Sincerity, Delicately Spun: On Honor Levy’s “My First Book”

By Conor TruaxMay 22, 2024

Sincerity, Delicately Spun: On Honor Levy’s “My First Book”

My First Book by Honor Levy

THE PROPOSITION OF establishing a grounded perspective in the headwind of an accelerated, hyper-referential culture appears paradoxical. How can a writer be expected to encapsulate the realities of life online in a way that engages readers humanistically, rather than algorithmically, if that same reader should finally be compelled to turn away from the television or social media in favor of the refuge of a book? In her debut, My First Book (2024), Honor Levy undertakes this task by searching for something hopeful, if not divine, in the coldness of the digital world—a valiant effort, if one that inconsistently balances a curious interrogation of the language, fear, and life borne by the internet, without being consumed by its trappings and cliches.

My First Book spans 16 stories that eschew conventional applications of character and plot in favor of the internet’s fast-flowing style and anxious tone. The entries can be broadly categorized in two groups: flash fiction, consisting of fairly isolated autofictional scenes, and more expansive lyric essays and stories that often make unexpected temporal and perspectival shifts to earnestly examine and define, in alternating fashion, current cultural phenomena and their underlying existential concerns.

These broad groups represent a spectrum, not a binary, as many in either category often take on the form of the other. “Z Was for Zoomer,” one part glossary of internet neologisms and one part confessional, runs a quarter of the book’s length. When defining “cringe” in this entry, Levy writes, “in fact, opposites are dead. Binaries are dead. There are inbetweens so vast one could fall into them forever and ever, growing old without hitting the ground.”

Levy is a curious surveyor of these interstices. At first glance, due in part to the frequent use of internet slang and reference to emojis and memes (e.g., “looksmaxxing,” “-mode,” “pick me,” “-era,” “pixie dream girl,” “thinspo,” “girlboss”), Levy’s mien appears ironic, even flippant. Yet for all of her pataphysical playfulness, she is not insincere. In fact, she seems genuinely concerned about how irony has poisoned our generation, haphazardly lamenting in “Z”:Like fireworks or electric scooters or huffing glue, irony can be fun, but also dangerous. If a joke isn’t going to make someone pause and think and act and look at their hands for their shovel then maybe the joke isn’t very funny?”

This is the rhetorical tightrope that Levy chooses to walk, with the hope that her humor will be able to reel even the most dispassionate reader into considering her earnest qualms and considerations until their very end. Her method is articulated concisely in the book’s opening entry, “Love Story,” in which she describes “layers of irony” that deepen “into sincerity.”

Formally, the majority of writers attempting to include facets of digital life in fiction to date have either invoked them as a narrative agent, such as in Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs (1995), Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers (2015), Clare Fisher’s How the Light Gets In (2018), and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), or they have the internet as a setting, as in Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (2021), Jenny Offil’s Weather (2020), and Darcie Wilder’s literally show me a healthy person (2017). Levy takes a bolder experimental approach to describing our passive and active relationships with the internet’s nethersphere by surreally transposing the physicality of waking life into the digital world (“Love Story”), applying the free-associative deluge of informational download online into her descriptions of life offline (e.g., “Hall of Mirrors,” a college student’s meditation on heredity, microplastics, and a childhood visit to the Palace of Versailles), or converging the two: “I’m eleven. I’m on the internet. I’m twenty-one,” she writes in “Internet Girl.

At her more distant and declarative, as in her more essayistic stretches, Levy is quizzically bromide, deferring to half-hearted clichés such as “Time has never moved faster than it is moving right now.” However, it is when she is operating in the illogical in-between of the digital and the ephemeral that she offers something new and exciting. Disinclined to definition, she begins to veer into an impish interpretation of reality that appropriates and reconfigures the world as it is. In “Z Was for Zoomer,” she begins to playfully assert how words ought to be, stating that “Gossamer is cloth right now, but why shouldn’t it become the fragile, filmy boundary between two adjoining realities or universes?”

Writing from within this border, Levy’s style could be characterized as a gossamer: delicately spun, soft and light, sticky. She catches disparate units of culture in her web and makes a free-associative collage of them, alternately referencing Alcibiades, Jordan Peterson, Psalm 119:30, and a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson social media post paraphrasing lyrics from a Jadakiss song (“We’re all in this together, on different levels, dealing with the same hell, just different devils”).

To the benefit of her writing, the intemperate internet references are not the stylistic centerfold of Levy’s stories. Absent a causal or necessarily coherent narrative, the majority of My First Book’s entries develop an engrossing acceleration in stretches marked by short, direct sentences, and any combination of rapid-fire anaphora, epistrophe, assonance, consonance, repetition, repetition, and repetition. For Levy, these stretches can often begin to build toward a feeling not unlike meditation or prayer.

At the climax of these profferings, she slows the pace by using repetition of another kind and going (to use her language) Gertrude Stein–mode, with characteristic recursive phrases like these: “All at once it’s all at once” (“Hall of Mirrors”); “It is pleasure and pain because it is pleasure and pain” (“Do It Coward”); “Soon there will be no more soons” (“At The Party”); “Here I am and I am and I am” and “all these beginnings beginning to begin” (both “Halloween Forever”).

Levy’s sentences, like Stein’s, have the potential to elicit exhaustion, frustration, and even cringe. However, Levy is typically able to avoid a droning spate by distributing hers as a disruptive countermeasure of uncertainty at the height of anaphoric paragraphs whose sentences begin with assertions like “I have …” (“Love Story”), “I can …” (“Hall of Mirrors”), and “I had …” (“Shoebox World”). Incidentally summarizing the velocity of her style in “Do It Coward,” Levy writes: “Everything always happens again and again and then again stops too.”

This is also typical of Levy: adverbs and pronouns that wander from sentence to sentence, taking on new referents suddenly, sometimes jaggedly. In “Fig,” a story about abortion written from a male perspective, she writes: “And I do take care of her, after she took care of it. That’s what we’re calling it. It. It’s gone now. It’s going to be okay.” The pantoum-like quality of some of these lingual turns is reminiscent of the stitching and braiding in Renata Adler’s fiction. It could be said, then, that unlike those notoriously maligned for their failed efforts, Levy is something of a Renata Adler of looking at your phone a lot, or perhaps of doing ketamine off of it, an activity frequented by characters throughout the book.

And like Adler, or any author with an experimental flair, not all of Levy’s efforts are a success. Any readers addicted to total understanding who lack the necessary (and sometimes taxing) referential dialect of her frequent allusion to memes will feel excluded, tired, and annoyed. What’s more, her lack of critical conviction can teeter between a charming humility and an anxious capriciousness that arrests lines of inquiry before they can “begin to begin,” reducing them instead to gestating ideas stillborn as platitudes. But to reduce Levy’s writing to some of the superficialities of her style would be to miss the point of it altogether, and instead retreat to the cynicism wrought by the digital life we experience daily.

In the story “Little Lock,” about a childhood diary, Levy writes: “Part of me still believes that secrets are sacred and special, that secrets are what make women women, grown-ups grown-ups, and the world worth living in.” It is as though she is running away from the internet’s culture of compulsive disclosure toward a secret, mysterious place beyond its horizon, lamenting: “The faster it ends, the faster it can get better.”

When Levy’s pace falters, everything seems to converge into a sort of numb nothingness, such as at the outset of “Little Lock”: “I want to have a baby. I want to get pregnant. I want an excuse to get fat and a reason to never make another half-assed suicide attempt. Don’t tell my boyfriend. I think that cutting is healthier than Xanax. Don’t tell my psychiatrist.” In these instances, and in those stories first published online with hyperlinks and personal images, it is difficult not to feel that Levy’s writing is best suited for the medium that it investigates, where reading takes on a shallower quality, eyes meandering across a page of charming maundering.

However, when she does succeed, Levy is able to trace something meaningful in the absurd constellation of online stimulation. At her best, she commits to a disciplined, braided lyricism where, like distant cosmological objects on the same elliptical path, the contents of her choosing—whether German Renaissance painters, Xanax, cancellations, or God—all begin converging inward, first slowly, then breathlessly, until finally they reach a terminal momentum from which your attention cannot be extracted until their moment of contact, a whimsical eruption of the inexplicable kind, an experience often obscured by a blanket of irony in post-internet writing.

In “Fig,” this convergence includes the Pope, a pregnancy-tracking app, and original sin: “It was not a mortal sin anymore. According to the new pope, it was grave but forgivable. She downloaded an app and told me it was about the size of a fig. It had fingernails. A forgivable fig with fingernails. A grave but forgivable little fruit of a sin.”

The narrator of “Internet Girl,” one of Levy’s first stories to appear online, concludes with a reference to Instagram’s “titty finding algorithm.” She hypothesizes that, like you and me, it will continue absorbing everything “all so fast,” until one day, when it might “wake up and realize that it exists just to find nipples and it will be sad and sorry and human and pray to stop.” In an inversion of word becoming flesh, the mechanical flesh of the computer becomes word, and Levy’s voice gives us a hopeful indication of just how it might sound.

LARB Contributor

Conor Truax is a New York–based writer with recent work in Spike Art Magazine, The Drift, Forever Magazine, and Dirt. He writes film criticism for In Review Online.


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