Left: Olivia Laing. Right: Kathy Acker.
When Olivia Laing’s third book, The Lonely City, appeared in 2016, she was hailed as one of the leading contemporary nonfiction writers in the U.S. and the UK. After a breakup in her midthirties, she’d moved from London to New York. Adrift in a strange place and afraid of being alone for the rest of her life, she used her loneliness as a conduit to understanding the work of visual artists like David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Zoe Leonard, the reality-media pioneer Josh Harris, and many others. Loneliness, for Laing, became a new means of perception, a secret channel. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Lonely City was named a best book of the year by various publications.
Laing never expected that her next work would be a novel. In fact, she was laboring over a new nonfiction book when Crudo erupted. Triggered by her readings of the American writer Kathy Acker, Crudo was composed over seven weeks. Writing in a bracing and racy picaresque style, Laing adopts the third-person character “Kathy” that Acker herself often uses. The result is a hilarious mash-up between Acker’s emotional realism and taste for transgression, and the events of Laing’s very twenty-first-century life as she vacations in Italy, updates social media, and plans her small wedding. The book begins breathlessly, with one of the best openings in recent memory. “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married,” Laing writes. “Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York.”
Slipping in and out of her Kathy Acker persona while closely following the events of Laing’s life and the media feed of the summer of 2017, Crudo is at once boldly experimental and highly pleasurable. Writing in real time about Jared and Ivanka, Brexit, the flooding of Houston, Trump’s tweets, and Grenfell, Laing captures the psychic effect of living in the perpetual state of remote emergency that defines the present. “There were several photographs of a care home in which several residents in wheelchairs, elderly black women were up to their chests in dirty brown water,” she writes. “The President was on it, he was using a full arsenal of exclamation marks.” As she astutely concludes, “Numbness mattered, it was what the Nazis did, made people feel like things were moving too fast to stop and though unpleasant and eventually terrifying and appalling, were probably impossible to do anything about.”
Olivia and I met for the first time two years ago, when we did a conversation in London for the program 5×15. Here, we continue over email.
In an interview recently with British Vogue, you admit that your last book, The Lonely City, “is really not funny.” Adopting the persona of Kathy–not-Kathy in Crudo allows you to be really funny, as well as provocative, throughout. In the opening pages, the narrator is planning her wedding while breaking up with, or being broken up with by, her boyfriend, Sebastien, a situation that she discusses with her much-older fiancé. In a conventional novel, readers—at least American readers—would expect you to deal with a situation like that in a more earnest, soul-searching way. And then there’s the passing reference to anorexia, with a flick of the wrist—“When she was anorexic in the aughts like everyone she was conducting an assault on gravity, she was the apple that would go upwards, that simple.” Being Kathy–not-Kathy gives you incredible freedom. How did you come upon the idea of writing through this persona, and what was it like when you did?
Weirdly, it was all thanks to you. I was in Italy, and I was reviewing your amazing and provocative Acker biography, After Kathy Acker. I’d read a fair amount of Acker but not for a long time. I was really struck by a bit at the beginning, when she’s studying writing with the poet David Antin in San Diego. He suggests that the students go to the library, get a book on anything at all, and lift the text, transferring it into the first person. This was the origin of Kathy’s expressive, expansive plagiarism. I immediately had the idea of plagiarizing my own life and times and putting them in the Kathy Acker person.
The backdrop to Crudo is that I was failing to write a different book, a serious nonfiction book about the body and violence and protest. I was finding it impossible, and I realized it was because the world was changing too rapidly. Because of Trump, because of Brexit, because of the rise of fascism and the attack on concepts like truth and democracy, I just couldn’t write the kind of nonfiction I’d done in the past. To write from a stable point of view meant losing the feeling of chaos and perpetual disruption that was the signature of summer 2017. I needed a perspective that wasn’t me, a character that could observe the turbulence in an exaggerated, frenetic, paranoid way. Writing as Kathy, as this hybrid Frankenstein composite of me and Acker, was immediately liberating. I could say anything. I could zigzag between topics. I could talk about both the political and the personal without getting bogged down.
That’s fantastic. It makes total sense. Crudo captures the engineered exhaustion and numbness the news cycle inflicts in a way I’ve never seen. At one point, the narrator is very explicit about this—“The speed of the news cycle, the hyper-acceleration of the story, she was hip to those pleasures, queasy as they were. People got used to them, they depended on the reliable shots of 10am and 3 pm and 7pm outrage. Take right now, 27 August 2017.” There’s something thrilling about what feels like the present being fed back in the past tense, as if we’re living in history.
Yes, I was superconscious of that—and also that when this period is written about by historians, it will have an intelligibility and orderliness that is absolutely absent now. It’s interesting, too, that you mention earnestness. Antin introduced that exercise to his students as a way of getting around the urge to write confessional pieces, in that awful, earnest first person that’s still so prevalent. That was exactly why I needed the Kathy character, to get me away from both direct reportage and labored, self-absorbed confessional writing. Most of the things that happen are true—they either happened to me or the real Acker—but the voice, the perspective, is invented. It’s exaggerated and ironic and playful and viciously self-lacerating all at once.
Talking about being funny, when I interviewed you in London a couple years ago, you startled me by pointing out that I Love Dick was, above all, funny. I’d been reading it in a very earnest way and taking the Chris character and her pains very seriously. It’s a tone that’s poised on a knife-edge. The things it recounts—misogyny, violence, abjection—are serious, but the tone isn’t. It’s subversive. Humor is a way of switching the power relations around or refusing them altogether, right?
Yes, I agree. Though at the time I was writing the book, I don’t know if I saw it that way. I was just trying to tell a funny story, and the more horrific and shameful it is, the more comic—especially when retold in a droll kind of way. In Crudo, you very quickly slip out of the first person, and Kathy’s I becomes she.
The I is in only the first paragraph. I wanted to quickly flash the idea that Kathy as a character isn’t totally trustworthy or solid, that she’s related to me, but I didn’t want to keep going back and forth in a labored way. Readers aren’t stupid. They don’t need leading by the nose. But this is also a question for you, I think. Sometimes you have characters that share your name, and sometimes they share your biography. Why? And do you find it frustrating when critics painstakingly point out all the similarities between you and a character you’ve written?
It drives me crazy. Because my biography is never the point. It’s more like a starting point, a way of grounding a narrative to expose more general situations. In Torpor, the Sylvie character shares my biography, but the book is about historical trauma and the nineties shift to a more totalized media culture. In I Love Dick, using my own name as a character seemed right because the tone of the book was bedroom farce. In Torpor, it was a much blacker comedy, and more personal, so the names had to change. And in Summer of Hate, a novel about the U.S. justice system during the George W. Bush years, my actual name would be a distraction. My character, Catt, and her kinky sex adventures are there mostly as bait to lead the reader into what’s basically a neo–social realist novel. But I definitely do see these books as novels. Did you always plan to write fiction eventually?
Nope. I’m incapable of inventing plots, and as a writer, I never saw the point, which isn’t to say that I don’t love reading novels. But for Crudo, I couldn’t do what I wanted with nonfiction because I needed a character that wasn’t quite me, a made-up perspective from which to view a real moment.
I think both of us share with the real Kathy Acker this horror of completely making shit up. What stopped Acker for years from writing prose was this idea that she’d have to “find her own voice” and make up invented people and stories like Joyce Carol Oates. For Kathy, the breakthrough was her first serial novel, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, a book that you quote, where she lifts lines from old biographies of murderesses. She adopts their picaresque style and switches out I for she. And suddenly, she’s off, and she can say anything. Did that also happen to you?
Yes. It was incredibly liberating, both to invent the character and to help myself to the ravishing grab bag of Acker’s own work. Crudo is probably the only book I’ve really enjoyed writing, because it was so fast and so free. It was such a relief to ditch the I but to keep all the real details of the world, to collage it together rather than inventing it afresh. I definitely have a horror of making shit up, but I also have a horror of confessional writing. It’s like the case studies in I Love Dick. I do want to write about the personal—mine, Acker’s, David Wojnarowicz’s, and so on—but for political reasons.
What do you think of autofiction as a term? It makes me feel a bit sick, but I don’t quite know why. I think it’s the idea that it’s some voguish new style, rather than something writers have always done. Is Proust writing autofiction? Is Virginia Woolf? What do you think about it and roman á clef? Is that what you see yourself as doing? And why, anyway, do people feel such an urge to pin things down in terms of genre? An additional question—your novels are composed of multiple forms, love letters, diaries, memoir, art criticism, political exegesis, biography, but they’re emphatically novels. Why? What does the novel facilitate for you?
I hate the term too. Autofiction? What literary work doesn’t draw on the writer’s own background, obsessions, biography? I think the term diminishes our sense of the novel as an intimate communication between writer and reader with personal stakes. As if regular fiction was really genre fiction—formulated entertainment with invented stories and characters that have nothing to do with anyone’s life. I think what makes something a novel is its intent and emotional cohesion. The mash-up of information sources and styles is nothing new. There are precedents everywhere—Balzac, Herman Melville, Alfred Döblin, John Dos Passos. The important thing is that in a novel, all of the information is passing through the writer.
You’ve said elsewhere that you wrote the book in seven weeks. Did you write it all in one pass, more or less as it is, or did you go back and cut Kathy in?
I started on August 2, 2017, on a sun lounger in Italy, just as the book begins, and I finished on September 23, in Terminal 3 of Heathrow Airport, just as it ends. I wrote every day and didn’t edit or reread at all as I was going. But there is a flashback to New York in April, which I wanted to put in because it was when James Comey was fired. Luckily, I’d written a very detailed account of that week at the time, so I was able to insert it fairly directly. Apart from that, the book is a totally raw day-by-day–and sometimes hour-by-hour–account of events.
The Acker concept was there from the off. I had a huge pile of her books in my study, and I opened them at random each day and flicked through until I found lines that seemed to speak directly to what was going on in the news. It was staggering to me how well that worked, how much her novels related to the events of 2017. Then, when I did decide to publish—at first, I was going to do a run of a hundred to mail to friends, Black Tarantula–style—it went through an extremely light copy edit. This is radically different from my nonfiction, which is endlessly edited and rewritten.
Let’s talk about Acker. Did writing the biography and spending so much time with her writing alter anything in your own approach? I feel like she’s a writer who became intensely unfashionable after her death and has suddenly emerged as relevant again in the past couple years. It seems to me this is at least partially because her topics—hyperviolence, terrorism, abortion, sexual assault, gender subversion—are very much the substance of this moment in time. What do you think about Acker’s work now?
It’s funny—your encounter with Acker brought you closer to her formal strategies, but for me, spending a couple years immersed in her writing and life moved me further away. The tone I arrived at for the book was very strenuously not Kathy. Her extremism demanded a counterpoint, so I approached it in a very calm, fact-based way, deliberately leaving myself out of the story. I wanted to be her best possible reader, of her work and her life, which meant pointing out her failures and inconsistencies as well as her triumphs. I was sad that her work fell out of favor in the years after her death, and for all the wrong reasons—her image had dated. But her work is important. I really think that riding around the U.S. in literary exile on her motorcycle during the nineties, she caught a glimpse of the present that other more fashionable writers missed. And her formal innovation was incredibly generative. Definitely, I was ghosting Acker when I wrote I Love Dick. She influenced so many writers.
Her work is so generous. She creates possibilities, which is exactly what I want art to do.
Chris Kraus is the author of After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography, as well as four novels. Social Practices, her new essay and story collection, will be published by Semiotext(e) in October.
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