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“Who has done this terrible thing to your speech?” Michel, a scientist in Elvia Wilk’s debut novel Oval, asks the artsy Sara at a gallery opening. The two are attempting to discuss the performance they just saw. “It’s like you’ve memorized the press release, and make it sound like it’s spontaneously coming from your mouth […] or are you recombining random phrases from thousands of press releases you’ve read?”
For the performance, artist Snow White (born Andy) conjured a spectacle of flames, gongs, poetry, 3D printing, and the font comic sans. The end goal? Presenting a line of Korean beauty–inspired cosmetics developed for a megacorporation. At the same event, another conversation questions who is in on the joke. “You honestly think [the patrons] don’t get the joke?” one person asks. “Of course they do, but they pretend not to, which is an even bigger joke. And [the artist] is pretending he doesn’t know they’re pretending. And that just makes it an even bigger joke. And on and on forever in an endless loop.” This ostensibly allows both sides to “feel superior.”
Oval is set in a fictional Berlin. Although it takes place a decade or so in the future, the novel barely acknowledges the city’s history, legacy, and enduring appeal. In line with the current trends in urbanism, it’s a cookie-cutter metropolis where fake woke projects, an insufferable club scene, a dreary dating landscape, and eco-friendly initiatives coexist alongside tech conglomerates that are cannibalizing the little lifeblood that’s left of the city. A common refrain in the book is “Berlin has changed.” Yet the city still boasts a group of typical hipster youths, who idle away time at clubs or by the river and scoff at the hurdles of German bureaucracy while perpetually facing eviction.
An arts writer with bylines in Frieze, Artforum, and Rhizome, Wilk has crafted a novel that shrewdly pokes fun at the urban creative class by fashioning a series of vignettes that make the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town downright drab. The plot mainly centers on a couple: Anja, an Austrian-American scientist and trust-fund baby with body dysmorphia, and Louis, an American artist-turned-“consultant” for one of those megacorporations. They live in an eco-friendly complex called the Berg, which promotes a zero-waste lifestyle but is actually highly inefficient. Following his mother’s death, Louis immerses himself in work and eventually creates a miracle drug, Oval. It is meant to trigger feelings and acts of generosity and Louis believes if he brings the drug into the club scene he can singlehandedly fix the economic problem that’s ailing the city.
Oval will inevitably remind the readers of something else by someone else. Sci-fi fans might see parallels between the Berg and Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X, from his Southern Reach Trilogy, or notice how the drug developed by the well-intentioned Louis for the seemingly woke nonprofit Basquiatt echoes Brave New World’s soma and Phillip K. Dick’s miracle spray, UBIK. Yet the latter two were used in dystopian societies with totalitarian regimes, while Oval, idealistically, is “merely” designed to activate a response of generosity in the brain to combat income inequality.
The book’s tone is similar to that of Ling Ma’s Severance; both combine millennial (or simply self-obsessed) ennui with decay: the Berg, for example, is overrun with mold, and things constantly break down, making life there seem precarious. However, Oval lacks the oppressive ick-factor of Ling Ma’s novel, and expectedly so: the plague-ridden New York of Severance is more menacing than a bland Berlin’s rule by megacorporations.
Anja, with all her clichéd vulnerability, echoes the protagonist in Melissa Broder’s The Pisces and the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but while those characters were fully deranged and a tad sociopathic, Anja is also kind of a square, which does not grant her the much-coveted status as anti-heroine. What sets her off are Louis’s “lack of dependence on her, his turning to the social sphere for fulfillment instead of to her, his smooth invulnerability.” Her friends seem to admire the hand she was dealt in life. “You get extra points for anorexia right now. And you have money. Total package.” The tragically beautiful millennial brainiac with an eating disorder is getting to be a tired shtick. It’s unclear whether Wilk is condescending or sympathetic to her narrator. I hope it’s the former.
Wilk’s writing is strongest in the scenes set in clubs or at art shows, where everybody is based on a host of insufferable tropes. However, it’s hard for the novel survive on satirical interludes alone, and her attempt to combine satire, dystopia, sci-fi, and millennial ennui feels too tightly packed for a book that is less than 350 pages. The raw material is strong; Oval could have worked well as a TV adaptation or trilogy, developing the plot in book one, the grotesquely pathetic characters in book two, and tying everything together in book three, culminating in what is already a cynical, apocalyptic ending that layers destruction with reflections on the housing market.
Millennial ennui–fueled, post-apocalyptic fiction might not have reached full maturity as a self-standing literary genre. However, if literature is, indeed, headed in that direction, Oval is surely a seminal text, my personal quips notwithstanding.