Laing has not entirely given up her biographer’s taste for burrowing inside other people’s skins, however. If Kathy is Laing’s alter ego, she is also an homage to Kathy Acker, the iconoclastic postmodern punk writer. Laing’s Kathy is, like Acker, the author of the novels “Blood and Guts in High School” and “Great Expectations” (“I expect you’ve heard of them,” Laing writes, sounding a bit clubby); her father, like Acker’s, abandoned the family before she was born and her mother, like Acker’s, committed suicide. She enjoys travelling, is apparently sexually voracious—“she’d barely ever not had some kind of STD”—and has had cancer twice and a double mastectomy, though she is not sick now. (Acker died, from breast cancer, in 1997, at the age of fifty.) Sometimes Acker’s phrases slide directly into the text as part of Kathy’s stream of thought. Some of these—“Wants go so deep there is no way of getting them out of the body”—merge so seamlessly with Laing’s voice that it comes as a surprise to discover Laing didn’t write them. Others (“the only thing I want is all-out war”) are obvious intruders from an alien consciousness, appealing, if sometimes puzzling, in their weird, retro dissonance. (Laing’s Kathy is terrified of the world’s destruction; all-out war seems like the last thing she, or any other sane person, wants at the moment.) Acker herself was a first-rate stealer of other people’s writing, and Laing’s theft pays tribute in kind. She is picking Fagin’s own pocket, though the assiduous biographer cannot entirely shed her scruples: a tidy list of citations is included at the back of the novel.
Why Kathy Acker? Well, why not? Laing was working on a review of Chris Kraus’s biography of Acker when she began to write “Crudo.” Like the resort in Italy and the adventure of getting married, Acker presented herself as found material ready for the taking. Also, Laing clearly likes her, as she likes all the people she writes about. Her genuine intellectual warmth is a strong point of her criticism; even in her more straightforward biography, Laing gives the sense of thinking through people, rather than merely about them. But Acker is not a subject here, in the biographer’s sense, or even really a protagonist, in the novelist’s. Instead, she functions more like a patron spirit, a persona that Laing can slip into when she wants to summon some bravado. There is a productive friction between the two identities. “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married” is the book’s first sentence, and it has a warping effect—for a moment, we are looking at them double, Laing’s true “I” and her “Kathy” standing side by side just before they merge. The third person can be a useful distancing device for a writer, especially one practicing autofiction that blends the speculative and the real. It both lets the author see her private “I” more clearly and helps her escape it when “her own contemptible identity,” in Laing’s sharp phrase, becomes too claustrophobic.
Escape from oneself, or, rather, its impossibility, is one of the novel’s preoccupations. Kathy, nervous about so many things, is supremely nervous about marriage. It means the end of a life of wanton independence, of living where she wants and leaving when she pleases. Ian, her husband-to-be, is “indisputably nice, everyone liked him, it was impossible not to,” which may be part of the reason that Kathy can’t stop picking fights with him over small matters, such as the unfortunate shade of brown that the porch of their house has been painted. He is already comfortably domestic, the household’s grocery shopper and cook; touchingly, he insists on preparing their wedding lunch and baking their cake himself. Meanwhile, Kathy’s intimacy issues keep bubbling up. “She had no idea what to do with love, she experienced it as invasion, as the prelude to loss and pain, she really didn’t have a clue,” Laing writes. The marriage is supposed to be “openish”—Kathy has had another lover as recently as May—but that doesn’t solve the problem of getting used to having someone else in the bed every night. Answering e-mails, exasperated with herself, she thinks, “Human relations, how.” The little punch of the period perfects the sentence, as if it were a reference to be filed away in some unsearchable index of life.
Kathy’s two great fears—the prospect of spending the rest of her life with someone, and her terror of the imminent end of all life on Earth—aren’t entirely different from each other. Both are confrontations with forever. “She missed the sense of time as something serious and diminishing, she didn’t like living in the permanent present of the id,” Laing writes, nine days before the wedding, an observation that elegantly conveys the frantic momentum that time now seems to have. The thought that gives rise to that observation is just as familiar, if less fresh: “She missed Obama. Everyone missed Obama.”
The risk of prose that tries to capture the sentiments of the immediate present is that it tends to take on the rubbery chew of an op-ed. Fortunately, Laing’s novel is too headlong for that. There is no sense of slowing the mad dash of the present to make it more comprehensible to some hypothetical future reader. For that reason, “Crudo” could turn out to be a novel that we pick up years from now to remind ourselves how these times felt, should we have the stomach for that. If there were moments when my attention lagged in “Crudo,” they had to do with the narrator’s casual, diaristic way of name-dropping friends and places; it sometimes gave me the feeling of standing alone at a party, waiting in vain to be introduced—or of watching someone else’s social-media feed, which may be part of the point.
Marriage is what puts time back into its proper perspective for Kathy. Once the deed is done, there is no scheduled disaster left to count down to, only disasters to try to keep at bay: sickness, death, the unthinkable inevitabilities that will bring everything to an end. Kathy now finds herself worrying that Ian might vanish in the night. (He has sleep apnea: “It had killed Carrie Fisher.”) “Just let me learn that love is more than me,” she prays, after she loses her temper about the porch paint. By the end of the novel, there is still the usual anxious, bilious taste regarding the outside world, but now, inside, there is sweetness, too:
She listened to him breathing, the long apnoeic gaps. She wasn’t the first person to do this, she wasn’t even the first person to write down what it felt like. She was breathless with love for him, the warm sleeping animal, the golden eyes that opened and peered at her fondly.
When Laing writes that “she wasn’t even the first person to write down what it felt like,” she means that she has a specific literary precedent to draw on for her specific love: Jenny Diski wrote about Patterson when they were together. Yet this turns out to be reassuring, not threatening. In the bigger sense, too, love is all about repetition. You get your heart broken, like Laing, or like Kathy, and somehow you find yourself going back in. You’re not the first person to do it, and you have to hope that the world goes on long enough that you will not be the last. In August, Laing and Patterson got married all over again, with “a proper fête,” she has said, to make up for the haste of the proceedings last year. That sounds just right. Love may not be original, but this funny, fervent novel is. ♦