Houman Barekat

In a Raw State

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Crude, Sally O’Reilly, Eros Press, Oc­to­ber 2016, £12.00 (pa­per­back)

There are no talk­ing tele­screens or ro­bot slaves in the fic­tive world of Sally O’Reilly’s Crude; it is not so much a dystopia as an odd­ball par­al­lel uni­verse, in which the com­ings and go­ings of aca­demics are re­ported in tabloid news­pa­pers and their recher­ché dis­putes are prac­ti­cally mat­ters of state. The set­ting is a coun­try called Academia, and the out­side world is called For­eign. We are, in short, deep in the realm of pastiche. The story’s hero­ine, Ida O’Dewey, is a sea­soned art critic who has in­ad­ver­tently in­curred the wrath of her su­pe­ri­ors by mak­ing some in­ju­di­cious re­marks on a ra­dio show; her strug­gle to ex­tri­cate her­self from bu­reau­cratic cen­sure prompts her to re­flect on the sys­tems of power that cir­cum­scribe and sus­tain aca­demic knowl­edge and cul­tural dis­course.

Crude is a play­ful satire, jovially whim­si­cal to the point of silli­ness. Any­one who has passed any time in the world of post­grad­u­ate hu­man­i­ties stud­ies will en­joy O’Reilly’s lam­poon­ing of cul­tural stud­ies and its du­bi­ous claims re­gard­ing the flat­ten­ing of in­tel­lec­tual hi­er­ar­chies. Th­ese express them­selves here as a ter­ri­to­rial leben­sraum that cul­mi­nates in a Fine Art de­part­ment wag­ing ‘out-and-out war’ on its ri­val hu­man­i­ties de­part­ments. The con­di­tion known as Im­pos­tor Syn­drome – the nig­gling fear, wide­spread among in­tel­lec­tu­als of all ranks, that one is ac­tu­ally a fraud and li­able to be ex­posed at any mo­ment – is also archly satirised. Ida cyn­i­cally ad­vo­cates ob­fus­ca­tion as an an­ti­dote to this anx­i­ety, cheer­ily declar­ing: ‘In­ter­dis­ci­plinar­ity makes an ar­gu­ment all the more dif­fi­cult to fol­low and re­fute, I find.’ Af­ter all, as O’Reilly’s narrator re­marks, ‘The last chron­i­cled poly­math died in 1863,’ so the odds of get­ting found out are slim.

O’Reilly, who is her­self a pro­lific art critic and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to

pub­li­ca­tions like Art Re­view, Cabi­net and Frieze, is mor­dantly dep­re­cat­ing about the hype ma­chine of arts jour­nal­ism, the ap­par­ent ar­bi­trari­ness with which it will ‘stam­pede some poor in­no­cent here, or un­ac­count­ably carry aloft a young unknown there, of­ten be­fore they had grad­u­ated, some­times be­fore they had even made any­thing.’ In one par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable pas­sage, she likens art­works to the fae­cal ex­cre­ment of goats, and critics to high-end turd ex­am­in­ers ‘who must in­fer from this out­put the diet of the ru­mi­nant and the na­ture of its con­sti­tu­tion, pro­nounc­ing it in fine feel or di­ag­nos­ing prob­lems and dol­ing out crit­i­cal linc­tus.’

The agency of the in­di­vid­ual vis-a-vis the sys­tem is a preva­lent mo­tif in this novel, as Ida looks to dis­en­tan­gle cause and ef­fect, chicken and egg in her un­der­stand­ing of the frame­works that gov­ern knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. ‘Is it,’ she won­ders, ‘the struc­ture that gen­er­ates the power … or is it the re­la­tions be­tween in­di­vid­u­als that pro­duce the power to man­u­fac­ture the struc­ture? When Ida ac­quaints her­self with a group of slightly bonkers ac­tivists called Geo­phys­i­cal and So­matic Ma­te­ri­al­ists Against Nor­ma­tiv­ity, she en­gages am­biva­lently with ma­te­ri­al­ist the­o­ries of his­tory: not­ing that oil dis­putes ap­pear to have been a key driv­ing force be­hind many of the geopo­lit­i­cal up­heavals of the last cen­tury, Ida laments the lack of per­sonal nar­ra­tives in such ac­counts. Given that many artists and critics alike have ex­pressed deep mis­giv­ings about the oil in­dus­try’s pa­tron­age of the art world – th­ese are in­sight­fully ex­plored in Mel Evans’s re­cent book, Art Wash: Big Oil and the Arts (Pluto Press, 2015) – the fix­a­tion on oil is point­edly ironic.

At a time when so much lit­er­ary fic­tion is gloomily in­tro­spec­tive if not down­right po-faced, it can be re­fresh­ing to alight upon a comic novel in the old-fash­ioned mould. There is rib­ald hu­mour aplenty here: a chilly stu­dio causes Ida’s nip­ples to stand to at­ten­tion dur­ing a talk, prompt­ing au­di­ence gig­gles which she mis­takes for ap­pre­ci­a­tion of her repartee; Ida’s lover tou­sles her pu­bic hair ‘as if it were the head of a young nephew.’ Crude is sim­i­lar in its jaunty ex­u­ber­ance to Feed­ing Time (Gal­ley Beg­gar, 2016), Adam Biles’s equally hi­lar­i­ous novel about a re­volt in an old-peo­ple’s home. Both books fea­ture fizzing di­a­logue, sear­ing wit and fre­quent laugh­out-loud mo­ments; tellingly, how­ever, nei­ther feels par­tic­u­larly of its time.

One might have ex­pected a novel writ­ten by an art critic to be in­suf­fer­ably mired in opac­ity and ab­strac­tion, a heady mélange of Barthes and Berger. We can be grate­ful that Crude is not like that, while ac­knowl­edg­ing that O’Reilly’s sto­ry­telling style be­longs, for bet­ter or worse, some­where in the mid­dle of the last cen­tury.

Crude is the novel ev­ery critic or scholar has, at one time or an­other, thought about writ­ing, or joked with their col­leagues about writ­ing: a fun send-up of the ab­sur­di­ties of in­tel­lec­tual labour. Re­gret­tably, the long, loop­ing thought ex­er­cises that com­prise the meat of the novel – of­ten em­bed­ded within the di­a­logue – tend to­wards overkill. At one point, a speaker at a pri­vate view gives a talk on ‘the im­prac­ti­cal­i­ties of lib­er­al­ism in the con­text of spe­cial­ist knowl­edge of a very large com­plex, multi-part thing’ which de­gen­er­ates into gib­ber­ish when the speaker tails off into a se­ries of ‘blah blah blah’; other at­ten­dees join in, un­til ‘the en­tire pri­vate view was blah-blahing at the top of its voice, every­one mad with relief at be­ing un­bur­dened of con­tent.’ In­so­far as this vi­gnette is un­in­ten­tion­ally sym­bolic of the novel as a whole, it is per­haps a lit­tle too on-point. While many of the aperçus in th­ese pages will elicit wry smiles from read­ers who have long sus­pected that nearly every­one in the cul­ture in­dus­try is ei­ther wing­ing it or fak­ing it, the de­scent into farce is so com­plete and un­mit­i­gated that the joke even­tu­ally wears thin.

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