent in creativity, the connection between writers and alcoholism, and walked the length of the River Ouse in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself in 1941. Crudo is her first work of fiction, written over seven weeks “in real time,” keeping pace with the fast-changing nature of the modern news cycle as events unfolded online.
Who is the protagonist? From the beginning, Laing is cagey. We’re in the head of a writer who may or may not be Kathy Acker. Though the punk troubadour of postmodernism died in 1997 from complications relating to breast cancer, Laing imagines Acker aged 40 in 2017. She’s living between America and the United Kingdom, on the precipice of getting married for the first time to a man 29 years her senior. She’s obsessed with Twitter and rattled by commitment.
There certainly is a lot of Acker in there. There are references to Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School, her Upper East Side upbringing, her “years in a strip joint in Times Square […] releasing her flat little fried-egg tits into the eyes of the world,” her breast cancer-induced double mastectomy. Centering the novel on Acker at all may seem like an odd choice if you’re unfamiliar with her own practice of pinching the lives of figures like Toulouse Lautrec, Don Quixote, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Yet there’s a healthy dose of Laing, too. After all, she is the “poster girl for female solitude.” She also wore Isabel Marant to be married the poet Ian Patterson, whose first marriage was to the “famous writer” Jenny Diski. Like her fictional Kathy, Laing also “insisted on Maria Callas because she didn’t operate via understatement” for her wedding ceremony. Kathy and her husband “talked about Crete,” for their honeymoon, and a glance at Laing’s Instagram will reveal her own honeymoon’s rocky beaches and turquoise Grecian seas. On the day of her wedding, Kathy arranges “a china platter that had once belonged to Doris Lessing,” an allusion to Diski, who was taken in by Lessing when she was 15 years old. Blending these two individuals, Laing floats between third and first person, seemingly unable to settle on a pronoun that suits her purposes.
Inspired, or perhaps horrified, by the current events of summer 2017, Laing began writing as an escape from another project. This escape quickly took form, walking the line between fiction and reality. This line is becoming ever blurrier. Crudo stands alongside Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The End, the final installment of My Struggle. And those are just a few standout examples of autofiction published this year. Even the term autofiction feels somewhat murky — just as subjective as the form it’s trying to clarify. Coined by French novelist Serge Doubrovsky in Fils, published in 1977, autofiction has a loose definition as “fiction, of events and facts strictly real,” while he argues that the main distinction between autofiction and autobiography is that “autobiography is a privilege reserved for the important people of this world, at the end of their lives, in a refined style.”
But potential lawsuits aside, where do we draw the line between what can safely be classified as fiction and what qualifies as autofiction? Technically there is no magic formula balancing fact and fiction until we reach an artistic equilibrium. Though false claims of veracity have had powerful consequences, as a quick Google search on James Frey or Clifford Irving might tell you, does a bit of truth in fiction really matter? At the opening of Calvin Trillin’s Floater, he gives readers a “Claimer” in place of a disclaimer, revealing that “the character of Andy Wolferman is based on John Gregory Dunne, though it tends to flatter. The other characters are fictional.” Sweetbitter novelist Stephanie Danler has been often asked whether there was a real Jake — her agent is still looking for him. Perhaps with Crudo, this distinction is more cut and dry. Kathy Acker remains within our cultural consciousness with her cult classic Blood and Guts in High School reissued as well as Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker: A Biography hitting shelves in 2017.
While it might be hyperbole to suggest that current events and modern life act as the catalyst — especially considering the long history of authors cribbing from their own lives — it is interesting that there’s less artifice in masking the aspects they’ve borrowed. There seems to be a direct correlation with social media’s practice of posting curated snippets, arguably blending our lives into a fictive narrative, and the rise of autofiction. We’re already primed. Even our news is fake now. With Crudo, Laing appropriates Twitter’s trademark intonation, writing in a flippant and conversational voice, concise to the point of discarding nonessential punctuation. The novel feels cathartic, written in the breathless rush of a Twitter thread. Even Laing’s choice to juxtapose images of Kathy’s upscale Tuscan holiday in Val d’Orcia alongside the mounting horror of the news cycle portrays the experience of scrolling.
Trump is never far behind. His asinine antics are reported through direct quotes from his Twitter feed. One stunning example of his hubris forms the epigraph and tells the reader exactly what kind of novel Crudo will be: “The cheap 12 inch sq. marble tiles behind speaker at UN always bothered me. I will replace with beautiful large marble slabs if they ask me.” As we read, Grenfell Tower burns; Trump fires Comey, “trashtalk[s] the FailingNewYorkTimes,” and provokes North Korea; Neo-Nazis with their “disgusting putrid horror-faces, Halloween mask America” march through Charlottesville, and people suggest that Holocaust “was a narrative that got fixed.” A start-up called Bodega aims to replace mom-and-pop shops with their glorified vending machines. “Twitter’s ABLAZE gurl,” a friend texts Kathy.
Yet current events are contrasted against quotidian life, which for Kathy means her impending nuptials — and her mounting anxiety over her relationship. As her wedding date approaches, she marks the days and hours like some kind of countdown to detonation. She is uncertain if she can commit to a single person or even a single place. She contemplates the practicality of rotating among three or four residences, as “she was happiest on her travels, like a clockwork toy, maybe happiest unpacking or booking a train ticket.”
Kathy also considers her “abnormal talent for withholding, as if she’d finally become one of the many men she’d chased across Berlin, London, San Diego.” One such man replies to her casual email as if she’d been hounding him relentlessly. “Disappearing now,” he wrote, ending their conversation. “I’m IN ANOTHER COUNTRY,” she shouts at her husband, appalled by his power play. “I HAVE ALREADY DISAPPEARED. Why does he always try and OUT-DISAPPEAR ME.” With the exception of her husband, her relationships are unequal, emotional “withholding” becomes the refrain. Whether it is acted out by ex-boyfriends, elusive sleep on a muggy night, or Kathy’s own behavior, withholding leaves her wholly unprepared for the compromise and tenderness of marriage. It becomes clear that Kathy “liked liars and evasive people, she liked seeing what they’d say, she liked being continually shocked surprised disappointed by the way they were never where she thought they’d be.” Even her affinity for living alone is a hurdle to overcome, but her love for her husband cracks her open like the crabs they smash to bits with an Ikea hammer over dinner, sifting through the shells for the meat. Waiting to board a flight, she realizes that she’d never really loved anyone, never mastered the art of opening herself up before. Travel can act as an escape hatch, but love can’t be tethered to a specific geographic pinpoint. No, “she was in [the world] now, she was boarding, there was nowhere to hide.”