:: Article

opening one’s lonely body: olivia laing’s crudo

By Imogen Morrell.

In Orlando, Virginia Woolf describes how one’s many selves are ‘built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled up on a waiter’s hand’. Olivia Laing’s Crudo chooses to examine the stack in its entirety. In her biography of post-punk poet and novelist Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus writes that ‘Acker saw her “self” as composite. To make her “self” larger, she sought to cannibalize the intelligence of others whenever possible.’ Kraus and Acker were contemporaries, vague acquaintances, and shared a relationship with cultural theorist Sylvère Lotringer. Neither condemning nor forgiving, Kraus’ biography quietly states Acker’s pretentions: ‘In London, she played chess with Salman Rushdie’. It simultaneously respects and makes space for Acker’s preoccupation with bodily relationality.

Writing to Alan Sondheim, Acker asks, ‘How close can I get to someone, where we become each other?’ Frustrated by the limitations of her corporeal reality, and in search of a haptic knowledge, Acker lived through variety and within multiplicity. She moved through social groups as she did through cities, osmosing the scattered. She lived in San Diego, San Francisco, New York, and London, knowing ‘poets and bikers, leather dykes, tattooists, philosophers, astrologers, renowned artists and writers, bodybuilders, psychics, promoters, and editors’.

Crudo’s Kathy isn’t a documentation of the woman that Kraus so deftly realises. History’s Acker dies alone of cancer in Mexico in 1997. Laing’s Kathy finds herself on the verge of marriage in summer 2017. They straddle different moments and speak to each other through time. Laing’s Kathy dreams that ‘she had no health insurance’, she dreams that ‘she died in Mexico’. Crudo’s unexpected use of pronouns pays homage to Acker’s own writing on selfhood and embodiment. The novel opens with: ‘Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, has just got off a plane from New York’. We are confronted with Kathy as character, and Kathy as narrator. Laing skews the novel’s authorial perspective: her voice and Kathy’s are never made distinct. The impersonal third person pronoun denotes a cogent perspective and deferred self-possession. As Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, ‘“I” is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being’. Nascent jolts of confused subjectivity (‘Kathy was angry. I mean I. I was angry. And then I got married’) are overwhelmed by a third person narrative. Crudo establishes a clashing voice that is characterised by resounding hypocrisy – resentment and gratitude, bitterness and thanks.

Kathy is hypocritical in life and art. ‘Could she have really lived in New York on $15 a week? Fifteen dollars was about $68 in today’s money, and even though she was not paying rent, it seems unlikely.’ Here, Kraus addresses the most glaring discrepancy in Acker’s lifestyle, which was extensively funded. Laing skilfully sets up this tension, describing her protagonist as ‘avant-garde’ and ‘middle-class-in-flight’, before divulging that ‘Kathy did not like the bourgeoisie’. Sitting by the pool, Laing’s Kathy resents the ‘rich heterosexuals’ who are ‘landed’ and ‘entitled’, implicitly excluding herself from such categorisation. Her personal protests take the form of swimming naked: ‘She swam when she liked, and at night she didn’t bother with a swimsuit either. Fuck the rich, she waved her small white bottom like a flag against them’. Kathy sits sweating and disdainful, surrounded by her ‘Flexitol heel balm’, ‘Commes des Garcons wallet’, and ‘almost empty bottle of green mineral water from Sainsbury’s’. She strived to live an an authentic and poetic lifestyle, yet her friend’s still recall, ‘I never saw Kathy work a job. Ever.’ Kathy’s contradictions  are mimicked within Laing’s schizophrenic prose that is driven by a doubled, and often naive, gaze.

Contradiction is thematically crucial to Crudo’s form and content. Kathy is conflicted and suffers the unravelling of self and subjectivity. Personal destabilisation reflects an online experience of tripping voices and contrary comments. The novel disrupts the temporality that a social media timeline inevitably constructs – events are jumbled and sentences are non-sequiturs. During this summer, incidents cannot take place ‘in a different order or reality from your own’. A refugee crisis is no longer a distant abstract, far removed from one’s own narrow relationality – Laing’s Kathy is forbidden the luxury of ignorance. Such an ambiguous narrative voice speaks in all tenses and persons and is bound to paradox. The ‘I’ and the ‘she’ of the text are the unlikely fusion of Acker and Laing’s voices and stories: both driving the other on, seeking power through each other’s anger and inconsistencies, blending two instances of non-fiction to create a united work of fiction. The two become bound, Laing holding both herself and Acker to account. Kraus experiences a similar emulsification when writing Acker’s life: ‘Acker’s texts channel Peignot, Bataille and Catullus. By reading her writings very closely, I began channelling Acker’. Kathy is a hybrid and layered product. Laing complicates the idea of identity, opening one’s lonely body to a more embracing, multiple singularity. Finally, Kathy Acker is as close to another being as she wanted to be, she has become another.

‘Oh Kathy, nobody wanted you. Oh Kathy, now they do’. Kathy desires both. She wants to be rich and beaten down. She wants to be wedded and worshiped. Kathy wants to embody rejection and live in the gutter. An impending marriage guides the novel (‘Marriage in 5 days, marriage in 4 days…’), and serves as a countdown clock for Kathy’s imminent detonation. Sometimes, she hates the man and is left cold: ‘She hated him, she hated any kind of warmth or dependency, she wanted to take up residence as an ice cube in a long glass of aqua frizzante’. Other times, she deals in rising bliss: ‘She was experiencing one of those occasional upswells of love, when she suddenly felt satiated on a neurological level, enough and not too much pleasant information saturating the synapses in her brain’. She is chemical, she is reactionary, she is causal – fizzing off a love that is both arresting and becoming. She vows detachment (‘she wasn’t prepared to bed down just yet’), while relating that ‘this was the best month of the best year of Kathy’s life’. In her novel The Passion, Jeanette Winterson writes, ‘Hopeless heart that thrives on paradox; that longs for the beloved and is secretly relieved when the beloved is not there’. Crudo is full of such closeness and remoteness, with Kathy wanting to ‘get in the car and drive’, sometimes peeling away from her husband and boarding a train to London. Laing’s novel begins when Kathy arrives in both the narrative and in the city. Her and her husband spend their time abroad in Europe, and the novel closes with her leaving on a plane. Such an ending unites Kathy’s real and fictional selves, trying to locate an authentic place to be the last place.

Kathy’s final departure is a reckoning with the corporeal: ‘Something was approaching. Kathy could not settle. She knew. She knew.’ Like her writing, her cancer ‘becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly’. As her body multiplies and attacks its materiality, Laing’s heroine finds a moment of peace and pause. She is settled looking at  her husband’s ‘dear old, his dear new face, all hers’. His face is a marvel, something ancient and modern all at once. They give themselves up to a love so surprising that they can no longer sleep: ‘they were too excited, they lay there whispering and making up songs, I love you, she said and placed herself entirely in his arms’. As she is abandoned to the physical, she endures a silent and steady corporeal self-swallowing.

As Kathy leaves love for death, her self unravels. Such a collapse is echoed in the closing pages of Woolf’s Orlando, in which ‘nothing is any longer one thing’, Orlando being ‘Thirty-six; in a motor-car; a woman. Yes, but a million other things as well’. Kathy’s pile of plates collapses in regret and repetition: ‘She loved him, she loved him.’ While Orlando’s many selves reach a final demarcation, ‘as water is contained by the sides of a well’, Kathy’s conclusion is radically loose. The collapse of her body and the destabilisation of her subjectivity is raw and leaking. Unlike Orlando, Kathy is loved and loving, fleshy and decaying, crab meat pulled from a shell.


Imogen Morrell graduated with a Master’s in Women’s Studies from Wadham College, Oxford, having previously studied English Literature at King’s College, London for her undergraduate degree. She works as a literary agency assistant, and is based in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 31st, 2018.