“Kathy was repulsed by her own indolence”
How Olivia Laing’s Crudo plays with the middle-class liberal to question their privilege
Rarely is a novel so targeted to a specific audience as Olivia Laing’s fiction debut. Its cover uses a photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans, astro crusto to be precise. Those who recognise the image feel a certain pride at having done so, a testament to their intellectual and cultural proficiency. They feel capable of understanding the content wrapped up within the cover better than a reader who failed to pick up on the cover. As such, they become far more likely to buy the book.
This is not a case of simply judging the book by its cover as each aspect of the book-as-object serve to whittle down those who would consider the book to a specific set. The back has a testimonial from Chris Kraus, beacon of postmodernist feminism since the mid-90s onwards, amongst others. The notes on the slipcover speaks of how Crudo is set in the “horrifying summer of 2017" in a Britain that is “Brexit-paralysed”. Frankly, the summer of 2017 was not horrifying for the majority of Brits. Those who found it horrifying were broadly liberal intellectuals: those who had the means and the free time to stay up to date with minute-by-minute developments coming from Downing Street and the White House. They must have also had enough of an historical education to be able to see the worrying trends in their full context. In other words, before even having started reading the novel, Laing and her publishers, have made clear what kind of reader this was made for: the London internationalist liberal remainer, university educated and middle class. One feels that the ideal place to read Crudo would be on the District Line, heading west to the leafy riverside suburbs.
This ideal reader would find a kindred spirit in Kathy, Crudo’s central figure. She has artist friends such as Chantal (Laing is here referring to her friend, Chantal Joffe, in one example of memoir being spun into fiction, à la I Love Dick) with studios in Islington. She treats international borders with little care, flitting between Italy and Britain and slipping into each smoothly. She has lived in New York before and is returning there to teach. Kathy is living what would appear to be the perfect upper-middle class lifestyle — when she ends up holidaying with the super-rich she “didn’t pass, obviously” but she nevertheless has the money to occasionally go on such trips.
Having established this, readers will be relived to know that Kathy also has the must-have accessory of her class, a relentlessly updated social conscience. With the help of Twitter, Laing’s narrative does not give Kathy more than a few pages of life before interrupting with a news story about the widow of Liu Xiaobo or a clip of Caroline Lucas being dismissed when talking about climate change. And then there is Trump. Laing makes the decision to begin with a tweet-epigraph from the US President and he punctuates Kathy’s thought to the extent that he becomes a phantom character.
Apparently, Jacob Rees-Mogg would be the next Prime Minister, he went on Good Morning Britain and explained pleasantly that he thought that abortion should be illegal even for rape and that he would like to ban gay marriage. Kathy hated everything, her head hurt even after two coffees, she couldn’t abide men policing women’s bodies, smiling men deporting immigrants, smiling men telling lies on daytime television, it was all so tawdry, the endless malice of the polite right.
The reader understands how this can feel. Were they to run into Kathy on a Thursday morning at Caffe Nero, they would listen to her with a sad, resigned smile and give a sympathetic murmur, encompassing all the threats to Western democracy within that sound. Yet Kathy is not as ideologically pure as she may seem, and for the small microcosm left of people like her, this is a major flaw:
At the weekend she was going to a party with people who had openly praised Enoch Powell, at the weekend she was going to a party with people who had said of people crossing to Greece, it’s ridiculous, they should just bomb the boats.
Make no mistake, Kathy is not one these people, but she seems content enough to respond to the “endless malice of the polite right” with more of her own politeness. Though she claims to be a brash New Yorker even after having left, her tolerance of these people is more reminiscent of someone raised in a “damp garden in England” as she has that quintessentially English personality trait of not wanting to rock the boat.
Unfortunately, water seems to be rushing into the boat at a cataclysmic rate anyway yet she cannot muster much in the way of actual resistance to it. Kathy’s rage at the state of the world is wholly real but it is nevertheless rooted in theory and affronts to her values rather than her existence. For a white cis person with a secure legal status and money, Trump, Brexit and the migration crisis are not going to put her life on the line. Should the NHS go under, she can afford private healthcare. Should the muslim ban be implemented, she can still enter the US. Even with abortion rights in America under threat, a flight to a clinic in the UK would be within her means.
All this gives Kathy, and by extension Laing (for her narration is so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the novel that the writer almost disappears into her character), the air of being nothing more than a neurotic, concerned bystander. She reads about a biracial child in New Hampshire being hanged by teenagers, only just surviving. She sees the photo of his neck covered in rope cuts and burns:
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.
Clearly, as traumatic as the news story is for Kathy, it is still ultimately going to be just that: a story. She is living comfortably, safely detached from the violence she is following. As such, the news becomes a grim form of reality entertainment for her to keep up with rather than something which may affect her own life. She can tune into the latest developments for a few minutes before putting it out of her mind and continuing her life as before. Meanwhile those on the frontlines of global developments continue their struggle against suffering, unaware that Kathy has tuned out. She is able to pick up trainers for a friend’s birthday at Dover Street Market, a London dressing-box for the new super-rich, without having to give a thought as to where the money can come from.
There appear to be a few moments of more ordinary life. She frets over whether she can afford to buy a tiny flat next to the Barbican or not, facing the same housing crisis as many Londoners with rents shooting up whilst also offering less and less space. Only this is to be Kathy’s second home. She already has a large, comfortable house in the country, this is almost an impulse buy, indulging in her aesthetic taste for the Barbican’s brutalism.
The image Laing carefully fosters of Kathy over the course of the first half or so of the novel is of someone who is activist-adjacent: she is precisely aware of the developments taking place worldwide but she is neither affected by them nor does she do anything to try and change them. Thus, her inaction makes her a hypocrite, only marginally less damaging than the “polite right” she lambasts. The reader’s affinity with Kathy begins to be replaced by a mild loathing.
Since Laing writes Kathy with such a light touch, one also starts to wonder if Laing shares some of these characteristics. Were the novel to end here, it would feel woefully unsatisfying. Luckily, it does not, instead having Kathy look at herself with a lens that is uncomfortably raw, both for her and for the reader. She begins by acknowledging the same flaws in her character pointed out here, being “repulsed by her own indolence”. When, in an apocalyptic mindset, she starts to write a will, she has the thought that there are those with far more at stake should things go awry. The resentment that had been building up towards Kathy over the course of the novel is quickly shed. Her self-awareness is one of her most endearing qualities.
We then go onto follow Kathy as she delves into why she is at once so overwhelmed by the news and yet so dull to it. The root, we find, is in her iminent return to the US. She may be distant from political developments for the moment, but she is about to be thrust into the fray, in American academia, where free speech and political correctness fight it out in lecture halls and campus quads. She is afraid of what is to come and her admission is a rare sight amongst liberals. Anger is righteous and action does have to be taken, Laing seems to be saying, but hope can only be reached once we first acknowledge the root of our visceral reaction to the political climate: our fear.
Laing shows Kathy’s vulnerability, and how despite her worries, she is able to take enough consolation to move forwards, day by day. In an age where so many like Kathy skip right past their very human fear for the future, Crudo serves to encourage the reader to frankly bring these fears out into the open.