Character Limits

Character Limits

Olivia Laing’s novel Crudo is a tragicomic monument to our hyper-atrophied attention spans.

Olivia Laing, 2013. (Photo by Chris Boland)

Who doesn’t love the idea of a novel ripped straight from the headlines of daily life, which is also now to say, our digital lives? Every Twitter addict with literary aspirations harbors the dream that there’s a little novelist napping inside of them; that “Thread.” and “This.” are actual sentences; that stalking someone’s timeline constitutes critical research into the human condition; and that the dramatis personae of social media are nothing if not supremely crafted characters.

The greatest virtue of Crudo, the English writer Olivia Laing’s ambitious and irritatingly uneven debut novel, is that it disabuses us of this elaborate fantasy once and for all. It is not an accident that the book feels just like reading Twitter. Laing first announced she was writing the novel in a tweet on August 1, 2017. As she wrote in an essay for Lit Hub, it was conceived as an attempt to register, in real time, that summer’s feeling of “constant interruption, the sense that every piece of unsettling news was abruptly overtaken by another, that there were no visible conclusions to the stories, only a proliferation of bad consequences, waiting implacably a little further down the road.”

If anything, Laing is too successful at capturing this mood. In its speed and flippancy, Crudo is a tragicomic monument to our hyper-atrophied attention spans, drawing from the internet not just for its content but for its form. The narrator speaks in an “extremely online” voice, favoring compressed, frenetic quips over exposition, let alone sustained descriptions. With each new sentence it can feel as though Laing has hit the refresh button or opened a new tab. All of this serves to create a painfully accurate portrait of the emotional experience of being online, with its alternating currents of righteous outrage (“This is not who we are!!”), fleeting empathy (“Thoughts and prayers. . .”), and numb alienation (“I can’t even”).

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Troubled by the chaos of the summer’s news cycle, Laing had been finding it impossible to continue to write the nonfictional meditations on solitude, creativity, and addiction, such as The Lonely City (2016), for which she had become well-known. Crudo emerged as an antidote to her writer’s block. Like social media, it soon became a compulsion. The rules of the experiment were simple, being essentially the same as those followed by people who already post most of their thoughts on the web: react every day (sometimes every hour) to the news, to your friends, to your moods; never revise; publish as soon as possible. Thus Crudo, which means “raw” in Italian.

In the UK, where Crudo was published in June, it was an instant success, appearing on the Sunday Times bestseller list. When it was released in the United States last fall, it received widely enthusiastic reviews and was featured as one of the “100 Notable Books of 2018” by the editors of the New York Times Book Review. This must have been encouraging for Laing, who has said that Crudo is the first installment in a quartet. But such adulation bodes ill for the readers and critics who still look to the novel as a respite from, and not simply an extension of, the relentless stream of social media, or what Laing at one point aptly calls “the permanent present of the id.”

 

Crudo opens on August 2, 2017, on the same sun-lounger in Italy where Laing began writing it, and ends on September 23, in Terminal 3 of London’s Heathrow Airport. It begins: “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York.” Kathy is Laing, but she’s also Kathy Acker, the American experimental novelist, who improbably serves as Laing’s spirit animal or alter ego. The conflation is puzzling and reads as though Acker’s gritty Blood and Guts in High School was narrated by a tipsy Bridget Jones. Laing borrows from Acker her knack for borrowing from life—“the grab bag of the actual,” as she puts it. Some of Crudo is drawn from Laing’s own experience; other short passages are lifted directly from Acker. The rest of the novel is comprised of what might be called “content” in the digital sense—the flotsam that washes up when one surfs the web.

The narrative tension—to call it that may be generous—arises from Kathy’s attempt to reconcile what she describes as the “happiest time of her life” (like Laing, she is about to marry an elderly poet) with the existential threat of planetary destruction. Kathy navigates this dilemma most acutely when parsing the news on social media, where she’s torn between reflexive concern and self-protective detachment. Offline, Kathy plans her wedding, travels, reflects on her commitment-phobia, sells her old flat, buys a new one. At the same time, her life online makes all too palpable the pain of others: she is troubled and transfixed by Trump’s casual threats of nuclear war against North Korea, the firing of Anthony Scaramucci, the resignation of Steve Bannon, the Nazi march in Charlottesville, and the disappearance of Liu Xia, to name just a few of the disquieting headlines included in Crudo. Ultimately Kathy wonders whether one can “be happy when you knew the tendencies humans had, their aptitude for cruelty.” She repeats this question so often throughout the novel that it begins to seem as though the asking itself has supplanted the need to provide an answer.

The minimal plot (the marriage is on from the start) is carried along by Kathy’s nimble, breezy voice, always alert to the slightest provocation. Kathy flits between empathy, self-pity, and envy; even on vacation with her fiancé she is “interested in Twitter, she was interested in seeing whether any of her friends were having a better holiday than her.” At its best, the novel captures the petulant narcissism brought about by online life with uncanny precision. Kathy plans her wedding, for instance, “by looking through pictures on Instagram and making unkind comments. That’s very vulgar, she or her husband would say. Chairs and tables, napkins, that’s very vulgar. At this rate they’d end up getting married in a car park.” Yet even the novel’s best lines feel engineered to be tweeted, clapped, or liked (or quoted by reviewers).

While most of the entries in the emerging genre of the Internet Novel—Dave Eggers’s The Circle, Jeanette Winterson’s The PowerBook, Hari Kunzru’s Transmission, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story—have rehearsed familiar debates about the internet or social media in their dialogue, Crudo is one of the first to seize those media for itself. But a printed timeline of tweets, while occasionally delightful, does not a novel make. Our interest in fiction, after all, so rarely lies with its speed of publication or whether most of the things that happen in it are true. It’s hard not to feel that if Laing had taken seven months, rather than seven weeks, to compose Crudo, her novel might have amounted to far more than what it currently is—a significant and instructive dead end.

Perhaps the critics who prophesize the end of “serious reading” should worry less about how our compulsive media landscape is stultifying potential consumers of high literature than about what it’s doing to those who produce it.

At one point in the novel, Kathy comes across a New Yorker profile of the novelist Rachel Cusk. “What especially annoyed her,” Laing writes of the profile,

was a comparison between the novelist’s latest book and an oral history of Chernobyl. But her imaginary oral histories are exquisitely attuned to the ways in which humans victimize each other, it said. Kathy’s least favorite word on earth was exquisite. Kathy found nuclear war a considerably more seemly subject than nuclear families. Kathy was avant-garde, middle-class-in-flight, Kathy did not like the bourgeoisie. It was too fucking hot, she had better things to do than read about the window frames in other people’s houses.

These window frames are a reference to Cusk’s remodeling of her own home, an occasion that seems to have served as the inspiration for Transit (2016), the second installment of her celebrated trilogy about the Cusk-like writer, Faye. In Transit, Faye gut-renovates her house in London, gets coffee with a friend, attends a literary festival, and cuts her hair, among other seemingly mundane activities. In Cusk’s restrained telling, these incidents are rendered hypnotic, even gripping.

The irony of Kathy’s annoyance at the Chernobyl comparison is rich (and presumably unintended), since Laing’s own book attempts to draw meaning from the incommensurability between serious historical moments—not just from news but also from historical accounts of Hiroshima, the AIDS crisis, and the Holocaust—and Kathy’s dull life. The above paragraph is itself a typical example of the way in which Kathy complacently prattles on, floating from the traumatic to the banal like an estranged relative giving an impromptu wedding toast. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a narrator more different from Laing’s Kathy than Cusk’s Faye. Where Kathy talks over her subject matter, turning everyone she encounters into a cipher or a soundbite, Faye listens, teasing out the subtle contradictions. Kathy regurgitates facts from her online reading, somewhat at random, while Faye dilates the stories she’s told by strangers and friends.

At the beginning of Kudos, the trilogy’s third book, which was released around the same time as Crudo, Faye is flying from London to an unnamed European city. Her seatmate on the plane, who has stayed up all night euthanizing, then burying, his beloved family dog, tells her about his drive to the airport:

“To be honest, I shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of a car,” he said in a low voice, leaning his elbow on the armrest between us. “I could hardly see straight. I kept passing these signs on the road with the same words on them over and over again and I started to think they’d been put there for me. You know the ones I mean—they’re everywhere. It took me ages to work out what they were. I did wonder,” he said, with his abashed smile, “if I was actually going mad. I couldn’t understand who had chosen them, or why. They seemed to be addressing me personally. Obviously,” he said, “I read the news, but I’ve got a bit behind since leaving work.”

I said it was true that the question of whether to leave or remain was one we usually asked ourselves in private, to the extent that it could almost be said to constitute the innermost core of self-determination. If you were unfamiliar with the political situation in our country, you might think you were witnessing not the machinations of a democracy but the final surrender of personal consciousness into the public domain.

Brexit as psychodrama: Cusk’s subtle and probing trilogy is no less a record of private life under assault than Laing’s louder, harsher book. For all its moral bluster, Crudo feels like a capitulation to the contemporary attention economy alongside passages of such acute psychological insight.

Kathy has better things to do than read about the window frames in other people’s houses, but apparently we don’t. “Things, she liked them more and more,” Laing writes, as Kathy gazes at pictures of a luxe renovated rectory in Dorset. In fact, Kathy seems most at ease when describing what she’s eaten. For her husband’s birthday at London’s fashionable River Cafe, “the food kept coming, white peach bellini, squid with chilli, a plate of raw sea bass scattered with pansies, rabbit pappardelle, blue beef, panna cotta like a severed breast, a hazlenut cake, white wine, red wine, espresso.” At other mealtimes, readers are also treated to “Guineafowl, bread sauce,” a “tilting bowl full of razor clams and regular clams with little dots and dashes of chorizo,” “porchetta in rolls and porchetta on rocket,” “potato foam,” “passata and plum-cardamom gelato” that drips down “every T-shirt they owned.” No doubt it was more satisfying to describe—and consume—all this cuisine than it is to read about it.

Among Laing’s many baffling authorial decisions in Crudo is the glaring disjuncture she sets up between the narrator Kathy’s queer punk past and imminent straight union. The conflation of Acker and Laing’s biographies requires a strenuous suspension of disbelief: if Kathy is really as cool as she seems, why would she want to marry a poet twenty-nine years her senior? The unresolved tension between Acker’s gritty history and Laing’s bourgeois bliss might be most generously understood as an objective correlative for the chasm she perceives, as a well-to-do white person, between actual political issues and her own first-world problems.

But the question of whether a satire on the blind assurances of privilege might reinforce the very social structures it sets out to expose and dismantle is not one that seems to have occurred to Laing to ask. Here is Kathy, momentarily troubled by the news that an eight-year-old boy has been lynched in New Hampshire, before moving into a still-life description of her home: “He swung back and forth three times before he was able to free himself. None of the teens came to his aid. A photograph accompanied the story, purple welts on a small neck. Meanwhile Kathy was sitting at the table, two empty bowls of muesli in front of her, a vase of dahlias, nearly dead, a bracelet, assorted magazines, bowls of fruit, light bulbs and books.” Perhaps the critics who prophesize the end of “serious reading” should worry less about how our compulsive media landscape is stultifying potential consumers of high literature than about what it’s doing to those who produce it.

 

Crudo shares with the social novel an ambition to move between world-historical events and the mundane dramas of intimate life. But it presents our era as an anomaly that defies and exceeds the novel’s already porous boundaries. Kathy’s description of the summer of 2017 doubles as a description of what it’s like to read Crudo: “Things still happened, but not in any sensible order, it was hard to talk about truth because some bits were hidden, the result or maybe the cause, and anyway the space between them was full of misleading data, nonsense and lies. It was very dizzying, you wasted a lot of time figuring it out.” Kathy often reflects on the way in which the internet, by rendering immediate what may be distant, overwhelms us with too much information—which is also to say, creates a problem for the novelist: “there was currently, Kathy thought, a problem with putting things together.”

And yet a large part of the novel’s task has always been to attempt to put everything together, even and especially when the chaos of the novelist’s historical moment—the rise of the Nazi Party in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories, the Second World War’s arbitrary calculus of death in Gravity’s Rainbow—seems to defy imaginative mastery. Novelists, after all, have successfully sacrificed far greater conventions than plot and character at the altar of experimentalism. Many writers have even incorporated their own struggle of trying to dramatize unwieldy subjects into their novel’s very form.

Because digital life is disjointed and unsatisfying, it might be tempting to lay the disjointed and unsatisfying nature of Crudo at the door of verisimilitude. Reflecting on Trump’s destabilizing election, Kathy asks, “How had all this happened? Some sort of gross appetite for action, like the Red Wedding episode [on Game of Thrones] only actual and huge. It didn’t feel actual, that was the problem. It felt like it happened inside her computer.” The psychological dissociation to which the internet gives rise is, of course, exactly what the book sets out to describe and define. At times this can make it difficult to separate a critique of Crudo from a critique of the unfiltered thoughts and moods it so accurately replicates: the half-longings and quasi-guilt that hound us whenever we browse the web. Of Twitter, Laing has said, “There’s always something unfolding—you never get a conclusion. It’s a great way to stay up to date but not a great place for thinking of solutions.” It is good for everything, in other words, that the novel is not. As of this writing, Laing has deactivated her Twitter account. This seems like a promising start.


Ava Kofman is a contributing writer at The Intercept.


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