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‘Crudo’ Is a Novel With a Real-Life Novelist in Thin Disguise

Inserting a personage who strongly resembles Kathy Acker into a book set in 2017 is, it must be said, a very Kathy Acker thing to do. Acker often wrote pastiche; the first chapter of her “Great Expectations” is titled “Plagiarism” and artfully revisits Dickens’s novel.

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Olivia LaingCreditSuki Dhanda

Acker appropriated from many other writers. She was at times a cutup artist à la William S. Burroughs. She wrote a chapbook (I suddenly want to find a copy) titled “Hello, I’m Erica Jong.” She had no qualms about re-appropriating anyone’s story.

In Acker fashion, Laing smuggles bits of text from other sources into “Crudo,” sometimes identifying these snippets as such but often not. (All citations are provided in an index.) Most are from Acker herself. Others are from sources as far-flung as Donald Trump’s tweets and articles on The Daily Stormer, the neo-Nazi website.

Laing’s Kathy, although she is marrying, remains a wild child, committed to little except her instincts. She’s addicted to travel. “A migrant bird, she was compelled to fly,” Laing writes. Like the protagonists in novels by Rachel Cusk and Deborah Levy, whose writing Laing’s can resemble, Kathy is drawn south. “She wanted novelty and heat,” Laing writes, “she wanted to unhook herself.”

Kathy worries about aging. “Weightlessness was another exclusive possession of the very young,” she thinks. “Later on you started clanking around like tins tied to a car.”

Laing strikes some terrific chords in this novel. About bohemian life then and now, for example, she observes: “New York dirt, no big deal, just eight generations of people living in the same small rooms.” Kathy happens to pick up a book that seems to be Nicholson Baker’s “U and I,” about John Updike. Here’s Laing’s perfect description of Baker: “a pornographer with good syntax, a lusty grammarian.”

One mentally pushes back, at times, against the palimpsest of Acker that exists under Laing’s Kathy. You’re not sure you want to imagine this indomitable counterculture figure losing it over a patio (“They got home and saw the deck, painted an unexpected brown, and she’d screamed and screamed”), scrolling through social media to see who is having a better vacation than she is or dining on potato foam or white peach bellinis or “panna cotta like a severed breast” and worrying about her weight.

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