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 laugh- out-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.

Houman Barekat is a book critic based in London. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator, Literary Review, the Irish Times and elsewhere. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, forthcoming from O/R Books.

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