Crudo

Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.

From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralysed UK, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties trying to adjust to making a lifelong commitment just as Trump is tweeting the world into nuclear war. But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing. Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead, the planet is hotting up. Is it really worth learning to love when the end of the world is nigh? And how do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?

Olivia Laing radically rewires the novel in a brilliant, funny and emphatically raw account of love in the apocalypse. Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.


After falling utterly in love with The Lonely City, I got pretty obsessed with Olivia Laing. I did the usual thing I do in these instances – sought out as many podcast interviews as I could. Olivia Laing gives good podcast. My favourite of her interviews – as is so often the case – was on Literary Friction (my favourite of the bookish podcasts I listen to), where she talked about her novel Crudo, written in a frenzy over seven weeks in the summer of 2017.

The book is about existing during that summer – the early days of the Trump presidency, the first fallout after the Brexit vote and the ongoing tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. It’s about the numbing horror of the 24-hour news cycle, the creeping sense of detached fear we have that maybe we’re in the midst of a long and drawn out apocalypse, where the most we can hope for is to bow out before the bloody end – and this was before most of us knew what a zoonotic disease was, and the role our casual destruction of the planet played in creating them. It’s also a book about learning to be married in your forties, having spent the vast majority of your life alone. On Literary Friction, Laing said it was, in part, a book about selfishness.

A weird thing about Crudo that you don’t strictly need to know going in is that is it is sort of autobiographical – Laing herself was a woman just married in her forties navigating the relentless horror of that summer, and is sort of written as Kathy Acker, a famous post-modernist writer who died in 1997. Laing writes from the perspective of an invented Acker, who in turn built a career out of theft: she wrote her own re-imaginings of Great Expectations and Don Quixote, among others. Like Laing, Kathy loved to write from the invented perspectives of the famous and dead.

Reading Crudo you get whiplash. It is the perfect microcosm of modern life – as they describe it on Literary Friction, the epitome of the state of the nation novel – veering between the different sorts of excess we have at our fingertips. The too much news contrasts with the too much food, horror on screen is read against a backdrop of the glorious Italian summer Kathy spends eating and drinking with her new husband. Crudo means raw in Italian – that’s what it is. This book is about the way the world leaves you raw – and how opening yourself up to someone by marrying them does the same thing.

Crudo is particular to that summer, but applicable to the others that have come since. Trump is no longer president, but Trumpism is still thriving and I’m scared of what will happen next now it is freed from the few remaining threads of accountability the White House provided. Here in the UK, we Brexited, and we’re not focused on it because there is so much else to worry about, but it is chaos and it is destroying businesses, and the consequences in Northern Ireland are as bad as all of the experts nobody listened to predicted. The situations have shifted, but the feeling is the same. The impending doom. There was an odd sort of comfort in sitting in that for Laing for a while, like I recaptured, briefly, that feeling of all being in it together we glimpsed in the early days of the pandemic, when people stood in doorways banging saucepans for the NHS just to feel like they were doing something.

It is not a hopeful book, but it is not strictly a depressing one either. It’s all so beautifully normal – Kathy’s lazy days, the small fights with her new husband that feel huge until they don’t anymore, her constant desire for more space from the man until she has it, and the terrible feeling of missing him when she finally does. It’s a snapshot of a moment that adds up to a devastating and intimate portrait of a person in the midst of a life-shifting summer – but the reality of lift shifting is it doesn’t feel especially huge at the time – in what feels like a world-ending crisis, but actually turns out to be a precursor for whatever comes next. Though Olivia didn’t know that then.

It made me wonder what this crisis is a precursor to.

Sometimes you just have to sit in it for a while, and there’s no one better to do that with than Olivia Laing.

The Lonely City

When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art.

Moving fluidly between the works and lives of some of the city’s most compelling artists, Laing conducts an eclectic, dazzling investigation into what it means it be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be redeemed and embraced.

How are you doing, really? Are you on lockdown? Are you a key worker?

I’m at home. In the past two weeks I went from working in an office, to working from home, to furloughed from work until further notice, the magazine I work on suspended from publication. I live with housemates, all men, none I am particularly close to – though we’re getting a bit closer, inevitably I guess. I’m lonely, and I am afraid what the total lack of structure in my life will do to my brain, which veers towards the angsty and sad even at the best of times.

I’ve gotten really into Money Heist. Like, to be honest, that show is my life now and I don’t know what I’m going to do when it’s over. If you have any recommendations they will be gratefully received.

What I’m saying is that one way or another, it felt like the perfect time to revisit, The Lonely City, a book of essays by Olivia Laing that I read during my months of non-blogging. When I picked up the book and reread a couple of essays this morning to refresh my memory for this very review it felt like a risk – would this make me feel better, or would it make the dread that has been creeping over me since the weekend all the worse?

Fortunately, it was the former. The Lonely City isn’t precisely an uplifting read, but it is a cathartic one. Post-break up and in a foreign country, Olivia wrote this book in a period of absolute solitude. During that time, when even ordering a coffee became a challenge because she felt so painfully self-conscious about herself (something I felt on a spiritual level), she found solace and a kind of kindship in the stories of the lonely artists that came before her. She looked at the work they created to fix themselves – or if not that, patch over their worst of it – as a road map for the way out of her own heartbreak, which began over one person and over time grew into something much larger than that.

“So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need to constantly inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed inside a unit of two, turned inward from the world at large?”

The book is filled with stories of artists, a lot of them from the 70s and 80s, and the various ways they did and did not manage to connect in their lives and work. They are painful, bittersweet and comforting all at the same time. Maybe my favourite was the story of Andy Warhol, who, hampered first by his weak grasp of English and second by his paralysing hatred of his body, started to use technology as a means of shielding himself from others. He started carrying a tape recorder with him everywhere he went, recording all of his interactions as part of some wider art project that seemed like it was as much about creating a means of holding himself at a safe distance from his friends and boyfriends as it was the end product, a book called a, which no one read.

These essays are filled with people who lived their lives on the fringes; people of colour, queer people, the mentally ill and those living in poverty, many of them not allowed a voice during their lifetimes. People like Henry Darger, the janitor who spent his entire life in poverty who was discovered to be an incredibly prolific artist and writer when his landlord came to clean out his apartment after he’d been hospitalised for what would be the final time. He may also have been a total psycho (his artwork is scary weird) – but nobody ever knew him, so no one knows for sure.

The Lonely City is an exploration of a subject we’re all facing right now in new and frightening ways. What is a world where we can’t go around to your friend’s place to watch a movie? How do you cope when all you want is a hug from your mum, but she is quarantined miles away from you? What this book does, somewhat paradoxically, is classify loneliness as a community experience – because at some point, to some degree, we’ve all been there.

Especially right now.

“If I sound adamant it is because I am speaking from personal experience. When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”