AUGUST 9, 2019
TOWARD THE END of the 20th century, the big postmodernists like J. G. Ballard and Don DeLillo brought dystopian fiction home. No longer satisfied with far-future calamities, they began making grim social forecasts about a parallel present that was slightly off. The new technologies that promised to simplify our lives surveilled us; relentless mediation had deformed our perspective; glittering commodities dominated our consciousness. Those writers made a practice of revealing the special neuroses that modernity’s excesses had produced.
Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, Oval, plants itself squarely in that tradition. Since we now live in the world the postmodernists imagined, contemporary dystopians like Wilk must speculate new horrors for 21st-century life. In near-future Berlin, an Amazon-type megacorporation is rapidly absorbing and greenwashing real estate and NGOs. Housing is unaffordable, and homelessness is rampant. The privileged protagonist, Anja, lives with her American boyfriend Louis on the Berg — a shambolic experimental “eco-village” on a fake mountain. Everyone in their social circle is a do-nothing “consultant,” and because this is Berlin, we’re forced to follow them into bumping discos where they rectally insert designer drugs. Frustrated, Louis conspires to slip into the city’s party supply a pill called Oval, which will make its users more generous: “like one of those mindfulness apps, but actually effective,” he quips.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because Oval is a blistering diagnosis of how today’s social structures have shaped us. Western capitalism has generated a state of benevolent-seeming dysfunction, and Wilk is astute at rendering the social comedy of our malaise. But the book’s real drama unfolds on a more complex interior plane. At the outset, Louis has just returned from his mother’s funeral, and he’s acting “so unthinkably normal that it was surely an abnormality.” Anja performs detective work on his grief.
There’s a kind of emotional economy at play, a mirror between the way the characters normalize the power of large-scale social secrets and their intimate underpinnings. The book both soars and falters as it explores its characters’ unseen humanity — their contradictions, memories, and misunderstandings — and the ways contemporary capitalism reaches into our private lives.
Everything in Wilk’s Berlin is broken or precarious. Anja works for the Finster corporation as a scientist, generating material for sustainable housing. Her manipulative ex-boyfriend occupies a powerful role at the company, and he has recently fired and rehired her as a middle-management consultant. Built atop a former public park, her fancy Finster eco-house is “a hot, puffy bruise,” prone to mold and mudslides. Nobody’s promising even a temporary fix. Wilk’s characters speak in smart axioms about these ills: “The refusal to improve a nonsolution with a makeshift solution, [Louis] said, was the attitude that left most of the world a muddy slope in need of repair.” Still, they lack the will to act.
Wilk is deft at rendering the lurid veneer of their social scene. Escalating commodification has made the arts an irredeemable joke, wherein “galleries had transitioned into venues for product launches and release parties and initial coin offerings.” At a performance, Anja and Louis wonder aloud about the possibility of transgression, concluding that “[t]he whole idea is outdated.” Maybe so.
Anyway, what language would transgression deploy amid the preposterous deconstructions all around them? Consider this from Finster’s mission statement: “The key to advancing scientific research in the laboratory context is not to try to advance science but to try to advance creativity.” The creative class is little better. A socialite, pressed to analyze an artwork, explains that it’s “like gestural marks that are meant to — maybe — provide like, a feedback loop into network ecologies of beauties.” Far from dissolving into the subversive “play” the poststructuralists theorized, words have become Silly Putty for capital and its courtesans.
At the center of this world stands Louis. A brilliant artist from the American Midwest, he glides through life propelled by empty intellectualism. “Each sentence he dropped was a smooth pellet of social capital,” we learn. He spends it cleverly, serving as a creative consultant for an NGO that pays lip service to the social good. Together, he and Anja pass through post-industrial, post-division, post-everything Berlin, unbeholden to any particular conviction. His amoral “genius” is to act as both critic and defender: “[T]he fact that he could make arguments for both sound equally compelling was the ultimate critique.” This may be the condition of postmodernity: hyperalert but inert. The book’s characters know what’s toxic about their world, but they’re too overwhelmed, as well as too aloof to function.
Much of Oval’s conceptual heft derives from the technicolor detail of Wilk’s high-minded observations. It’s why the book feels not just convincingly dystopian but also keenly attuned to the ills of our moment. The sociologist Avery Gordon, in her influential 1997 book, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, identified this as a postmodernist compulsion for “hypervisibility.” “Crudely put,” wrote Gordon, “postmodernism means that everything is on view, that everything can be described.” Because of that, she argued, it often “resembles modernity’s positivities more than it concedes.” In other words, the conventions of postmodernism still suggest that our peculiar sickness can be known and cataloged.
Wilk is a skillful cataloger. She has DeLillo’s gift for revealing microscopic social interactions as whole paradigmatic traits of the way we look and live today. But, ultimately, she’s also onto something more ephemeral than the field of visibility can express.
What remains unseen? Oval is most intriguing when it resists the need to document the details of our tech-dominated consciousness. In its willingness to draw characters both complex and unresolved — to observe the shadows in their composition — it transcends its influences.
One problem with our information-saturated condition is that we see so much we have no idea where the gaps in our vision lie. Gordon, in Ghostly Matters, was preoccupied with the nuance that lives in these gaps: “Complex personhood means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others.” It’s a quality sorely lacking from the postmodern novel, she argued, which often has no room for “shadows.” But such complexity is essential to any understanding of power and marginality in modern life.
Wilk’s great strength is allowing Anja that subtle space of personhood — and, contrary to what Anja believes is possible, the space for transgression. Anja, like Gordon, thinks of it as a “shadow,” a calming interior force that conjures itself in her spontaneously: “The shadow was rare and blessed and she could not control its arrival. It offered social protection.” Despite her advantages of being white, wealthy, housed, and employed, Anja can use protection. It’s not just the precariousness of her job or the social rot at the heart of Berlin; she’s also found herself consigned to a feminized emotional labor, restlessly tending the imagined needs of treacherous men.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Anja’s relationship with Louis. The book’s great structural driver is the mystery of his grief. Is he in mourning? Repressing? Fine and normal, after all? In Anja’s private emotional economy, she devotes tremendous resources to detecting what Louis conceals. She wilts at his “turning to the social sphere for fulfillment.” She restlessly deciphers the meanings of new facts, like that his mother hadn’t let him watch TV. She scours his tablet, desperate for a “single golden key to his emotional state.” Somehow, she can’t ask Louis directly.
In their dynamic, Wilk allows room for the unknown. For example, we never quite decode Louis’s experience. He becomes increasingly secretive and bizarre as he develops Oval. “Generosity is already in the brain, just waiting to be unlocked,” he says, in breathless TED Talk–ese. You can picture him in a black turtleneck, spot-lit on a darkened stage. He spends more and more time in his studio, eventually abandoning their home and receding into his quixotic sphere of “innovation.”
In a fever dream of drugged and pointless generosity, Berlin recedes along with him, as the novel becomes a frenzied apocalyptic fantasy in its final pages. It all feels flat and hurried, but we get what it means. Corporations have promised us that a happy, sustainable future is ours to purchase, and we have believed them. Instead, they’ve gentrified our cities and commodified our existence. On Oval, even generosity quickly becomes an addiction for exchange. Indeed, the drug turns out to be a lot like Louis himself: so unthinkably normal that it’s surely an abnormality.
While Wilk suggests end times for Berlin — and Finster along with it — she offers a space of resistance for Anja, even if a flimsy one. Anja retreats to her blasted hilltop home in a kind of back-to-the-land simulacrum. We have the sense that she’s protected under the shadow. She’s not exactly redeemed, but she represents the possibility of removing oneself, at least temporarily, from the catastrophic neuroses of daily life.
Wilk attempts to offer a lot else, too. Her emotional observations are convincing, but they’re where the novel is most uneven, and sometimes amateurish. We end up with long poetic scenes punctuated with bland academese, like when Wilk tells us that “[c]oupling was the most normative thing in the world,” or that Louis was “eating without pause, shoveling signifier into signified.” The book also runs into trouble where its dystopian technologies are concerned. It begins so many threads — from human tissue experiments to weird climate hiccups to Oval itself — that it has little space to tie each up satisfactorily.
What lingers in Oval is a wish that we reconcile ourselves to a productive kind of uncertainty. As Anja wakes from a dream in her final moments atop the Berg, she thinks: “Closure was a myth. There was nothing to close. The object of affection was no longer itself.” That object may be Louis. It may be Anja’s interior. It may be our dream of salvaging society with easy solutions. The forces that dominate our lives don’t end; they only shift and reconfigure. To struggle against them, we must also reshape ourselves.