(This is the first of two related reviews, one negative, one positive… guess which is which... about Elvia Wilk’s “Oval” and then about Candia McWilliam’s “What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness”… the review of the latter available hereabouts, most probably, by Sunday or shortly thereafter.)
(I can’t really bother to go into the totally-okay-I-guess plot of “Oval,” so consider this review to be Part Two of any innocuously effusive review of the book you’re likely to have read first).
I’m not sure if I’m entirely comfortable with the trend of characters from Dystopian narratives writing and publishing the very narratives from which they appear to spring. Regarding which these Author/Characters would probably say: “Get used to it.” Perhaps it’s revealingly old fashioned, my expectation of maintaining the luxury of at least one level of remove between myself (the reader) and whatever Dystopian narrative I’ve chosen to unwind the day’s accumulated tensions by reading. Imagine trying to enjoy a hostage crisis on Network News when live coverage of the crisis is being broadcast from a room, down the hall, housing one’s favorite Television.
That would suck.
Over at dystopian clickbait-experience Hyperallergic, a review of Elvia Wilk’s novel “Oval” begins with the strapline “Elvia Wilk combines satire, dystopia, sci-fi, and millennial ennui all in one book” but isn’t there a better word than “book,” to place at the end of that sentence…
… like “selfie”?
Well, it’s a neat trick, to write blandly about your friends, your roommates, your dating problems, your jobs and your landlords, and throw in a camouflaging quirk or two (e.g. an “artificial mountain”), and call it (or let others call it) “Dystopian Sci-Fi”. What with paper-published authors shrinking into younger, and hotter, and more tightly-edited forms all the time, and with “Sci-Fi” merely another way of saying open-source product-development spit-balling, about what might Dystopic Young Sci Fi Hotties write but the day-before-yesterdays of their self-centric Nows?
““Berlin has changed since we moved here,” she said finally. “None of the reasons we came apply anymore. It was freedom— now it’s a trap.””
…declares someone in “Oval,” near the end of Chapter 10, sounding uncannily like the many Trust Fund Nomads who have poured in and out of Berlin since I arrived, ten years too late, in November 1990. Then we get:
“Anja was incredulous. It was unimaginable, Berlin without Laura and Dam. The whole city would drop out from under her. It was Dam whom she had met first and whom she called her best friend, but over the past five years she’d spent more time with Laura. Laura, without whom she had become unable to make decisions, to sort out her thoughts. Laura, the brilliant and the bitchy. Laura, the least likely candidate for a best female friend. Against all odds she’d managed to win Laura’s friendship—even though she was apolitical, even though she was rich, even though she was shy. She’d won Laura and now she would lose her.”
As if suddenly realizing that most of the chapter has gone by doing nothing more interestingly Dystopian than reading very much like one of those shitty “Berlin” novels that all Hot Young Expats write forty pages of, and shelve, before leaving town, Wilk reminds us that “Oval” is slightly more than that kind of novel:
“Anja pictured those green lights spreading out from the base of the Berg. The fluctuating weather, snowflakes, sunburns. The tinge of sickness, dysfunction. The humidity in her bedroom, the waste disposal unit spitting out bits of plastic.”
So picture a low-stakes, low-budget, action-free, slacker-Indie, PC rotoscoped Blade Runner written and directed by an extremely-White, gluten-intolerant Instagram influencer and you get not only a good idea of Elvia Wilk’s “Oval” but also a good idea of Elvia Wilk’s Berlin, a part of town I walk through a couple of times every week (and the best place to get pizza).
You want Sci-Fi? I get email updates from hardware-oriented kickstarting site Indiegogo every day; that is Sci-Fi. Anyone can do it now. Gradeschoolers write multi-volume Dystopian Sci-Fi epics in their sleep, these days. Go to a multiplex showing of any Dystopian franchise and people are yelling elegantly viable narrative twists at the screen. So what will count, as ever, when judging a Sci-Fi text, is Style. What will count is the depth of the fund of the Writer’s Experiences worthy of transmuting, transcending, transmitting, imaginationally, blah blah blah, though there’s no danger of any reader’s eyes being poked out by Elvia Wilk going nuts with the Imagination App™ she applied to “Oval”.
Neither would I expect that in writing “Oval,” Wilk was drawing on unsuspected depths of experience quite so much as she was drawing on trending topics on Google. As opposed to Google, Experience is the valuable baggage the not-young writer unpacks when it comes time to re-constitute the World, on the page, as its own Counter-Image, a Counter-Image (with registers in all the senses) that is much bigger, and stranger, than the author’s humble physical appearance might suggest.
Speaking of which.
The Talented Author’s defiantly unprepossessing physical appearance used to be a treasured paradox; one of the most beautiful twists we knew from the Golden Age of Lit. Anyone who’s ever read Gravity’s Rainbow, or Tropic of Cancer, before seeing an actual picture of T. Pynchon, or H. Miller*, will know what I mean. Both of those books originally came without jacket photos for a reason. Chipmunk-toothed Tom and bald-early, potato-nosed Henry wrote their cocky books not only despite their iffy looks but as sustained acts of revenge on Society and Fate. They wrote swaggering assaults on their own very proximate Dystopias and they wrote them as Literarily dashing and handsome men, their actual looks be damned. They wrote to correct biological Fate’s manufacturing errors and to punish Society’s values. They wrote, in part (don’t laugh) to get laid, a primordially honest energy from which we’ve gotten not a few Greats Books.
If Emily Dickinson, or the Brontes, or Jane Austen, didn’t write to get laid , they certainly wrote, and published, in part, to assert, against the lazy assumptions of the World, that they were middle class virgins, or old maids, of value. An impetus quite closely aligned with that other kind of impetus suggested directly above.
Elvia Wilk looks like a young, upper-middle-class, genetically-enhanced Gwynneth Paltrow. What is the lack, the wound, the rage, driving Elvia’s Lit? I suppose it might be the same rage driving a young Matt LeBlanc if he’d wanted to see himself published, on a kicky lark, to make David Schwimmer jealous. Or, like, Timothée Chalamet. Or Lily-Rose Depp? Why not? But why do all these Hot Young Writers of today, who could as easily be actors or models, write?
To be cool? To get a foot against one of the blades of Fame’s revolving door? For the coffee-shop seed-money of the five-figure advance? Because they can’t code?
The lack of urgency in the mysterious impetus driving “Oval”… the mildness of the novel’s initiating wound or itch… is reflected in its urgency-poor prose, which is just as good as it needs to be, to sort of work, sort of, but no better, just as the dearth of wider, Lit-supporting experience** is reflected in the narrow scope of the tepid scores the author seems to have set out to settle in the text. If a text can be a topography (as any dystopia must technically be), is it that these kids are still too young to be writing anything wider, more open, than metaphorical wombs?
Consider the soft white wombs of their social circles; the safe-space of the protective circumference navigated by the always-near-to-hand app-rental bikes, scooters and cars; the kindergarten-y office cubicles they have known; the cross-sectioned egg of their spiritual homeland, Apple Campus 2. Even their Internet itself is more of a digestive tract (i.e. a Taylorized womb ) than the wide-open portal to the Brave New You-Know-What that it once appeared, to us older, long-out-of-the-womb (and glad of it) types, to be.
The title of Wilk’s book is “Oval,” after all, and an egg is a womb is an egg. A defective, oozingly organic house is a central motif in “Oval”*** and that house is also an egg or a womb. There’s another “Oval” in “Oval” and it’s a sinister eponymous pill from which the “Oval” plot is hatched. “Oval” is an egg and it’s eggs (not turtles), or wombs, all the way down.
Are Arts Grants, publishing contracts, record deals, lecture tours, gallery shows and magazine fees a cool new kind of Welfare for the sexy Neo-Poor?
These Poor 2.0 who have university degrees and do amusing things like give talks on Donna Haraway and/or make short films or scribble soft-edged Novels or work as unpaid interns for wispy Start-Ups. They don’t dig ditches or pick fruit, they help organize open air corporate-sponsored Climate Change vodka raves and whatnot. These new Cool Poor who can safely be invited to Plutocrat dinner parties (as the rich of the 20th century sometimes did with grubby members of Poverty 1.0, from time to time, with mixed results); they can be safely taken on as the Help in a High Tech Service Economy; they can function as assistants, domestic staff and mistresses, too. These Hot Young Creatives of the Neo Poor who are not, by any stretch of the imagination, required to be better than mediocre at any of their stated pursuits because their primary function is as a layer. A pleasantly-visible underclass. The Buffer.
Because though poverty-stricken compared to the Plutocrats, they’re one hundred levels above dark-skinned Refugees, and the descendants of First World Slaves, who constitute an obsolete (unfashionable, I mean) pyramid-base of Congenital Ultra-Poverty that is pushed, increasingly, into a soothingly-academic abstraction on the margins of Elvia’s cozy white oval. Have you ever heard Slaves referred to as “poor”? Are livestock “poor”? The subsistence-intake of the Congenitally Ultra-Poor puts them in that Slave-range of negative status, of subhuman status, though I’d wager that 19th-century North American Slaves were given healthier food…
It’s not just the warehouse districts and shabby ethnic neighborhoods getting ‘gentrified,’ in other words, but Poverty Itself, which constitutes the actual Dystopian Plot that Wilk somehow manages to refrain from including, explicitly, in “Oval,” while being powerless, on the other hand, to stop “Oval” and her promotional appearances, and so much of her World, from reading as though they’re all about nothing but.
Wait. Is “Oval” a Dystopian novel or a manual of Hipster Etiquette? Are the two things mutually exclusive? Decide:
“Customer service stories were so universal and so useless to repeat: the second you started telling one, people’s eyes would glaze over. Everyone knew the gist, and nobody really cared about the details. To give in to the urge to tell a customer service story was like an admission of defeat. This is really so important to you? You don’t have any more interesting content to impart? Have you really become an adult, a parent of your own life, whose entanglements with infrastructure are now central enough to share?”
There’s an irony there. A meta-irony? A meta-tip?
But, let’s roll back a bit. I had to include the following because it floored me when I got to it. Not because it used Hemingway’s “iceberg principle” to limn a vertigo-inducing Dystopia with deceptively plain prose but because any Expat in Berlin will recognize this as the unfiltered psychic scream of a German who is long-sufferingly tested, on this particular point, by her non-German roommates and acquaintances:
“Show me the letter,” Anja said, meaning the letter from Finster [the sinister futuristic, Dystopian corporate landlord]. There was always a letter.
Laura leaned over the desk in the corner and dug around. Anja averted her eyes from the pitiful digging. Her friends’ disorganization pained her. It was pathetic. Every time they got a scary letter in German they buried it instead of dealing with it, so the scary letters multiplied, referring to one another, building an impenetrable web, piling up in a crumpled mass on the desk.
If you’d just paid this fine when you got the first letter, Anja would say, anguished, you wouldn’t have had this problem! If you had just brought the first letter to me! If you had just called the number on the letter and asked them to explain! Laura would swear, defiant, that they’d never gotten the original letter, and yet after a half hour peeling coffee- stained paperwork from the stash on the desk Anja would find it, dated eight months back and labeled MAHNUNG. This is a final notice! You’re being sued! Why can’t you get a fucking file folder!”
This “disorganized” approach to the highly-organized culture that fetishizes file folders, I’ll grant you, is quite probably a Dystopian detail of great horror to many Germans … but a blatant disrespect for file folders is not quite something out of Orwell, eh? (In fact: it’s just the opposite…). Doing a little cursory digging for biographical info on Wilk, I couldn’t determine if she’s American, or German, either by birth or upbringing, but if Wilk isn’t German by either metric, her accurate insight into the German worldview is the most Literary thing about “Oval”. So: kudos.
I’m a rationally-Ageist 60-year-old writer. Various human stages of development imply various structural opportunities and limits, and just as I wouldn’t want to see a man my age (or older) disco-dancing in a Speedo under a black light, I wouldn’t ever seek a much-younger person’s serious philosophical input regarding personal issues of Life & Death; not if I were still Compos Mentis. Almost everyone would agree with my aversion to the Speedo scenario while far too many would consider my aversion to the second scenario a thoughtless prejudice, as though Youth is absolutely limitless in its potential: it isn’t: that’s how growth works (which is to say: Youth only properly realizes many of its greatest potentials by growing out of Youth). Our Youth-obsessed Kultcha (which brings us novelties as uncannily useless as 5-year-old Suzuki violinists, and 6-year-old Transsexuals) bombards us with more cringe-inducing cons every day.
The Young-and-Hot are very good (and always welcome) as fashion models, pop singers, actors, dancers… what else? Lots of things. But never as Jazz Singers, Brain Surgeons, Comedians or Novelists.
*I once, long ago, had to correct a book-blogger who was using a photograph of Anaïs Nin’s dashing first husband to stand for Henry Miller. I’m afraid I may have ruined Miller for him/her…
**And by Experience I don’t mean “international travel,” since any Hot Young Writer Type can bring his/her narrow range of responses/ preferences to wherever he/she flies, just as surely as Iowans on vacation in Hong Kong can only, in the end, contrast a McDonald’s in Rapid City with the McDonald’s they were relieved to find on the island of Chek Lap Kok… misidentifying the minor knowledge of this difference as a wider familiarity with the World.
***Or is the house’s goopy stickiness an homage to that good old hipster touchstone, the New French Novel, in the manner of Tom McCarthy, one of Wilk’s blurbers?