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Character Limits | Dissent Magazine

Character Limits | Dissent Magazine

Character Limits

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

Ava Kofman ▪ Winter 2019
Olivia Laing, 2013. (Photograph by Chris Boland)

Who doesn’t love the thought of a novel ripped straight from the headlines of day by day life, which can also be now to say, our digital lives? Each Twitter addict with literary aspirations harbors the dream that there’s a bit novelist napping inside them; that “Thread.” and “This.” are precise sentences; that stalking somebody’s timeline constitutes essential analysis into the human situation; and that the dramatis personae of social media are nothing if not supremely crafted characters.

The best advantage of Crudo, the English author Olivia Laing’s formidable and irritatingly uneven debut novel, is that it disabuses us of this elaborate fantasy as soon as and for all. It isn’t an accident that the guide feels identical to studying Twitter. Laing first introduced 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 try and register, in actual time, that summer time’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 something, Laing is just too profitable at capturing this temper. In its velocity and flippancy, Crudo is a tragicomic monument to our hyper-atrophied consideration spans, drawing from the web not only for its content material however for its type. The narrator speaks in an “extremely online” voice, favoring compressed, frenetic quips over exposition, not to mention sustained descriptions. With every new sentence it could really feel as if Laing has hit the refresh button or opened a brand new tab. All of this serves to create a painfully correct portrait of the emotional expertise of being on-line, 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 time’s information cycle, Laing had been discovering it unattainable to proceed to put in writing the nonfictional meditations on solitude, creativity, and habit, resembling The Lonely Metropolis (2016), for which she had turn into well-known. Crudo emerged as an antidote to her author’s block. Like social media, it quickly turned a compulsion. The principles of the experiment have been easy, being primarily the identical as these adopted by individuals who already submit most of their ideas on the internet: react every single day (typically each hour) to the information, to your folks, to your moods; by no means revise; publish as quickly as potential. Thus Crudo, which suggests “raw” in Italian.

Within the UK, the place Crudo was revealed in June, it was an immediate success, showing on the Sunday Occasions bestseller record. When it was launched in the USA final fall, it acquired extensively enthusiastic evaluations and was featured as one of many “100 Notable Books of 2018” by the editors of the New York Occasions E-book Evaluate. This should have been encouraging for Laing, who has stated that Crudo is the primary installment in a quartet. However such adulation bodes sick for the readers and critics who nonetheless look to the novel as a respite from, and never merely an extension of, the relentless stream of social media, or what Laing at one level aptly calls “the permanent present of the id.”


Crudo opens on August 2, 2017, on the identical sun-lounger in Italy the place Laing started writing it, and ends on September 23, in Terminal three 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, however she’s additionally Kathy Acker, the American experimental novelist, who improbably serves as Laing’s spirit animal or alter ego. The conflation is puzzling and reads as if Acker’s gritty Blood and Guts in Excessive Faculty 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 places it. A few of Crudo is drawn from Laing’s personal expertise; different brief passages are lifted instantly from Acker. The remainder of the novel is comprised of what is perhaps referred to as “content” within the digital sense—the flotsam that washes up when one surfs the online.

The narrative rigidity—to name it that could be beneficiant—arises from Kathy’s try and reconcile what she describes because the “happiest time of her life” (like Laing, she is about to marry an aged poet) with the existential menace of planetary destruction. Kathy navigates this dilemma most acutely when parsing the information on social media, the place she’s torn between reflexive concern and self-protective detachment. Offline, Kathy plans her wedding ceremony, travels, displays on her commitment-phobia, sells her previous flat, buys a brand new one. On the similar time, her life on-line makes all too palpable the ache of others: she is troubled and transfixed by Trump’s informal threats of nuclear struggle towards North Korea, the firing of Anthony Scaramucci, the resignation of Steve Bannon, the Nazi march in Charlottesville, and the disappearance of Liu Xia, to call just some of the disquieting headlines included in Crudo. Finally Kathy wonders whether or not one can “be happy when you knew the tendencies humans had, their aptitude for cruelty.” She repeats this query so typically all through the novel that it begins to look as if the asking itself has supplanted the necessity to present a solution.

The minimal plot (the wedding is on from the beginning) is carried alongside by Kathy’s nimble, breezy voice, all the time alert to the slightest provocation. Kathy flits between empathy, self-pity, and envy; even on trip together 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 greatest, the novel captures the petulant narcissism caused by on-line life with uncanny precision. Kathy plans her wedding ceremony, for example, “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.” But even the novel’s greatest strains really feel engineered to be tweeted, clapped, or appreciated (or quoted by reviewers).

Whereas a lot of the entries within the rising style of the Web Novel—Dave Eggers’s The Circle, Jeanette Winterson’s The PowerBook, Hari Kunzru’s Transmission, Gary Shteyngart’s Tremendous Unhappy True Love Story—have rehearsed acquainted debates concerning the web or social media of their dialogue, Crudo is likely one of the first to grab these media for itself. However a printed timeline of tweets, whereas sometimes pleasant, doesn’t a novel make. Our curiosity in fiction, in any case, so not often lies with its velocity of publication or whether or not a lot of the issues that occur in it are true. It’s exhausting to not really feel that if Laing had taken seven months, quite than seven weeks, to compose Crudo, her novel may need amounted to excess of what it presently is—a big and instructive lifeless finish.

Maybe the critics who prophesize the top of “serious reading” ought to fear much less about how our compulsive media panorama is stultifying potential shoppers of excessive literature than about what it’s doing to those that produce it.

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

was a comparability between the novelist’s newest guide and an oral historical past of Chernobyl. However her imaginary oral histories are exquisitely attuned to the methods by which people victimize one another, it stated. Kathy’s least favourite phrase on earth was beautiful. Kathy discovered nuclear warfare a significantly extra seemly topic than nuclear households. Kathy was avant-garde, middle-class-in-flight, Kathy didn’t just like the bourgeoisie. It was too fucking scorching, she had higher issues to do than learn concerning the window frames in different individuals’s homes.

These window frames are a reference to Cusk’s transforming of her own residence, an event that appears to have served because the inspiration for Transit (2016), the second installment of her celebrated trilogy concerning the Cusk-like author, Faye. In Transit, Faye gut-renovates her home in London, will get espresso with a pal, attends a literary pageant, and cuts her hair, amongst different seemingly mundane actions. In Cusk’s restrained telling, these incidents are rendered hypnotic, even gripping.

The irony of Kathy’s annoyance on the Chernobyl comparability is wealthy (and presumably unintended), since Laing’s personal guide makes an attempt to attract which means from the incommensurability between critical historic moments—not simply from information but in addition from historic accounts of Hiroshima, the AIDS disaster, and the Holocaust—and Kathy’s uninteresting life. The above paragraph is itself a typical instance of the best way by which Kathy complacently prattles on, floating from the traumatic to the banal like an estranged relative giving an impromptu wedding ceremony toast. Certainly, it’s troublesome to think about a narrator extra totally different from Laing’s Kathy than Cusk’s Faye. The place Kathy talks over her material, turning everybody she encounters right into a cipher or a soundbite, Faye listens, teasing out the delicate contradictions. Kathy regurgitates information from her on-line studying, considerably at random, whereas Faye dilates the tales she’s advised by strangers and buddies.

At first of Kudos, the trilogy’s third guide, which was launched across the similar time as Crudo, Faye is flying from London to an unnamed European metropolis. Her seatmate on the aircraft, who has stayed up all night time euthanizing, then burying, his beloved household canine, tells her about his drive to the airport:

“To be honest, I shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of a car,” he stated 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 stated, together 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 stated, “I read the news, but I’ve got a bit behind since leaving work.”

I stated it was true that the query of whether or not to go away or stay was one we often requested ourselves in personal, to the extent that it might virtually be stated to represent the innermost core of self-determination. When you have been unfamiliar with the political state of affairs in our nation, you may assume you have been witnessing not the machinations of a democracy however the last give up of private consciousness into the general public area.

Brexit as psychodrama: Cusk’s delicate and probing trilogy is not any much less a report of personal life underneath assault than Laing’s louder, harsher e-book. For all its ethical bluster, Crudo looks like a capitulation to the modern consideration financial system alongside passages of such acute psychological perception.

Kathy has higher issues to do than learn concerning the window frames in different individuals’s homes, however apparently we don’t. “Things, she liked them more and more,” Laing writes, as Kathy gazes at footage of a luxe renovated rectory in Dorset. The truth is, Kathy appears most comfy when describing what she’s eaten. For her husband’s birthday at London’s trendy 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 different mealtimes, readers are additionally handled 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.” Little question it was extra satisfying to explain—and eat—all this delicacies than it’s to examine it.

Amongst Laing’s many baffling authorial selections in Crudo is the obvious disjuncture she units up between the narrator Kathy’s queer punk previous and imminent straight union. The conflation of Acker and Laing’s biographies requires a strenuous suspension of disbelief: if Kathy is basically as cool as she appears, why would she need to marry a poet twenty-nine years her senior? The unresolved rigidity between Acker’s gritty historical past and Laing’s bourgeois bliss is perhaps most generously understood as an goal correlative for the chasm she perceives, as a well-to-do white individual, between precise political points and her personal first-world issues.

However the query of whether or not a satire on the blind assurances of privilege may reinforce the very social buildings it units out to show and dismantle is just not one which appears to have occurred to Laing to ask. Right here is Kathy, momentarily troubled by the information that an eight-year-old boy has been lynched in New Hampshire, earlier than shifting right into a still-life description of her house: “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.” Maybe the critics who prophesize the top of “serious reading” ought to fear much less about how our compulsive media panorama is stultifying potential shoppers of excessive literature than about what it’s doing to those that produce it.


Crudo shares with the social novel an ambition to maneuver between world-historical occasions and the mundane dramas of intimate life. However it presents our period as an anomaly that defies and exceeds the novel’s already porous boundaries. Kathy’s description of the summer time of 2017 doubles as an outline of what it’s wish to learn 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 typically displays on the best way during which the web, by rendering quick what could also be distant, overwhelms us with an excessive amount of info—which can also be to say, creates an issue for the novelist: “there was currently, Kathy thought, a problem with putting things together.”

And but a big a part of the novel’s activity has all the time been to aim to place the whole lot collectively, even and particularly when the chaos of the novelist’s historic second—the rise of the Nazi Get together in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin tales, the Second World Conflict’s arbitrary calculus of dying in Gravity’s Rainbow—appears to defy imaginative mastery. Novelists, in any case, have efficiently sacrificed far higher conventions than plot and character on the altar of experimentalism. Many writers have even included their very own wrestle of making an attempt to dramatize unwieldy topics into their novel’s very type.

As a result of digital life is disjointed and unsatisfying, it is perhaps tempting to put the disjointed and unsatisfying nature of Crudo on 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 web provides rise is, in fact, precisely what the guide units out to explain and outline. At occasions this could make it troublesome to separate a critique of Crudo from a critique of the unfiltered ideas and moods it so precisely replicates: the half-longings and quasi-guilt that hound us every time we browse the online. Of Twitter, Laing has stated, “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’s good for every part, in different phrases, that the novel is just not. As of this writing, Laing has deactivated her Twitter account. This looks like a promising begin.

Ava Kofman is a contributing author at The Intercept.

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