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Olivia Laing's first novel Crudo is the result of our turbulent times

Olivia Laing.

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.”

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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 seven-week 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.

1980s provocateur Kathy Acker. Photo/Getty Images

“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.”

CRUDO, by Olivia Laing (Picador, $35)

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.