Crude, Sally O'Reilly


Emoji summary: 🕳️ 🔎 🌫️


I think I’m done with art (proper) during this pandemic. I’ve really given it my best whack, I’ve tried my hardest, clung on for as long as I could; but now I’ve just got to fold back in to the inevitable truth. Exhibitions are irrelevant rn, art is already a weird foreign alien thing, and times are bizarre enough without adding art in there for extra discomfort. IRL exhibitions are CANCELLED, it’s too cold n dark for Art Outside, and online shows feel like a soggy compromise that everyone’s half-arsing bc they can’t come up with anything else. I am DONE, finished, tired. Art is weird art is distant art has got its head in the clouds or up its own arse or buried in the sand; anywhere other than here, rn, looking you dead in the eye; and I’m lonely or bored and wanting for company. In this mix of feeling stuck and fed up, it was a nice time for me to read Sally O’Reilly’s <Crude>, bc it punctured the same holes I was already marking out.

The basic gist: In a country called Academia, art critics and academics are the stars and celebs that make up the core of public culture. They perform on popular panel shows, they are written about in tabloids, they dazzle the paps at glitzy awards shows. In this dystopia, that seems to only exist as a glaring exaggeration of my worst nightmare fever dream, we follow art critic Ida O’Dewey as she navigates a rupture in her career. Ida appears on one of these popular panel gameshows, and in a segment about polemics or diatribes, instead of making the regular critical witticism, she takes it too far for the comfort of the audience and public; she questions art’s actual relevance and standing, calls it a tyrant and a spoiled brat. I think that’s why this was the right book at the right time for me; right now, writing another exhibition review of an online show feels like caving in to the petulant demands of an annoying child. I over identify with our protagonist tbqh. Not to like, give the game away, but after this rupture Ida tries to regain her footing and make amends for this transgression. She stumbles into a ~romantic entanglement~ with an art bro, and through him, discovers a secret society of ~radicals~ that are obsessed with oil. The punchline of this is tied up in the dystopian inversion of the world this is set within. Academia is a land where language reigns supreme; the institution and the university is a proxy for the governing body of the state, and conceptualism is a monotone mainstream. You can just craft an entirely new reality by framing it all in the right way, you can shift it with your words and argument, it’s all just flimsy paradigm and soft capital. Against that softer and more cerebral fiction, this cult-y group represent something outside of the abstract theoretical, something real and material and tangible. Oil is framed as this glossy fetish object, organic and earthy and essential and true. Ida identifies it as a potential subject for some ground breaking research that could act as her redemption.

It’s a weird one, because Crude takes place in this heavy world; the bulk of its weight is in the landscaping of the backdrop around Ida, how she acts and interacts with that inverted scenery. It became weird that I identified with it, because it was some mad dystopian fever dream, meant to amplify little truths into a scale and register that was ever so slightly out of touch. I GUESS that’s the point of dystopian fiction; that it’s meant to reveal a subtle but fundamental truth about the very nature of things, but in my over identification, I think it was too close to home, on the nose, up against me. There were times when I felt some sagging exasperation in Ida’s willingness to play by the rules, or even her need to cling to the rules of this stupid flimsy world. As the story progresses, she pushes against the limits of it, and slowly slowly (without spoilers) it crumbles away. But it’s not the happy overthrow moment I wanted; as Ida stretches out past the limits of this cramped world, rather than destabilising it all, she destabilises herself. The story and its other characters are reabsorbed back into the normal, and Ida is expelled from this centre. And it’s THAT that feels like the real true dystopian thump; you just kinda have to look past the slightly garish scene that’s being built up and focus in on the players as they move through it. N I guess that’s the weirdness: this way of focussing on a book, reading into the subtext of it, holding it upside down against itself and intuiting what’s happening from there.

In that, I know the end is perfect with its sad thump, but there was a small part of me that wanted things to play out differently. Oil is presented to us as this opaque substance with the potential to destabilise everything this world is built upon; Ida interacts with it as a researcher (of course - bc she’s an art critic, it makes sense), she travels through it as a subject, and that’s how we understand it as an element in the story. There’s a part of me that just wanted it to lean into a more bottomless trajectory like,,, towards a kinda corporeal truth, away from the disembodied fiction of Academia and its linguistic constraints. Instead, that bodily world is projected onto a tense sexuality that pops up through the narrative; n I kinda resented it when it did pop up, bc it felt like… idk. It felt like a subplot that happened away, but alongside it all. Towards the end, there’s a whole Thing about how Ida & this art bro (John) go on a trip to Foreign (a country outside of Academia’s civilised boundaries, they’re all savages there), and on the way they visit a friend’s sex shop to investigate plastic and its sensual bodily existence. And the framing of it all as research and investigation felt plausible, but not like,,, consuming. There was just a pane of glass between me and it, as I read through, and a pane of glass between Ida and her engagement with it, as it was all happening. It felt like it was being surveyed rather than experienced and that annoyed me, because it was like blue balls - I wanted a resolution or trajectory that just wasn’t possible. I wanted a different story, a different character, a different redemption, I wanted the radicals to actually BE radicals - but they never are, are they? And art is distant, art has got its head in the clouds or up its own arse or buried in the sand, and this was the narrative it deserved. It was just all so cold and detached, and fucking TRUE, stupidly true.

I flew through Crude in like, 3 days. I’m not a hungry reader, I normally plod through books in between other things, at my own happy pace. But something about that teasing aversion to satisfaction, something about the heavy world that’s purposefully landscaped; it kept me on good terms with it. I’ve seen other reviews call this book a satire, but I think satire falls flat here. It’s not the limp satire of Have I Got News For You and milky-faced liberal sniping. It’s like, black mirror; biting and dark in the heavy thump ending, the static core of ~things return to normal~. I appreciate the fuck out of that, and I recommend it to you wholeheartedly; reading this was a million times more fulfilling than faffing around with online exhibitions. Looking back, they feel limp in comparison. They trail past with their soggy engagement; they drag along the floor, slow & sad; there’s a pane of glass between us, the art and it all.