Crudo – Olivia Laing

I love going to art galleries. Contemporary exhibitions especially. I’m addicted to the atmosphere of creativity, the unpredictability, the quiet inspiration of them.

But here’s a secret: I don’t really get it. Some things I like, some not so much, and that’s as deep as the feeling goes for me. My main mode of appreciation in the gallery is to wonder until an object catches my eye, think a bit about whether that’s positive or negative, and then amble off again.

There are, of course, intermittent revelations which break this pattern. Sometimes someone will explain something to me that I hadn’t noticed. Occasionally, an accompanying plaque tells me a fact about the artist or painting or whatever. Armed with new knowledge, the work changes and resonates. Or at least becomes slightly more interesting for a passing moment.

I am aware that whether I “get” a work or not doesn’t make it good or bad. I just don’t get it. Things fall into the background and I never think on them again. It’s my fault. I’m an uncultured, unappreciative ingrate and I know it. I don’t do this brazenly; I bear the shame of it, but it’s always been this way for me.

Olivia Laing’s Crudo is a work I didn’t get. I looked and I looked but I couldn’t escape the idea that a loftier, rabbit-hole of a back story was required for me to appreciate it fully.

The first (good) impression of Crudo is sustained over the full 130 pages. Namely, it is syntactically charming and makes witty, astute observations:

 It was permission: who gives it, who needs it. An example, should you censor pictures? What if they are bad pictures made by bad people who didn’t understand. Take away their brush, put them in prison, chastise anyone who wants to look at their art

Olivia Laing, Crudo, p47

This stream-of-consciousness voice is endearing. Kathy, the narrator who refers to herself in the third person throughout, has moments of glaring relatability which drive home the surreal nature of the political events she comments on (Trump, Brexit etc.).

Unfortunately for me, each time I had a handle on things, there would be some highfalutin artistic reference that soared over my head. Or a self-referential moment that was out of my grasp:

It was uncomputable, it was the province of the novel, that hopeless apparatus of guesswork and supposition, with which Kathy liked to have as little traffic as possible. She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and ready-made. She was in so many ways Warhol’s daughter, niece at least, a grave-robber, a bandit, happy to snatch what she needed but also morally invested in the cause

Olivia Laing, Crudo, p84

I have read reviews of this book which marvel at its inventive autofiction or how delighted Kathy Acker would have been to be its implied narrator. Regrettably, I’m not anywhere near smart enough to be picking up on things like this, which meant that my reading experience was mostly indifference, punctuated by the occasional spike of intrigue or appreciation. Whilst I enjoyed some phrases or observations, I didn’t feel academically qualified to appreciate the novel.

I bet it’s brilliant, but I’m just too low-brow to see it. One of those books where the process of its creation and fact of its existence far exceed its enjoyability. Experimental, interesting and new. But not for me.

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