After working with John Decker for a semester, I began to realize he likes to read weird stuff (according to my roommate, he also likes to write it! Ooh la la). He has sung the praises of Anna Burns’s “Milkman” three times in print (and counting), wrote a full-on piece in support of uncomfortable fiction and was 300 percent into Kristen Roupenian’s latest collection of squirm-worthy horror stories.
He is also on Goodreads, and I happened to notice that he had marked Olivia Laing’s “Crudo,” an aggressively contemporary experimental novel with a dried, crushed fly on the cover, as “want to read.” This was convenient for me, because I had been looking for a reason to buy the book (it’s hardcover, a greater investment than I usually squander my impulses on). A couple texts and transactions later, we both had books in our hands and updated statuses on our Goodreads.
As a contemporary novel, “Crudo” does that risky thing where it pulls present-day behavior into the revered realm of published literature. The book moves at the rapid speed and with the passive attitude of technology, so we decided to write our review in a compatible medium: email. It worked pretty well for “Paradise Rot,” another stylish and slim work of fiction marketed to millennials. The form felt right for Laing’s tweet-infested, Trump-obsessed prose, too.
For what it’s worth, I gave “Crudo” three stars and John gave it four. Watch us duke it out below.
I’ve just finished reading “Crudo” and I think there is something to be said about a reader’s evolving proximity to a book. As in, not just how someone quantifiably judges a book (for its writing style, its lovely intrigue), but how they interact with it.
I’ll say that “Crudo” began as something distant for me. I worked through the first quarter of the book with a slight attraction around Kathy’s story. But the brevity of the images that Laing had written meant that when I stopped reading, any of the emotional velocity I’d felt while reading was gone. It was like I had to start over with emotive involvement when I picked up the book again. I’m thinking, then, that the depth of the book was really meant to spark something just in the very act of reading; that is, to be struck while in the process of encountering the images Laing flashes, but not to be affected by them afterwards. I’m not sure if you felt the same, of course.
I will say, this belligerent line will sit with me for a while after finishing the book, though: “The hammer, smashing the crab’s back. She wanted to be cracked open, that was the thing, only on her own terms and within preordained limits. There were rules, she changed them.”
At this crab-smashing point in the book, I’ll say, my interaction with “Crudo” changed. What I said before still stands, but I found that the images started throwing punches a little more violently (right into my gut, sometimes, because I think I related a bit too much to some of Kathy’s sentiments). But maybe it was all just me getting used to the structure of the book — image after image with dialogue claustrophobically in between. Somewhat hoping that your feelings on the almost-experimental aspect of the book’s structure are similar.
P.S. Wondering what you think of the development of the Laing’s characters. Especially “husband” and Kathy.
You put words to “Crudo”’s peculiarity so effortlessly. “A reader’s evolving proximity to a book … ” yeah, I’d say. “Crudo” is low-key slippery, one of those books that looks digestibly edgy but ends up eluding you just a little more than you wanted it to. Flirting with disaster. I thought it was going to be a talkative high and it was more like a funky microdose. Which isn’t bad, it just wasn’t as easy as I had anticipated. In fact, I’d be a hypocrite if I said that wasn’t a good thing for a book to do.
But yes, I kept changing my mind about my relationship with “Crudo” chapter to chapter, exactly the way you’re describing. It’s much easier to put down than pick up. And it gave me an identity crisis as a reader because, as much as I despise this term, “Crudo” is my brand — pissed off women trying to figure out how to emote in the now, complete with art and snark and a Chris Kraus endorsement (“Paradise Rot” is also endorsed by Kraus, a funny little throughline I just realized). I usually devour that shit, but I found myself making excuses to not pick up “Crudo.” When I did, it would take me 5-10 pages to stop resisting and warm up to each chapter (my east coast brain says “WASTED INTERPRETIVE TIME”). I wish I had forced myself to read it all in one go.
Omg, I just realized that this warming up/cooling down inertia cycle I’ve been describing is the narrative structure we’ve been discussing in Joyce class the past few weeks. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is also separated into five chapters, COINCIDENTALLY ENOUGH, each of which seems to frustratingly end exactly where it had begun. Although Stephen Dedalus (angsty hetero woman-fearing intellectual whiteboi protag) is doing stuff — going to school, fucking prostitutes, almost becoming a priest, comparing women to birds, mansplaining philosophy, writing bad poetry, you know — he never seems to evolve from it. There’s dramatic irony to this: through pattern, we learn that Stephen is forever doomed to stagnancy. The character development is paralyzed, and every chapter starts in the same introspective funk, unresponsive to the plot that continues to strike it. Visually, the book is like five identical circles in a row. Ask Ethan for more about this, it’s really interesting.
Anywho, I think “Crudo” is very much like five identical circles in a row. That’s the best answer I have for your question about character development. I just got massive deja vu while writing that sentence and I can’t place it. Weird.
I mentioned this briefly in person, but I’m very certain that much of the pause “Crudo” gives me is due to how personally attacked I felt while reading it. This sort of identification is always such a double-edged sword. There’s definite relief in seeing something kind of knotty about yourself in popular art, the solidarity of representation, yada yada. But it also gives you the unique distance to see exactly how difficult those qualities can be, like the age-old fantasy of getting to watch yourself go through a day from afar or as an onlooker (it also makes you feel less special, like is my internal struggle that basic? Sad).
So when Kathy describes herself as “a paragon of invincibility” with “all the cards,” absolutely wrecking this dude she’s sleeping with, afterwards “(sitting) on the couch composed and triumphant … now that was a successful relationship,” yeah, I felt a complicated sort of attacked. “Kathy loathed permeability, she wanted to be gilded,” and so do I, and it’s cool that I can connect to Kathy like that but now I’m seeing how our shared qualities may be a little abrasive to the people I’m close to, emotionally and physically. I very much felt the way I did the first time I watched “Frances Ha”: warm, less alone, but definitely reminded of how fucked I was.
I texted you this, but writing this email has overwhelmed me with how much I suddenly have to say about “Crudo.” That’s always telling. And I have to add that I love how the wedding took place in the middle, I always felt that saving the wedding for the end was depressing and super lame/unrealistic (except the ending SUCKED. Take me up on that).
What did you think about all the social media and tech in this book? I always find the use of that language in literature so interesting — it divides readers but seems necessary because someone has to write about these times, right? They’re so weird! That’s what writing is for.
Also, did you know Laing’s Kathy is loosely based on Kathy Acker? I feel like an absolute fool, I had no clue until I read the fly leaf after I had finished the whole freaking novel, apparently it’s one of the biggest things about the book, HAHAHAHA.
I have worked myself into an interpretive froth about this. Reply soon.
I appreciate the overwhelming number of wonderfully stated descriptions in your email. While I may not be able to relate to Kathy as much as you, your comparison between reading “Crudo” and watching oneself as an onlooker (and the delightful and dire implications of this) really resonated. And I think that really, that’s why books are so monumental — they bid us to look at the good and the bad from different eyes, and sometimes that can be overwhelming.
Also, snaps to the “Frances Ha” nod.
I’ve been thinking about your mention of using social media in the plot of “Crudo” and I’ve come to this: Laing’s inclusion of social media and other relevant topics is fantastic, but unfamiliar also and therefore uncomfortable. I’m experiencing a similar phenomena in “Trump Sky Alpha.” While social media and Trumpism commentary has burned slowly into short stories and literary magazines, it’s still rare to see in novel format. So it was strange to read about Kathy’s constant respites to Twitter and her reaction to the overflow of gasp-inducing news on the daily, because these things haven't been examined much before. What’s more, I think that this reflection of society right now was equally appalling and intriguing for the reasons you talked about earlier — it’s a crude reflection of what we’re all doing so mindlessly. This contemporary reflection on Kathy was an interesting way to digest some of the big events of the last two years, and Laing provided what I think is an honorable depiction of the world today. It was weird, but that doesn’t mean it was substandard.
I’m glad that you agreed with my ups-and-downs regarding “Crudo” — that is, the brevity of it all, the being affected by the story in the moment and not afterwards business. Some books are regarded as fantastic because they have the capacity to influence readers for weeks, months, years, after. With “Crudo,” maybe I have some lingering emotions or questions, but much of the plot is slipping away without review. Do you think this says anything about the merit of a book? Of course, this goes to something outside of the quality of writing itself. But should a book’s impact require longevity to be heralded? I’m not sure.
You mentioned the other day your disdain for the ending. This may or may not have had something to do with the airport part of things. For what it’s worth, I was delighted by the final pages of “Crudo,” mostly because I think that wholly-absolved happy endings are a fallacy, but so are terrible ones. Laing put Kathy in a space just between these two poles. The final chapters have a sense of hope, though not too much hope. I’m curious what you think of it.
Joooooooohn Decker ~
Have you noticed the growing popularity of short story collections over the past few years? I feel like there are so many more short fiction writers nowadays, and that the story collection is becoming as popular as the novel, especially among young people.
Also, the stories tend to be edgy. I don’t need to learn you this because you’ve literally written about it. But do you think that maybe short stories are like literary incubators for more progressive or daring themes and imagery? And that when they work well, those new tactics graduate into novels? Or novellas … it’s worthy to note that “Crudo” isn’t exactly what I’d call your standard novel. It, as you have stated so shrewdly in your emails, is defined by brevity — in its imagery, but also its length and lasting impact. Something between a novel and a story, maybe.
As a student begrudgingly situated between language and numbers, I have a sensitive radar to the use of STEM in literature. And I gotta say, I love math as a literary device: it’s super satisfying (in terms of solvability, perfectionism, you know), visually interesting and plainly nerdy. Thomas Pynchon first seduced me as a reader through his use of thermodynamics and binary code as symbols. But tech is a whole different animal. The imagery is far from solvable, often fraught with business/politics and almost too new to be taken seriously (it’s like … life? Weird.). Entropy has existed since the dawn of time (or something like that I think), but Twitter was founded in 2006. Part of me is dubious about the credibility of such a new symbol, you know? Or maybe I’m just offended for my generation, since any sort of published fiction featuring social media seems to be tongue-in-cheek in some way. Or maybe it’s just the risk a writer takes in being critical of the current moment. Is this the way William S. Burroughs felt when he slammed IBM in “Naked Lunch”? (Trick question, he was too high to care).
Anyway, while thinking about your points about “Crudo”’s brevity, and its unabashed use of social media, and how difficult it is to pick up and put down, and its un-sticky imagery, I began to see an unsettling parallel between the way “Crudo” captures attention and the way social media captures attention. We don’t want to pick it up, but once we do, we are captivated by the fleeting, sensational imagery — crushing crab shell, dried-toast pigeon food, covetable umbrellas and pappardelle — until we put it down again, and the feeling blows right through us: brief, brevity, gone. It’s that kinda empty feeling you get after scrolling through Instagram. The visuals are tasty, but they don’t apply to you; in fact, they exclude you, and suddenly you’re kind of lonely.
In this vein of thought, it’s like “Crudo” is written about and for the millennial attention span. Content, form and a self-selected audience. And it seems to know it:
“People weren’t sane anymore, which didn’t mean they were wrong. Some sort of cord between action and consequence had been severed. 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 lie. It was very dizzying, you wasted a lot of time figuring it out. Had decisions really once led plainly to things happening, in a way you could report on?”
We’re lost in the sauce, baby … and perhaps “Crudo” is the literature of the sauce? Speaker of the sauce. I feel like it’s a style of writing that will be real critical fodder in a couple decades, whether in a “wow what an interesting sign of the times” or an “lmao these kids were nuts” sort of way. And that definitely seems deserving of merit and heralding (or at least consideration) to me, longevity of impact or not.
Although I’ll never praise an ending that features a woman in an airport acquiescing to “loving her husband.” I guess it’s in between happy and terrible, sure, but bleh.
Hope you had a sweet Valentine’s Day >:)