Soft Skull Press, 2019
Elvia Wilk’s debut novel Oval is a speculative meditation on the evil humans do—to the planet and to each other. It’s also a distinctly millennial love story and a sometimes sharp and sometimes meandering critique of modern society. Set in Berlin in the near future, the narrative focuses on a late-twenties independently wealthy and deeply insecure female scientist, Anja. Wilk, who regularly writes about the arts, architecture, and technology, flexes her muscles as a critic here while also creating a fiction focused on a world that is falling apart from neglect as represented both by the planet itself and Wilk’s central character, Anja.
Anja and her partner, the American “artist” Louis, are living (rent free) in an experimental “sustainable” house in an eco-community on a manufactured mountain called simply “the Berg.” Created and spectacularly not maintained by the corporate conglomerate Finster, the house is an oppressive presence throughout the opening section of the novel. Anja’s inability to fix or leave her impossible home sets the groundwork for her later stasis and ultimate drastic slide in the rest of the novel. Anja is a sensitive, shy, and lonely rich girl, desperate to make things work—with her job as a scientist at Finster, with her aloof and insensitive partner, and ultimately with her relationship to the world. But her inability to “fix” the house or her relationship leads to a collapse that mirrors her outer environment: as Anja retreats from modern life, Berlin collapses into an anarchic vision of a future gone wrong.
The novel opens with the death of Louis’s beloved mother Pat. He returns from the States to a house that is “sweating” with windows that don’t open locking in an atmosphere of humid decay. The tension is palpable from the start: Louis shows no outer signs of grief, Anja obsesses over his loss to the extent that it damages their relationship—a relationship that is, arguably, already damaged. The couple’s inability to fix the house is a clear metaphor for their failing and stagnant relationship and the collapse of the house works to drive them further apart.
Anja is also involved with her ex-boyfriend Howard, an older man who also happens to be a higher-up at Finster and directly responsible for the young couple’s placement in the experimental house. Howard exerts so much influence in Anja’s life that he becomes an almost cartoonish villain—it is Howard who places Louis and Anja in the horrifying house, Howard who informs Anja she’s been “promoted” to “consultant” from her job in a lab—just when she’s on the cusp of finishing an experiment, and Howard who is behind the final betrayal that destroys her relationship with Louis. It’s also Howard who, at the end of the novel, comes to search for Anja after she disappears from Berlin up the now-abandoned Berg convinced to the end of Anja’s inability to care for herself. But Howard is also central to one of the core conflicts of the novel: a city’s population under siege from development. Howard represents Finster and while Anja (and ultimately Louis) works for Finster, it is Howard who knows just what Finster is doing in Berlin. Outwardly positioned as renewal aimed at a shift to “sustainability,” Finster is unhousing the poorer residents of Berlin and building a future as flimsy as the experimental houses on the Berg.
There is heavy critique throughout the novel of the Neo-Liberal project of charity, of NGOs, and of the life of the (mostly) white, hip, cultural class. Anja is the only one with a seemingly “real job”—a scientist in a group made up of pseudo-artists and “club kids.” There is Louis with his “consultancy” that’s vaguely centered around “doing good” and Laura and Dam who don’t seem to work—although Dam has a podcast focused on various conspiracy theories and the increasingly bizarre weather. There’s also a wider circle of artists and performers and those who simply hold some form of cultural capital (they can get on guest lists) but without anything most of us would recognize as “real skills.” Of course, this is a part of the critique. In Wilk’s Berlin, art is sponsored and artists owned by corporations—artists become “consultants” whose role, while unclear, involves creating performances or at the least, concepts centered around corporate marketing. Louis works for the NGO Basquiatt where his job is to “generate press-garnering experiments on the edge of what could be called traditional corporate boundaries, and in the process to enhance the corporate culture and strengthen corporate values from within.” As evidenced here Wilk’s corporate speak throughout the novel is terrifyingly accurate. Instead of focusing his creative energy on making a specific part of the world a better place, Louis’s job is to make Basquiatt a better place and “therefore to help Basquiatt make The World a better place.” In other words, “He showed the institution how to think better, how to critique its institutionality. He kept the institution hip and fresh just by being there.” Similar to twenty-first century “influencers” whose job really isn’t much different from the 1980s club kid “promoters”—who made a space cool just by showing up or talking about it—Wilk has written a job economy where artists exist not to create art but to theorize as “consultants” within an institutional hierarchy.
Louis however, decides to actually create something material – the drug, Oval (named by Anja), that has the effect on the user of making “giving feel better than taking.” In other words, Oval is meant to create a “person-to-person charity and goodness.” Or, as Anja describes it, “He wants to drug people into kindness. He thinks he’s making the ultimate artwork.” Of course, Oval doesn’t work out like that at all; Louis strikes a deal with Howard, Basquiatt is swallowed up by Finster, but by the end of the novel, none of that really matters as Oval is set loose on the population like a match to a city ready to burn.
As Anja escapes the disaster of her relationship, she moves up onto the now-decomposing Berg where she lives for a brief time in a sort-of futuristic back to (genetically modified) nature—embracing the collapse of her former house and hiding from the rapidly deteriorating city below. The final pages of the novel sing out with a wonderfully written crescendo of destruction as Laura and Dam escape the madness of Berlin under the influence of Oval and together the three friends watch from the Berg. There are critiques that could be made about Anja’s inherent position of white privilege, her failure to critique her own lack of any meaningful activism, and her ability to escape the destruction meted out on the less fortunate. But these are all simplistic and avoid the broader global critique Wilk is making—efforts at “sustainability” and charity under the guise of corporate power likely will lead only to the ruin that comes at the end of the novel. There is no great redemption here and Anja’s last thoughts at the close of the novel speak to a failure at the very heart of modern society. It is a shatteringly good end to a largely good debut.