Books

Olivia Laing’s first novel draws on a provoca­tive char­ac­ter to ex­am­ine the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by David Eg­gle­ton

About the way per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal lives in­ter­sect by Olivia Laing, nov­els by Tara Is­abella Bur­ton, Sarah Selecky, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and Ni­cholas An­drews Shep­pard, and chil­dren’s po­etry read­ing by Kim­berly

Olivia Laing’s books are a be­guil­ing and com­plex net of things. She el­e­gantly tra­verses trav­el­ogue, na­ture writ­ing, art, cul­tural and so­cial crit­i­cism, bi­og­ra­phy and me­moir in a way that makes her books feel thrilling and alive. The Lonely City: Ad­ven­tures in the Art of Be­ing Alone (2016) was an as­tute ex­plo­ration of ur­ban lone­li­ness, us­ing the work of artists Ed­ward Hop­per, Andy Warhol and David Wo­j­narow­icz as case stud­ies. Laing’s fourth book (but first novel), Crudo, is a kind of com­pan­ion piece to The Lonely City. Both books ex­plore the way per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal lives in­ter­sect. But whereas The Lonely City was a melan­choly look at the ef­fects of a lack of in­ti­macy, Crudo ex­plores the dif­fi­cul­ties of some­one who is un­able to cope with in­ti­macy and com­pan­ion­ship when they are handed to them. Both books echo Laing’s own life.

“Yeah, it’s the se­quel,” she says. “The Lonely City ex­plores the of­ten hid­den or in­vis­i­ble po­lit­i­cal back­ground to lone­li­ness, the way it’s caused by so­cial stigma or fa­mil­ial abuse by ex­clu­sion. That’s all true, but with the ad­vent of love in my own life, I also saw, painfully, how in many ways I had been the au­thor of my own lone­li­ness. How soli­tude and long­ing were much eas­ier for me than com­mit­ment and co­hab­i­ta­tion. Those were un­com­fort­able rev­e­la­tions, but they were true.”

Crudo is a work of aut­ofic­tion or, as Laing has de­scribed it, “biofic­tion”. She draws from her own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of con­fronting in­ti­macy and com­pan­ion­ship af­ter an ex­tended pe­riod of be­ing alone, and she chan­nels this through the char­ac­ter Kathy, who is au­da­ciously based on the late punk writer and provo­ca­teur Kathy Acker. Kathy is get­ting mar­ried and hol­i­day­ing in Tus­cany dur­ing the Bri­tish sum­mer of 2017, just as Laing did. Although the at­mos­phere of the book cap­tures the giddy feel­ing of fall­ing in love, there is also a sense of the world out­side fall­ing apart.

Crudo was writ­ten over a nervy sev­en­week pe­riod to doc­u­ment that sum­mer in the wake of the Brexit vote, a time Laing refers to as “hor­ri­fy­ing, grotesque and charged with anx­i­ety and ter­ror”. The novel cap­tures re­cent real-life events while the paint is still wet: Don­ald Trump’s bar­rage of tweets flirt­ing with ma­jor con­flict with North Korea; the con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis in Spain; the Gren­fell Tower tragedy; vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville. It is a life in tur­bu­lent times.

“I be­gan to re­alise that the world was

chang­ing dras­ti­cally, and that I couldn’t find a sta­ble plat­form from which to re­port and record it. How to re­spond to the rise in vi­o­lence, and the loom­ing spec­tre of the far-right: not with melan­choly first-per­son non-fic­tion.

“It was a very dark mo­ment. Things now in many ways are [po­lit­i­cally] worse, but the sense of shock and dis­be­lief has worn off. But in the midst of that sum­mer, I got mar­ried, so there was a kind of queasy joy, too,” she says.

But the po­lit­i­cal kept in­trud­ing on the per­sonal and Laing kept notes, even dur­ing her wed­ding to poet Ian Pat­ter­son.

“I wrote ev­ery day, cap­tur­ing ev­ery lurch and twist in the news cy­cle. I didn’t do hind­sight, I didn’t re­shape it. It was raw data, recorded as it landed. I lit­er­ally in­ter­rupted my own wed­ding party to write down that Steve Ban­non had been fired.”

Laing was born in Buck­ing­hamshire, Eng­land, and spent much of her child­hood vis­it­ing nurs­eries with her fa­ther, “a fa­nat­i­cal gar­dener”. In the late 1990s, she be­came a herbal­ist, fall­ing un­der the spell of the me­dieval herbal lore that laces through her favourite book, Derek Jar­man’s clas­sic Mod­ern Na­ture. Laing’s non-fic­tion books The Lonely City, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writ­ers and Drink­ing are beau­ti­fully clear-sighted, lyri­cal and re­fined. Con­versely, Crudo, which trans­lates as “raw”, is harsh and fren­zied. Laing set her­self and her pub­lisher strict rules for the writ­ing and pub­li­ca­tion of the book.

“I had to write at least once a day, if not more, and I wasn’t al­lowed to edit, or even re-read. And when I did come to pub­lish, I had fur­ther strict rules for Pi­cador: it had to be out in un­der a year, and the edit had to be very light, to pre­serve the feel­ing of raw­ness and the de­lib­er­ate un­cer­tainty and con­fu­sion. It was wild writ­ing like that, a real thrill.”

Even though she died 21 years ago, Kathy Acker is the per­fect ve­hi­cle for Laing in

Crudo. The things Acker was writ­ing about in the 1980s – racism, sex­ism, ter­ror­ism, po­lit­i­cal un­rest and vi­o­lence – all felt pre­scient about the sum­mer of 2017. The idea to use Acker as a char­ac­ter came when Laing was read­ing Af­ter Kathy Acker, the bi­og­ra­phy by

I Love Dick writer Chris Kraus. Us­ing Acker also en­abled Laing to in­ject her­self into the novel and write about her­self frankly with­out hav­ing to be har­nessed to a sin­cere “I”.

She says Acker has sud­denly be­come in­tensely rel­e­vant again. “I needed an un­sta­ble nar­ra­tor, who could con­stantly shift moods, who was both real and un­real. ‘Kathy’ could think with so much more range than me.

She could be car­toon­ish and grotesque, self­ish, vul­ner­a­ble, anx­ious and abruptly kind. Shap­ing that con­scious­ness was a thrill. It bor­rows from me, and from Acker, but ‘Kathy’ is, in the end, not re­ally ei­ther of us. She is a com­mit­ment-phobe who is try­ing to chal­lenge her own ten­den­cies to self­ish­ness and self-ab­sorp­tion.”

Like Acker, one thing Laing has found – and which runs as a thread in Crudo – is her ob­ser­va­tion that when you co­habit with some­one af­ter an ex­tended amount of time in soli­tude, you learn so much about your­self from a new an­gle. So what did Laing learn?

“That I’m hor­ri­ble,” she laughs. “If you’re alone you live in a kind of si­lence that is very sooth­ing as well as op­pres­sive. I hadn’t re­ally learned a lot of the skills of a shared life.”

Laing says she’d like to ex­plore writ­ing more fic­tion and that her plan with Crudo is for it to be a quar­tet, ex­plor­ing a woman’s life at 40, 50, 60 and 70.

“But who knows where we’ll all be in 30 years? I al­ways thought I could do ev­ery­thing I wanted with non-fic­tion, but the mod­ern world is prov­ing me wrong.”

I had to write at least once a day, and I wasn’t al­lowed to edit or even re-read. It was wild writ­ing like that, a real thrill.

CRUDO, by Olivia Laing (Pi­cador, $35)

Olivia Laing found the per­fect ve­hi­cle in 1980s provo­ca­teur Kathy Acker, left.

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