What is a novel?: Crudo by Olivia Laing

Title: Crudo
Author: Olivia Laing
Year published: 2018
Publisher: Picador
Genre: Honestly, who knows. Autofiction?
Should you read this? Um…

I was drawn to the bloody meat on Crudo’s cover the way that you can’t look help but crane your neck when you drive past a motorway accident. Maybe it was morbid fascination that made me pick it up, or maybe it was just the fact that it was shelved close to Rachel Cusk when it was published in 2018 and Outline was one of my favourite books of last year. I liked The Lonely City, and reviews of Crudo and interviews with the author promised me that with her first work of fiction, Laing had ‘challenged the definition of a novel’.

Unfortunately, I think this lofty praise may have been partly to blame for the fact that I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I thought I would. Because honestly, what was the definition of the novel to begin with? Sorry to go all, I-Did-A-Publishing-Degree on you, but I wrote an essay entitled ‘What is a book?’ in which I argued that the term is beyond definition and the question itself is silly and irrelevant. I got a first and the lecturers didn’t pose the question to the following year’s students. *hair flick*

I didn’t hate Crudo. It was just… fine.

Laing wrote it over 7 weeks during the summer of 2017. It is told through the persona of Kathy Acker (sort of, perhaps, maybe) – but whereas the real Acker died in 1997 of breast cancer, this Acker has survived. The novel is quite light on actual story; instead, it’s a sort of fever dream about the protagonist’s fear of commitment, of falling in love, of getting married – all of which she does over the course of its 130-odd pages. It’s told in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, which anchors the narrative very precisely in the summer in which it was written; mentions of Trump, Charlottesville, Grenfell and the other unspeakable sewage that made up those months abound. Crudo is, after all, Italian for raw.

I think the reason Crudo was given the (some would say undeserved) accolade of having redefined the novel was because it blends fiction and non-fiction: it’s a fictionalised account of a decidedly non-fictional person, of a world that really happened but in which she never lived. And that’s interesting, don’t get me wrong; it’s just that it’s not that it hasn’t been done before. Without trying to sound like someone who Reads All The Books and trying very much to sound like Shania Twain, that don’t impress me much – which, I think, is ultimately what the book was about. It wasn’t about character development or plot – which are, call me picky, two things I tend to enjoy in my reading material. I think Crudo was about impressing people, even if that person was just Laing herself. It comes across as an experiment, a trying-out of a style entirely for her own pleasure, a big work of literary masturbation. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – masturbation is great – just don’t make me watch.

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