Monday, 16 July 2018

Book review: Crudo, Olivia Laing (2018)

This refreshing roman-a-clef is one of the best things that I have read for many a long day. And like the Australians Maria Tumarkin and Melanie Cheng, who are both from migrant backgrounds, and whose books about Australia I reviewed recently, Laing is British and so here an outsider’s point of view is brought to bear on the political scene in the US.

‘Crudo’ is focalised entirely and thrillingly through the character of Kathy Acker, the 1980s punk novelist and popular culture icon, who is here transported to a later era – she is 40 and about to be married in the northern summer of 2017 when the novel takes place (13 May to 22 September), although Acker herself died in 1997 and was born in 1947 – so that she can glom onto the logic of social media and the debates that are happening in this particular historical moment. It’s a deeply humorous premise betraying the girlish elan buttressing the whole enterprise.

A novel with bite. Like a Shakespearean sonnet, it is full of allusive energy. The way the prose works brought to my mind the way Hideki Gondo, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki in Juzo itami’s outstanding 1987 film ‘A Taxing Woman’, described what it was like to enjoy the wealth that he had accumulated in his lifetime. He said that consuming it was like sipping the excess liquid from the top of a cup full of water, that is held there by mere surface tension. You sip and you sip at the water’s convex top but the glass always remains full because the drops of water keep falling into it from above. Laing’s prose is like Gondo’s metaphorical cup. You read and you read and you are always presented with a full cup no matter how much of the whole you consume. There is a rich plenitude here that in its poetic adequacy defies even the most deft analysis. The words simply do not run out. (Itami of course was the brother-in-law of the peerless Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe.)

The pace of Laing’s novel reminded me of ‘Helter Skelter’, a song from The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ of 1968. A full-on rushing tempest of a tune that carries you along with it on an unhinged trajectory to the very core of human experience, a place where the seeping tempers of the vital organs meld organically with the inner-most thoughts of the outcast individual, a woman alive on the cusp of the future.

In the novel, Kathy empties out the apartment she has lived in alone and moves all her stuff to the home of her husband-to-be. It is a liminal moment rendered all the more poignant because of the age at which it is accomplished, a moment in a woman’s life when she has cause to contemplate from a rational distance the outlands of the human span, places where people don’t always voluntarily go in the daily round of business. It is a moment that comes close to the period when the menopause intrudes, a point in time that threatens to bring changes and unique burdens, things that promise to test the integrity of a woman alive in the world. A moment full of exquisite promise.

There is something elemental about Kathy in this novel so that she stands for the eternal feminine, one prone to irrational rages and sudden enthusiasms, with a fierce certainty of her own intelligence along with a devouring scepticism at the stupidity of the age of Trump, and furthermore a consuming tenderness when confronted by the weakness of the marginalised who dwell with us in the world. A person for whom a husband is a necessary part of being alive, although whether you agree with everything that he says or not is another thing entirely.

And more: Kathy is here like a female Leopold Bloom of ‘Ulysses’. A remarkable analogue if you tjhink about it a bit since the original model for Bloom was the Modernist author Italo Svevo, who Joyce had tutored in the English language during his Trieste years before WWI. Acker and Svevo: twins busy in a single enterprise. The interior monologue reimagined in 2018, this time with a feminine cast. In Joyce’s case, the two men, the Irishman and the Italian, had been brought together by pure chance but nevertheless in the meeting lay submerged within the loam of humdrum reality the seeds of one of the great fictional efflorescence’s of the 20th century.

There are furthermore echoes in Laing’s novel of the eye-opening promise of the revelatory definite article as used by Joan Didion, a chronicler of another moment of change when two historical continents rubbed together for the first time to create a new sound. Coming down fast!

Whereas Didion chronicled a time when mores and laws were changing to adjust to the demands of the big post-war baby boom, with its new ideas about how to organise society, Laing chronicles the passage at the terminal point of the period of broad consensus that followed from that modulation of the parameters defining both the good and the bad, at a time, now, when the right has finally found its collective voice. In our age, the pendulum risks swinging back to fascism.

But the American people appear to be oblivious, and still don’t know that what Trump wants to do will make their situation even worse than it is now. Draining the swamp in the way he has in mind will just deepen the inequality that shackles the lives of so many in that country. The movie ‘Solo’, the most recent in the Star Wars franchise, was, like this novel, an artefact of the era of Trump, a time when everything has nothing but a money value. It is in this light that this novel has to be read. Appeals by contemporary politicians to the ugly xenophobia simmering beneath the surface of society in the US are a ruse designed to distract voters’ attention from the true purpose of the government: to further entrench inequality in favour of the few at the expense of the many. Laing shifting the dates to situate Kathy within the locus of public debate in the era of tiki torches and Pepe the Frog is an inspired move.

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