Olivia Laing’s Banal Avant-Garde

The End of Downtown

Olivia Laing’s banal avant-garde.

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In the fall of 2016, a month after Donald Trump was elected president, I introduced a talk at The New School by Chris Kraus, who was reading from her forthcoming biography of Kathy Acker. As I stared out at the rows of young people who had packed in to see her, I could see that many in the audience looked remarkably similar to me: white women with dark hair and glasses, all of us fans of Kraus’s novel I Love Dick, separated into micro-generations in accordance with its original publishing date in 1997, its reissue in 2007, and its second reissue in 2015. It was then dawning on me, in my early 20s, as we sat there that me and my peers (anyone at this reading really) weren’t part of a second wave of the downtown scene, and we never would be. Because the downtown scene was dead. Instead, we were ushering in the gentrification of an already existing white avant garde into mainstream publishing.

Olivia Laing was one of these readers. She read Kraus’s acerbic biography of Kathy Acker the following summer, and feeling inspired, announced on Twitter that she was going to write a novel. The premise of Crudo, the novel that emerged from the tweet, is that Laing’s protagonist, who “may or may not be Kathy Acker,” who died in 1997, is alive in 2017, is getting married, and is addicted to Twitter. It was a strange fiction debut for the acclaimed writer of three nonfiction books, who spent a large majority of the novel quoting the tweets of the early Trump administration and thinking about her protagonist’s impending marriage in an Acker imitation (something of a departure from her previous, though still bibliographic writing style, which had drawn from anglophone writers and artists like Virginia Woolf and David Hockney).

Laing was experimenting with questions she had not previously addressed in her work: appropriation and authorship, narrative structures, embodiment, and the Internet. It did not feel like a wholly genuine shift in her narrative style, and in my opinion it totally flopped. But the failure was interesting, if not also infuriating, because it marked the popularization of a new kind of writing. Laing was attaching herself to a literary trend. Those couple of years she spent wrapped in the specter of autofiction marked a pivotal shift in the literary landscape of the 2010s. The term “lyrical memoir” was not yet met with eye rolls, and a personal memoir still held the potential to be somewhat subversive.

This was also around the time Laing was writing a column for the art magazine Frieze, commenting on works such as Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World and Juliet Jacques’s Trans. “The memoir is a morphing form and it seems to me that this particular approach represents a new development,” she wrote of those books. She was building a foundation for themes she was about to present in Crudo, and justifying the direction she was about to take. Composed of collected essays, Funny Weather is a precursor to Crudo and a companion reader to it.

You can almost see Laing’s thought process solidify in her reprinted Guardian reviews (also included in the collection). In a piece on Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, originally appearing in 2015, she writes, “If you haven’t heard of her, it’s because she has yet to be published in the UK, from which one might conclude that British publishing is becoming too timid for its own good.” Her review of I Love Dick from the same year also comes to this conclusion: “Amazingly, this is its first publication in the UK.” The backbone of this mode of writing, besides the commentary on British publishing, was a kind of worshipful love for the 1990s New York avant-garde and many of its ancestors to be found in the Bay Area’s New Narrative scene.

It was also within these years that the New Narrative movement—decades after its golden age—moved to establish itself in the mainstream literary canon, not just as a footnote in the works of popular authors like Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti. The same year, 2017, that Kraus’s Acker biography hit shelves, Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy edited an anthology called Writers Who Love Too Much, a collection of New Narrative writing with excerpts of notable books pertaining to the movement spanning the years 1977 to 1997. There are many facets and claims to what New Narrative was, but first and foremost it was a movement focused on queer poetics that were driven by theory. To write well, one of its founders, Robert Glück, wrote, one had to come at narrative in a manner informed by politics. To write politically, then, was to rearrange narrative, to write about desire openly, and to challenge bourgeois writing and its ends. (Crudo starts with an engagement and ends with a straight marriage. It’s almost comical how Laing’s novel begins by taking up the ending of a 19th century bourgeois novel focused on the marriage plot.)

Killian and Bellamy’s anthology concludes with an excerpt from Kraus’s I Love Dick, an example of this period of writing that managed to encapsulate many particulars of the genre at once. Coming out the same summer as the I Love Dick television series the two anthologists wrote: “Now we hear that I Love Dick, in its day one of the most scandalous books ever written, is being made as a TV series for Netflix, and America’s sweetheart, Kevin Bacon, the Zelig of modern representation, has been cast as Dick.” A style of writing that had always been felt to be on the periphery suddenly manifested itself on billboards, and its influence wasn’t apparent just on the side of highways. It had drifted someplace new from writers like Ben Lerner and Olivia Laing.

Crudo, with its intended and obvious influences aside, may also be considered a distant cousin of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a crown jewel of American autofiction, if only because both books allude to metaphors of expensive seafood. In the first sentence of 10:04, Lerner eats baby octopus at a restaurant with his agent. The octopus is “impossibly tender,” and arrives fresh every morning from Portugal, prepared by being massaged to death. The octopus is an organizing metaphor for the rest of the novel, its tentacles spreading out into different pasts and futures in the narrator’s orbit. And while the octopus serves as a stand-in for the global economy, I couldn’t help but see it as a symbol of the literary industry itself. The personal mode of writing, a motif of the late-20th-century avant-garde, is massaged to death, made into an almost perfect novel. Lerner’s complicity as he masticates and swallows the dead mollusk, absorbing it into his body while sitting in a Chelsea restaurant, is a concession of complicity beyond his control.

There is no scene like this in Crudo. Kathy eats rich food on her European vacation, she thoughtlessly consumes what is in front of her rather guiltlessly, also a concession. Here is another one: In a piece Laing wrote for The Paris Review’s column “Writers’ Fridges” (not included in Funny Weather), she penned an essay on the food in her refrigerator (and Brexit) through the voice of the narrator of Crudo and admits to eating but never cooking. She describes food outsourced and produced in other countries, from molasses to Greek yogurt, and concludes that this is “Food that has traveled across borders, food that needs visas and will soon be deported.” This is a Laing trademark. The personal may be political, but for Laing, the political is also banal.

The essays of Funny Weather span many disparate topics; they range from art and book reviews to personal writings about Laing’s upbringing to thoughts on the lives of artists. Most have appeared in various publications over the past decade. For Laing, politicizing her personal life often results in inserting herself into world historical tragedies, like the time she wrote a Guardian piece comparing the overflow of information on Twitter to the desensitization of German citizens in the Holocaust. In recent years, as with her essay about her refrigerator, she has zeroed in on the refugee crisis, which she ties to a belief in hospitality and the idea that Britain and the US should be more welcoming. In an essay on John Berger at the end of the book, she writes: “Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers, a word that shares its origin with hospital, a place to treat sick or injured people.” This kind of argument is symptomatic of Laing’s critical shortcomings—it is a reading so strained and devoid of meaning she had to resort to a basic dictionary definition to fill up space.

In another essay, Laing writes of the confusion of the year 2016, after the Pulse shooting and during the anti-refugee rhetoric of the Trump campaign. She writes, “Like you, maybe, I’m trying to make sense of this summer, to work out the best way to respond.” She continues on about the violent rise of fascism and then, “I don’t want to write another word about Trump or guns or hatred.” Instead she wants to write about where hospitality happens, which for her occurs in art galleries around the world. She compares attending artist Marc Hundley’s show (which gives her a “bright” feeling) of pop inspired prints to being out on a lake. “Hundley’s work isn’t political, exactly, but it’s about a hospitality to feeling, a tolerance and openness that feels radical in its own right.” She feels this while looking at a silhouette of trees with a John Maus lyric printed on it. Sitting on the bench provided by the show at Canada, a Lower East Side gallery, she feels welcome, and then the essay ends.

Her essay “Party Going,” a riff on a Henry Green novel of the same name, contemplates citizenship and borders while Laing is on a train ride originating in Italy. Travel, she writes in the last paragraph, takes a toll, but “we” (she includes herself in the struggle) need to be moving often, “for love or water, away from bombs, looking for places of greater safety or abundance.” Wouldn’t it be better to “unlock the doors, to pool the resources” of nation-states? She answers herself by quoting the last sentence of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses: “Yes, I said yes.” This is my main objection to Laing—her broad strokes on fascism, death, and struggle barely register in her overfluffed prose, which is dominated by her bibliography.

In “The Abandoned Person’s Tale,” originally published in 2016 for an outreach project called Refugee Tales, she interviews a man escaping from “X country” (“X country is a corrupt country”) who becomes trapped in one of Britain’s detention centers for a petty crime for 11 years. She draws again on the concept of “hospitality” in John Berger’s work to talk about nation-states, and how they should welcome strangers. “So imagine a country founded on kindness, a country that treats desperate strangers with respect. And now we come to the question that haunts me. What could you have become in that good, imagined place? What would you have done with your beautiful life?”

To describe the imperialism, racism, and brutality in Britain that destroyed a man’s life as a lack of kindness diminishes the story. It falsely posits that empathy is a politically useful vehicle in and of itself. When Laing writes about her life before she became a writer, she describes her thought process of becoming a recluse in a house without electricity when she was in her 20s (this period of her life only lasted one season, hence the essay title “Feral Spring”). She wanted to live in a way that would not create any environmental harm, to exit from society. For her, this is a form of activism, the seed of a thought that later manifests itself in simplistic thinking throughout this collection. Laing would rather overemphasize the politics of the personal than account for her own lack of solidarity with forces of meaningful reform. The problem is that you can’t.

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