Valerie, No

i.  dry 35° / lavender / wet west gust

Before anything else, Oval (Elvia Wilk, 2019) is an idea novel. Anecdotes, ruminations, political monologues, thought experiments pushing the usual simulations of scifi into something almost philosophy. Its subjects are ecology, government systems, and that ambiguous word neoliberalism (here meant in the sense of blurring private sector and state, “corporate governance”), but also status games and belong, human nature and intention, incentive structures and the structures of feeling. Sometimes the idea-work feels forced—page-long metaphors drawn from the prison system, clumsy dialoguing over gender paygaps—but when properly scoped is almost exhilarating, like the tone-setting metaphor of the “muddy slope” Wilk sets up at the novel’s start:

Anja skidded down the slope, which was becoming muddy from overuse by feet. It still hadn’t been paved or even scattered with gravel, since Finster didn’t want to admit that the state of that pathway could no longer be called temporary. Rather than upgrade the provisional solution to make it slightly more functional in the interminable interim, it was ignored, as a signal that something better, something great—the best possible path was coming. Louis likened this situation to a general societal problem. The refusal to improve a nonsolution with a makeshift solution, he said, was the attitude that left most of the world a muddy slope in need of repair… “Why do you think refugee camps are never outfitted with proper infrastructure?” he’d asked Anja… 

The book’s ideas exist inside its characters, productive conflict between ways of being and orienting organized through interpersonal conflict. Unity between levels, a proper theme. Anja, booky androgyne and Oval’s protagonist, practices what we might call bourgeois deontology; longterm romantic partner Louis plays the pragmatist planner, committed to practical difference. (Wilk: “Let’s be realistic” was his self-parody catchphrase.) Discourse plays out in their character drama. 

(The identification of Anja with pragmatism by some reviewers shows an inability to sort out the external markers of a pragmatic approach from its underlying form. Anja plays at pragmatism but is not pragmatic herself; her hyper-organization, for instance, is perhaps first-and-foremost a deeply held identity trait, and she forgoes practical and durable digitization of paperwork for physical copies which are quickly ruined when their house decays. This is romanticism flavored by anxiety: the appeal of beautiful binders, color-coded so as to ooze the aura of control, nostalgic file cabinets and indices.)

The couple live on a man-made mountain called the Berg, built atop post-contemporary Tempelhof airfield (historical site of self-motivated but also net-beneficial American generosity). It’s a carbon-neutral community where built-in decomposition equipment eliminates residents’ refuse. The couple have different styles when it comes to running the house:

When they had first moved in, Anja would hike up the mountains each evening with a backpack full of biodegradables and other trash she had accrued throughout the day, in order to dump them down the disposal and enter her total net waste into the recycling system. It was her waste, wherever she produced it, and she was going to be honest about it. But the surplus of wrappers and crusts and tissues had started to clog the drain unit and overflow the toilet… 

“Couldn’t you throw this stuff away somewhere else?” Louis asked her… “You brought home a random bag from a fast-fashion store, which you used to carry your other trash in, and you put it down our drain.”

“Yes, that’s what I did. I used the bag. Ergo it’s part of my waste output… The whole point is to cancel us out completely.”

They fight a bit longer. “It’s just not realistic,” Louis advances, the house isn’t designed to handle a human’s total waste output. Anja: “The whole point [of the Berg] is to cancel us out completely,” an erased footprint. But the house can’t handle the puritanical approach; a preoccupation with doing it right has led to a lesser outcome, cf. muddy slope. “Eventually Louis’s practicality had won out as it tended to… [Anja] couldn’t keep track of everything she used; trying to do so had led to an ontological breakdown on the microlevel of her daily life. Were eyelashes and skin cells on pair with hair ties and coffee cups?” (Confusingly, Anja is a biologist, apparently a fairly good one, so it’s strange she doesn’t factor in timescales of decomposition.) The practical vs. idealistic, pragmatic vs. deontological, following the spirit of rules vs. the letter—these rival approaches are so gendered they surprise in a book with Oval’s prog politics, a Men are from Mars for cultured millennials.

In the same vein, Anja’s deontology on waste recycling is fueled by a “lack of explicit instruction” in the Berg’s housing contract. How ought she interpret her level of obligation in the face of uncertainty? Then there are the surveillance cameras scattered throughout the house—supposedly up for diagnostic reasons; always haunting the home’s arches and hallways. After delivering a defense of her purist outlook on composting to Louis: Without meaning to, [Anja had] glanced up toward where she knew the camera was, nestled above the cabinets. The social eye present & felt, quietly refactoring the behavior and thinking of those in its gaze, a pressure half real and half imagined. (Society as the panopticon: little need for a state when implicit social pressure bandpass filters the perceived range of possibility.) How much you buckle depends on personal strength and stupid arrogance, but a partner in crimes incubates the strength required of integrity against a roving Casablanca spotlight of popularity & outside approval. One of the low points in Anja’s unspooling relationship with Louis comes when he brutally invokes the “authority of the dysfunctional social scene, of the masses, of the culture at large… to override the private contract of their relationship.” It feels like a betrayal because it is one: weaponizing the same outside consensus he’d previously derided as bunk, that had been (properly) cast as a setting of conformity and unreason. Overwriting local, private truths with outsider interpretation.

(Louis is not immune to implicit pressures either: “[Anja] was used to him coming home late from the studio at Basquiatt. Nobody was forcing him to pull long hours, but if he wasn’t passionate enough to stay late, why did he even have the job?”)

The pressure she feels slips through fingers on the terms of its unreality, an “internalized pressure based on imaginary rules” without any actual fiction of enforcement. When out with Louis, Anja feels obligated to order despite not feeling hungry, then picks at her plate. (Long Chu: The meaning of femaleness is making room for some else’s desires, allowing them to do your desiring for you.) One wonders whether Louis would’ve felt similar pressure, and also whether he’d care if she’d foregone the ordering. The desires one makes room for may be real or imagined, concentrated or diffuse—a boyfriend’s sexual needs, a set of cultural expectations, a literal pregnancy—but in all cases, the self is hollowed out, made into an incubator for an alien force (Females: A Concern). Later in Oval, Anja attends a disappointing art opening with her lab partner Michel. Where she may internally voice disgust with the party, its conceits of moral progress & insight a transparent veneer over a reality of social capital exchange, she stays publically within “accepted bounds” of critique, falsifying preferences. Michel refuses; after Anja’s friend Sara spits out a mouthful of art-jargon, he looks “incredulously” at her and laughs. “Who has done this terrible thing to your speech? It’s like you’ve memorized the press release… Or are you just recombining random phrases from thousands of press releases you’ve read?” It’s rude but liberating to Anja, who usually opts to buckle. (Buckling is not just a personal decision; it’s a decision to tacitly affirm the unreality, putting further pressure on dissenters: “Normally [she] would have shifted visibly away from Michel [after such an affront], signaling [her] distance, but instead she found herself laughing.”) Later, in a conversation with Laura that feels triggered by the altercation, Anja wonders: “Why do we willingly submit ourselves to social defeat at the hands of those we don’t respect? Why do we play a game with such idiotic rules?”

ii.  friendly skies, calm waters / immense gratitude / 30°

The distance in outlook becomes outright chasm when Louis starts scheming on a new designer drug at work, hoping its chemical effects will encourage interpersonal generosity. In trials, users get a high from giving, and Louis believes big picture this will move the dial of human nature towards selflessness. Anja objects. “But the giving won’t be real—” Louis: “—That’s how humans work. You have to incentivize them.” Anja chews her hair while considering a response. “Giving money away away because it feels good is not the same thing as actual kindness.” Louis: “I know, babe. But on the receiving end, does it make any difference?” 

When this line of debate tapers out, she moves to the source of the funding, his using “dirty” funding from his employers, the NGO Basquiatt. This is the low point for Anja’s way of seeing and moving through the world, the start of its publicity crisis. Ignore the fact that Louis is clearly descriptively correct: human generosity is always already motivated by a mix of brain chemistry and social incentives, on some level selfish. There are two reasons people choose deontology. One, because they don’t trust themselves to evaluate consequences clearly, to not be corrupted or lowball the complexity. Two, the latent narcissism of the haute bourgeoisie, where focus lies on the politics of the doer more than the effects of the deed, its result-in-the-world. A preoccupation with intent closely related to aristocratic obsessions with authenticity—doing things for the right reasons, being pure of action and heart, possessing moral hygiene. See Anja, refusing to contaminate herself with her parents’ money, avoiding the feeling of guilt that privilege brings her. Is this behavior social, a scrupulous performance for the ever-watching eye? Is it a private demonstration to the (socialized) self, the preservation of esteem? The two become so blurred they may as well be the same thing, outside models slowly internalized.

All this makes Anja’s criticism of Oval (the pill) highly ironic. Her behavior, seemingly more than Louis’s, is driven by identitarian rewards: not in doing good, but being good. She is the case study Louis imagines when he counters her criticisms—“Moral commitment is always selfish, on some level.”

Oval the pill does in fact spiral out of control, repeating the lessons of the 20th century, the arrogance innate of planners playing God. (Louis, quintessential high modernist in the vein of Robert Moses, Le Corbusier.) Anja learns of its fallout through Dam and Laura: Arguments erupted, not only between those who had considered themselves to be the givers and those who had been identified as the takers, but among the givers themselves. Jealousy. Competition. Disagreements about the best ways to do things. Tactics to become the best giver. Tactics to undermine on another’s charity… See Hanson, Simler: All that’s object-level melts into meta-games of status.

Oval fails ironically for the reasons Louis thought it might succeed. The point of charitable donation was to fulfill a need on the part of the giver. Nothing could overcome the root self-interested that was already inherent, changing the parameters of the game is not the same as changing its winning criteria (distinction).

This ending marks, in the narrative, the redemption of Anja’s obsession with intent and motive. Jump back in time to the studio where Louis is first revealing his work on Oval to skeptical Anja: “She avoided the voices in her head, which were saying things like Absolutely Fucking Not, Who Do You Think You Are, etc…” Their failure lies in translating frameworks, in putting into words what the deontological accusation of hubris means in consequentialist terms: that human social psychology is endlessly complex; that efforts to meddle in it usually backfire; that bottom-up & evolved structures of social organization beat designed alternatives (let alone something designed so hastily and thoughtlessly, lacking patience, trials). 

iii.  heatwave dry / smell of decay / rec. stay inside w paranoid thoughts… 

Another flashpoint for Wilk: conspiracy, in the Pynchonian vein, a reading-between-lines. Again a coherence and dialogue between Wilk’s treatment of characters and larger philosophical interests. 

Here’s paranoid anxiety: everything is causally linked; everything is intentional and deliberate, as opposed to accidental or incidental; everything is a “sign” in need of deciphering. One belief of the paranoid-anxious in social settings: the Other’s psychology is always within grasp of knowability given sufficient attention and analysis. (A formula for insanity.) 

The ultimate unknowability of the other, the high level of ambiguity inherent to interpersonal life, leads analyzing subjects into constant projection. Anja admits she never really wanted to get serious with Howard, significantly older than her, but the idea of being a side piece so bruises her ego she ends up “trick[ing] herself into feeling rejected by him, leading herself down a tunnel of body dysmorphia.” In the fallout from the passing of Louis’s mom, Pat, Louis comes off as relatively unaffected, keeping busy with work. Anja reads it (accurately or not) as denial and suppression—a coping mechanism that will inevitably blow up in both their faces—then anxiously awaits the day it does. “If my parents died, I would want to act insane, burning shit and ruining everything,” she tells Howard, with whom she’s stayed friends long after their sexual involvement. “But it didn’t happen to you. It happened to him,” he gently reminds her. Still convinced that Louis could not possibly handle an emotional event she herself would fall to pieces over, Anja accuses them both of privilege. (Neurological? Dispositional?)

Along the way, she gets outside views into her own projections and worry, considers seriously that it all might be invented, that Louis’s obsession with Oval could be “pure” and not an outlet for mourning. She let her vision unfocus and her thoughts drift. Was she pathologizing Louis in the same way Howard, and countless males, pathologized her? She had mentally reduced Louis’s desire to change the world to a desperate reaction to grief. Such disputes are hard to resolve. She has a tendency which doesn’t help the situation to ignore what her brain tells her, to keep acting despite knowing her actions are tanking her. Asking her neighbor at the Berg about home malfunctions, or texting back a colleague, can detachedly “make sense” to her and yet remain perfectly unacted on. At dinner with Laura and Dam, she admits to “whining” all evening but lets it happen; a page later, Dam throws his phone across the room, shattering a window because a love interest hadn’t texted him back. “Solidarity baby,” he tells her—“I’m also experiencing that fundamental conflict between reason and emotion for myself.” Is Oval a book about the relationship between thinking and feeling? Compare the Vonnegut quote that opens the novel: I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.” The sincerity being less necessary, and more volatile, than the structure of protocols.

iv.  black sun, definitive night / the shiver (-1°)

In the end, Anja sees it more clearly, even as we’ve lost clarity as readers. She remembered how she’d inspected [Louis] for signs of change in this very kitchen, morning after morning. How she’d repeatedly asked him if he was okay. How she’d been so worried about [his grief] that he ended up comforting her. How he’d started avoiding her just so that he wouldn’t have to worry about her worrying about him. How angry she’d gotten with him on their last hike up the mountain as he’d struggled to deal with his emotion. We saw it go down in real time: Louis unable to compartmentalize his grief the way he wants to, and might have, boyishly, been able to—because his partner doesn’t believe that possible or healthy, a judgment formed by extrapolation from her own psychology. (It’s hard not to be sympathetic—what other methods are there?) 

Everyone ducks responsibility in this book’s Berlin. On a metro car, a homeless woman moving through the car asking for change: The woman moved on and Anja looked up to see the man next to her arching his body up to slip his wallet back into the pocket of his slacks. He had produced an offering. The muscles of everyone sitting around them seemed to relax; they had been absolved of responsibility for the time being. He’d taken care of it… Anja asks herself: What would Louis do? The eternal question: What would Louis do?

Underlying Anja’s paranoid anxiety is a constant ascription of intent to authority figures, a deference towards others’ ability to manipulate the world. She falls naturally into parent-child relationships with all the men in her life—Louis, Howard, Michel—allowing her to abnegate responsibility. Wilk is not coy about the psychology here: “What [Anja] had really come here for was [Howard’s] signature blend of affection, approval, and authority. He would, as he always did, oblige her complaints in exchange for feeling depended upon. He liked to be needed; she offered an assortment of needs.” When Louis denies that he needs to talk to anyone about Pat’s death, she thinks “what a relief it would be” to have a therapist involved—to “invoke an authority.” Incompetence seeks help as vulnerability seeks shelter, inviting the embrace that becomes the invasion. Anja is situationally powerless in a half-stable world, unable to escape getting slotted into prefigured roles.

Cue abnegation: A phone call with Louis sours when he tells her he’ll be going out for dinner with Prinz instead of coming home; he invites her to come out too, but she lies that she has dinner plans, trying to hide “bitterness” in her tone. She wonders initially if she’s “driving the dynamic,” whether she might be partly responsible for the turn in conversation, before quickly waving that possibility off: “No… if there was something making the conversation go this way, it was him. He always knew what he was doing.” This hurts her: she’s renounced a narrative of subjecthood for one of objecthood, a script which only flips after hitting rock bottom.

v.  ice ice bb 0°0°0° hats on today

Enjoyably (and as in Pynchon) the connection between interpretation and  narrativization in literary hermeneutics and the real world is drawn. Lost and disoriented by all that’s occurred between her and Louis, Anja turns to the reality TV-binging Laura, who explains that the relevant characters are all acting out an established romantic script. 

“Everything is structural. Even or especially this Sarah situation. The two of you are just following a script.”

“What script?”

“Straight couple goes through relationship difficulties that become publicly obvious. Close female friend of couple plays both sides, absorbing the complaints of both and sympathizing. While she’s doing face masks, watching movies, and bringing tissues to the girlfriend, she’s partying and acting like the cool girl with her friend’s estranged boyfriend. Basically massaging the suffering of the girlfriend while flattering the boyfriend into thinking he doesn’t need his relationship. She isn’t overtly trying to hook up with the boyfriend, but she’s definitely treating him like he’s single. So the girlfriend stays miserable, while the guy gets to have fun. Unknown to himself, convinced he’s simply having a good time to escape from the difficult entanglements of romantic love, the guy lets himself get pulled away from his girlfriend, who now seems lame and melodramatic… People just don’t get how predictable they are.”

(Theory as action, or “characters realizing they’re in a story” except more graceful, less Lost in the Funhouse.) 

But, as Anja points out, there is more to her and Louis’s story. There is also Oval.

The truth is,” [Anja] said, “Sarah isn’t really the problem. She’s kind of a red herring… He’s also cheating on me with, like—I don’t know how to say it. Idealism.” (Their roles have switched—her to realism, him to idealism—and their relationship will not survive it.) “This script is off the rails,” [Laura] said, wild-eyed [as Anja finished explaining]. “Fuck the script! This is way more exciting than some domestic drama!”

Scripted and unscripted, predictable and unpredictable, there’s always a difference, in Oval, between what’s simulated to happen and what actually does. The effects of the pill are just the logical apotheosis of this gap.

On the back terrace, growth was also accelerating. Sprouts were shoving themselves up between the tesselated stones, which had buckled in one corner, and a swarm of gnats concentrated itself over the wet muck that had collective in a crevice in the split surface. Surveying the edge of the clearing, she found an odd mix of growth and decay, like the mountain was eating itself and spitting new things out.

Anyone who’s read Dillard’s naturalism writing recognizes this cycle, the obscene making and unmaking of the world, its formation of new structure and its dissolution once again. Fecundity to decomposition. Humans try to freeze the world, control it, escape the cycle’s inevitability in favor of comfortable and predictable homeostasis, but then—something always feels missing. “I didn’t realize until now how much I wanted it to do something else,” Anja tells Michel when their lab experiment runs exactly as the simulations predicted it would. The feeling is mutual. 

At the novel’s opening, A. & L.’s house at the Berg is described as menopausal. In its conclusion, Anja’s abdomen is contracting with “spasm[s] of pain,” a “red line” speeding down her leg. Something had become dislodged. There is finally the disjuncture “between simulation and the reality” they’d all been subconsciously waiting for, the After to follow the Before. In Oval’s final pages, Anja looks out from the summit of the Berg over a smoldering Berlin, inferno’d from the pill’s hellish hangover. Her family inheritance has been sitting in a bank account awaiting the “right moment” to use it. Out of the destruction, an opportunity for new growth. 

At the novel’s opening, Anja tells her neighbor, carrying a dog up the Berg’s steep, Sisyphean slope, “I wish someone would carry me.” Dam writes text messages for her that she’s put off anxiously; Louis’s prized attribute is he “let [her] off the hook,” performs “vision” on her behalf. Now Anja’s “becoming a self-contained organism, unwilling or unable to be subsumed by the mass.” She looked down at Finster’s dead city of lost investments and smiled… the city had offered nothing she could make hers… Until now. There had never been such a good time to buy.

vi.  calm cloudless sailor moon / ?°

Social critique, charming party sociology and the game theoretics of sexual-romantic life. “Nobody invents content at parties, they just repeat it.” 

Sitting at an intersection, Anja watches a “swarm of teenagers in red caps” cross the street. It was easy to spot the popular girl at the front of the pack right away, simply from the geometry of the flock in motion. What was it about the girl, Anja wondered, the homely girl preoccupied with her phone, that made her the focal point, the yolk at the center of attention? What was that factor upon which the self-replicating algorithm turned, that remarkably consistent geometry of popularity?

(“How had Anja still not figured out the answer, the hidden parametric logic to social arrangements, even after all these years, even as an adult scientist?” Because the human psychosocial is  more complex than biology; the scientific ability to invent a pill like Oval comes long before the sociological understanding of how to wield it.)

Also early on in the novel: Once, in the Before, at a dinner party, Louis had retold a story he’d read in The New Yorker. The article was an exposé on Russian prisons in what was known as the “Black Zone,” a lawless section of the penitentiary where there was little supervision from above, and the prisoners were basically left to govern themselves. In the Black Zone, rigid customs had developed that newcomers had to learn if they didn’t want to get knifed. Most of the customs had originally been created for practical reasons, but by now they’d become arbitrary rules whose only function was to enforce a sense of social cohesion. For example, there was one major taboo against throwing away crusts of moldy bread. Back in the early years of the Black Zone, when food had been scarce, it was necessary to conserve every morsel. Today, a healthy black market supplied champagne and caviar to the inmates—and yet the taboo against wasting bread remained. Throwing away rotten food marked the newcomer as an outsider, someone who didn’t understand the history of want and deprivation from which the rules had evolved. 

Conversation and knowledge are framed, in the Hanson-Simler sense, as a “backpack” or toolkit that signals your value as an ally. “You heard this mix by Koolhaas yet?” Laura asks Anja, who shakes her head. “It was clear from the way Laura had asked… that [Anja] had missed something, a scrap of cultural matter that was inconsequential on its own but when combined with a whole lot of other things she didn’t know could became [sic] liability—could make her into a person who didn’t know things.” Dam’s F.W.B. Eric is a founder of an app startup that lets users exchange Bourdieusian soft capital—favors, hookups, connections, letters of rec, plus-ones—between themselves. As with Oval, newcomers to the concept are horrified by its dystopian conversion of intangibles into algorithmically determined exchange values, of the sacred turned profane— “It seems like, maybe, it would just make relationships into commodities”—but the marketplace isn’t being newly created, just formalized and thus made newly visible. Kant’s imperative to treat people as ends instead of means is old as time; the horror is not that generosity will be dopaminergically incentivized, or that event invites and social connects will soon be used as a form of currency—the horror is that they already were. 

The mismatch between appearance and actuality, between exterior and interior, is constant. The social constantly distorts, and Anja makes a regular choice between appearing like she’s in the know, and asking those question that would actually give her the information. She suspects Louis is similarly bullshitting in the wake of his mom passing: “Pretending to be fine and being fine looked the same from the outside, and the outside was all [Anja] had” to go off. Later, when the oneness of world and abstraction appear to converge, Anja can feel its “peace of literalness,” the feeling of being “exactly yourself.” She thrills that Michel was a “literal, fixed version of himself,” whereas “Louis… was never quite Louis[, t]he shape that didn’t match its outline.” Then, her understanding unbuckles once more from reality, as Michel’s intentions with her are revealed as romantic. The gap between inside and outside proves insurmountable; solid impressions melt into new shapes.

And Wilk allows her experience as an art critic to turn the parodic eye onto contemporary VizArt culture. In the world of Oval, actual progress and innovation is abandoned in favor of progress-speak and “innovative mindset” (deontological markers); its “institutions [are] too enamored of ‘discovery’ to make any actual discoveries.” “Um, it’s sort of an interrogation into… I don’t know, notions of authenticity in the Western world. Like gestural marks that are meant to—maybe—provide, like, a feedback loop into a network of ecologies of beauties, and like, other ways of interaction conceived as data flows?” airhead Sara adlibs at an opening.  

The best parody needs not exaggerate, only reproduce the target’s self-presentation in a tone of irreverence, one which doesn’t take the value of its stance for granted. The audience sat on collapsible stool-like things made of folded recyclable cardboard that existed for no reason other than not to be normal chairs. To subvert “the chair.” Afterward Anja and Louis discuss whether transgression is still possible. Modernism’s worst tendencies: anti-holistic, impatient with and dismissive of the past, obsessed subversion at the cost of all other functions and purposes, and without presenting a positive replacement for the values systems it guts—a machine for stripping, not so much building. 

All is framed by Berlin’s newly eccentric weather patterns, the changing and eroding normalcy around them, which is presented via Dam’s text-blast weather forecasts scattered throughout the novel. They are visceral, poetic, atmospheric: slobbering wet / bright rays / strawberry; dry sahara / scheherazade skies / 35°. Sometimes they are prophetic, foreshadowing: smooth clouds with a chance of secrets / rough winds / 19° before a dinner between Louis and Anja, where she tries to draw out and discuss his grief, only to end up crying herself, in need of comfort. Even the word choice is the same: “Here was [Louis’s] chance to say ‘I miss her.’”

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