Who is Kathy?

Olivia Laing, Crudo

Picador, 176pp, £12.99, ISBN 978-1509892839

reviewed by Matthew Turner

It’s often said that we don’t read anymore, but look around any coffee shop, park or commuter train and people are constantly scanning and reading various feeds on their phones. Even people reading a physical book will often have a phone perched in front of it – hidden in the gutter margin like a dirty magazine – reading from both as if they are conjuring a real-time cut-up or montage between screen and page. It seems there’s a distinction between reading a novel and something such as a twitter thread, an inability to fuse the two – perhaps even a reluctance to synonymise them.

Olivia Laing, however, flattens this hierarchy in her experimental debut novel, Crudo, as we follow the accumulative ennui of Kathy who attempts to process love, the body, sexuality, dwelling and self-perception in the tumultuous and oppressive heat of summer 2017. Through this we are given streams of – often unpunctuated – quick and smooth interior monologue that seamlessly and perennially migrate between digital and material realms. The result is a crossbred stream of consciousness, once the preserve of the avant-garde, now an everyday experience that is played out collectively online and on the pages of Crudo. The realms of social media have replaced the confessional box, and Laing uses this environment to allow Kathy to make confessions to herself.

Much like our digital fictional personas, Kathy is a slippery and illusive character – to both the reader and to herself. In 2017, Chris Kraus described her After Kathy Acker: A Biography as a book that ‘may or may not be a biography’ of Acker, in reference to the writer’s self-mythologising to the point where even her factual life was dematerialised into a weird sub-genre of fiction. And now we have Crudo that features another Kathy, ‘A commitment-phobic peripatetic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker. . .’It’s hard to know who Kathy really is.

It seems strange to refer to ourselves in the third person, but we often do so online – it’s easy to forget that in the early days of Facebook status writing this was eerily the case. In the opening sentences of the novel, which probably defines a generation addicted to social media and the resultant discrepancies of self that this entails, Laing 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 talks about herself in the third-person; she is dissociated, a voyeur on her own life. And this sets up a constant reminder that Kathy sees herself as a fiction, that her internal conflicts have pushed her far away from her core being.

The question of who Kathy is – Acker or otherwise – is further complicated. Laing covertly laces the text with quotes from Kathy Acker’s books and various people’s twitter accounts. The effect often makes the protagonist seem like an Internet BOT, chewing up and spewing out content from other people and conversations in attempt to appear like a real person – the real Kathy. But if Kathy is a BOT, she’s an exquisitely crafted one.

This is just the start of Kathy’s dichotomies. Kathy is content, but conflicted. Kathy is a person, potentially someone that did exist, but also doesn’t exist, or, doesn’t want to exist; she wants to be with her husband, wants to be alone, but also wants everyone; she wants a home, but also wants to be continually in transit; she is alone, while being completely surrounded and she likes talking, but doesn’t like it when people talk back (this reminiscent of how we interact online); she is a woman, but also feels androgynous. Her personality becomes more telling of her environment than of an individual, which erodes her as a character even as we learn more. Her personality is an allegory of our times; it is ‘motionful like marble’, a phrase she uses to describe the Internet, but in tandem is describing herself. The same can be said for many of her observations about the world.

Laing’s protagonist speculates on the speed and chaos of current affairs, this too reflective of her own personality:

‘Kathy was becoming obsessed with the numbness, the way the news cycle was making her incapable of action, a beached somnolent whale. No one could put anything together, that was the problem.’

Being able to see everything occurring around her at once numbs Kathy, and the pressure builds on her like the compression on a limb that makes it go numb. In a world of shape-shifting flux, there is no space for stillness - for recognisable or clear identities. Our psyches have begun to mirror the speed of information, and we are all in danger, like Kathy, of becoming phantom limbs.

The intense interiority – to the point of implosion – of Kathy’s character is reiterated by how Laing rarely describes the environment beyond the architecture of Kathy’s body. We only know the world is hot and closing in; there are wildfires across Europe as she travels with her husband in the vacuum of luxury hotels and in a taxi with ‘its own ecosystem of damp woolly air.’ Even her own body is folding against her: ‘Her ear had become blocked by water and every hour or so it cleared for a moment and then quickly something rose up inside it like a thick wad of chewing gum, like a sock. It was unpleasant, the sense of something pressing at her interior, it dragged her down.’ The only external geography that Laing shows in any amount of detail is the landscape of the Internet, shown through the window of the phone screen. This has become nature, and even the horrors of the outside world seem inconsequential through the distancing filter of the screen. Perhaps Laing doesn’t need to describe Kathy’s environment because she is both subject of the book and symptomatic of everything that is happening all around her. Kathy is not a character; she is a socio-political landscape.

The tension Kathy experiences continues to escalate throughout the novel, erupting when she finally confronts the reliance she has on her husband, whom previously she seemed indifferent towards. She speculates on the difficulty of one day having to say goodbye to him, before using the first person again, not to momentarily converge and reengage with herself, but – refracted through words she is in the process of writing – as another form of hiding from this revelation: ‘On the page I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly.’ Shortly after this scene, she realises that love is a datum, a reassuring tidemark amidst the chaos as the world breaks its banks around her. But Kathy can’t dwell on this fleeting realisation for long; she has a flight to catch and soon will be in motion once again.

So, who is Kathy? Kathy has serious FOMO, she is genderqueer, Kathy is not the Underground Man; she is the Underground They. She has lost her corporeality; she is having an identity crisis. Kathy is numb. Kathy is full of angst. Kathy is ill. Kathy is the 21st century.