Elvia Wilk’s debut novel Oval (Soft Skull Press, June 2019) stuns in its exploration of contemporary psychology and the surrounding environment that informs it. The novel begins at a fork in a relationship. Anja is a young millennial woman whose boyfriend Louis has just returned to Berlin in the aftermath of his mother’s sudden funeral. Anja is disturbed and frustrated by Louis’s masculine dissociation of what is surely a traumatic event. This gendered premise unfolds to reveal a delicious array of complex characters consisting of a combination of struggling artists and booming capitalists, both of whom make up a dying Berlin. Despite Anja’s humble attitude towards her privileged trust fund, Anja and Louis take up residency in a corporate sponsored rent-free home on a faux mountain in an attempt to curb the costs of their increasingly expensive city, as well as in full acknowledgment of the earth’s decaying climate.
Anja struggles. She struggles to access an intimacy from Louis she selfishly desires, she struggles to accept the banality of her recent promotion, and she struggles to accept her own intimacy with her closest friends Laura (a cynic, but the kind that can still Anja’s nerves) and her brother Dam (a queer man with a party exterior and tender heart). Anja is a joy to read in her exceptional self-awareness, though Wilk ultimately deserves the credit here, as she writes so fluidly from her narrator’s mind. When Louis finally intimates himself to Anja by revealing his secret project, Anja finds herself at an even greater distance from her lover. Louis invents a pill (Oval) that he intends to distribute in young club circuits, with the intent of chemically generating material generosity out of his fellow peers. For Louis, given Berlin’s ever-increasing class and financial crisis, Oval is the ultimate solution.
Oval asks if we can control our lovers, how we can build our own families, and how it can be done while rent on earth skyrockets to uninhabitable.
The Rumpus: I’m in awe of how Oval tackles these all-encompassing topics: our current modes of interrelationships, climate change, and capitalism, all in this completely cohesive and overlapping narrative. Given the diverse range of themes in this book, talk to me about your writing process. Was it your intention to hit these thematic points from the outset, or did the narrative fluidly impact the other?
Elvia Wilk: It’s definitely the right question, because the story operates on several registers at once. Sometimes the interpersonal relationships serve as a microcosm of much larger issues that the world is facing, and then sometimes the political or economic realities are at the forefront of the plot. I did not have a world in mind when I started writing the book. At the time I was just trying to work out a lot of personal issues. It was almost like a revenge book at the start. But in writing the characters, I realized Louis’s and Anja’s relationship isn’t just about them, or can’t be explained on its own—there’s a whole world that has created the conditions for it.
The two main characters struggle with inherited modes of behavior toward each other versus the idiosyncratic, self-invented kind of relationship they want to have, where you get to make conscious decisions. A lot of the way that they relate to each other is circumscribed. There’s not a lot of freedom, I think, to move within it. The main characters in Oval are pushing against the constraints of their gender roles, which is one obvious set of inherited tropes they have inherited. A lot of any relationship is about people trying to invent a vocabulary for their experience, because the ones we are given are quite impoverished.
Rumpus: Right away in the book we are introduced to a gendered dynamic between Louis and Anja, in that Anja is puzzled by Louis’s lack of grief in the aftermath of losing his mother. I wonder what your thoughts are regarding a feminine predisposition to emotions and compassion? Do you think that’s a construct? It’s made even more interesting because Anja ends up upset with Louis over his personal mission for compassion. Can you speak on that?
Wilk: You’re definitely right that a strange inversion happens. The reason that Louis develops this urgent desire to artificially induce feelings (that is, his creation of Oval, a drug that aims to un-inhibit generosity) is because he’s incapable of doing the difficult emotional labor that transforming the way we relate to each other actually requires. With Oval, he wants to create what is essentially an app-like shortcut to doing emotional labor.
The fact that Louis is driven to devise Oval after his mother dies has to do with his inability to process emotions on a conscious level. I think grief is very complicated and it’s very hard to write about—because the right way to grieve is to do whatever you need to do. There isn’t a right way. And yet it’s also clear that Louis’s way of dealing with his feelings, which is to not deal with them, is not generous to his partner at all. She is not allowed to be a part of it and she ends up having to do it for him, obsessing over what he needs, imagining how he feels, because he can’t transmit the information. The book is about grief on a lot of levels, and in this case how the grief process is unequally distributed across an emotionally bonded couple.
Rumpus: You have to address it before you can do anything with it.
Wilk: I didn’t intend to moralize a grief process at all; I intended more to show how hard it is to be with someone during that time and not make it about you and your own fears and project that on to them. Anja’s completely impatient and her empathy is actually quite cruel at times.
Rumpus: I literally just read this piece on BuzzFeed from Emmelein Clein on the rise of detachment in feminist narratives. I agree with that premise, but I wonder if you think your narrator Anja fits that model?
Wilk: The arc of the book might actually be about Anja becoming attached. It’s about her learning to define her own political position rather than relying on others for answers, or defining herself against others. She’s trying to find an assertive political position rather than a negative one, as in defined in opposition to the men around her.
To become attached—politically engaged, owning her agency, participating in her own life—she has to turn inward so she can turn outward. She has to really enter her body and isolate herself to go through this process of organic transformation. At the climax of the book, she reaches a new outward-facing position. What do you think detachment means when it comes to female narratives?
Rumpus: I think there’s a kind of romanticism about the woman who cares by not caring at all. I’m sure it’s also coming from my gendered perspective; there’s something very laissez-faire about a woman who’s not trying very hard, but who isn’t lacking in feeling either, just bordering on a kind of apathy.
Wilk: I think apathy definitely has something to do with it. Women are burdened with feeling too much or caring too much, and the imperative to feel or care turns feeling and caring into something much different. In terms of empathy or generosity, terms that come up a lot in the book, the imperative to empathize with someone can become quite violent, insisting on taking over another person’s lived experience and reality. True generosity might actually look more like withdrawal, like leaving someone alone. But then, the members of Anja’s own milieu perform a lot of detachment in order to absolve themselves of responsibility—constantly posturing “we’re partying at the end of the world so politics doesn’t matter.”
Rumpus: I’m constantly reading about climate anxiety and the argument that this circumstance we’re in is affecting our physical and mental health. How much truth do you think there is to that?
Wilk: I’ve been wondering lately whether, if this book had come out ten years ago, if it would have been called a climate book. There is not much explicit mention of climate change in the book; the characters don’t discuss climate change, they discuss the weather, and that’s not quite the same. We can observe weather but we can’t observe climate change. And that’s the problem with thinking about and dealing with climate change—it’s too sweeping, complex, and slow for our brains to manage. When writing about this world where the daily weather is so unstable, I was thinking about what it would it take for us to be able to feel the climate on a day-to-day level.
The mindset of climate anxiety, to me, coincides with conspiracy anxiety. We have the sense there are loads of things we don’t have obvious access to. We can read about it, we can know about it, but that’s not the same as knowing it via experience. I think the anxiety emerges in that gap between the knowledge of what’s happening and the reality of not being daily affected by it. I think anxiety is produced by a disconnect, and that’s the same disconnect that has led to a conspiracy mentality. I’m not a conspiracy theorist! [Laughs] I always feel like I need to clarify that—I’m really not, but I feel very sympathetic with conspiracy theorists, just in the sense that I understand feeling like there are opaque systems that are inaccessible to me and that I can’t experience except in creeping ways around the edge of my life. The whole internet feels like that.
Rumpus: On the note of contemporary climate change, given that it’s a fairly current concept, I’m wondering if you feel like there ever was a canon in fiction for this particular issue, or if this book is a way of entering and creating that space.
Wilk: I don’t think your novel needs to be set on a melting polar ice cap to be a climate novel. In the future, every novel written today might be read as a climate novel—because we’re writing in the midst of a catastrophe, whether we overtly talk about it or not. Inevitably, the way we construct characters will be affected by it, I don’t think we need a new “genre” of climate fiction; on the contrary, the point is that all contemporary fiction reflecting on the human condition now necessarily occupies this territory.
Rumpus: You also created a kind of capitalist novel. I’m thinking about Anja’s undesired and unexpected promotion to the role of Consultant, and how that speaks to the “business of doing nothing” with regards to so many millennial jobs. Can you speak on that?
Wilk: A lot of it comes out of a nerdy art history fascination of mine. I’m interested in the emerging and changing relationship between artists and industry, specifically with regards to the tech industry in the US. In the past couple of years, many of my artist friends have become brand consultants or worked in a capacity that is not strictly artistic production as a purist might imagine it to be.
Interestingly, this crossover allows us to see what artistic production is and always has been. The consultant is the quintessential profession of late capitalism: for instance, management consulting was invented from scratch, basically piggybacking on Taylorist ideas of efficiency, which were themselves based on fabricated scientific studies. I I see the role of the consultant, who occupies a completely superfluous but self-justifying role, as analogous to the role of the artist-as-institutional-critique. Institutional critique is sanctioned by the institution, which wants to slap itself on the wrist while continuing to perpetuate the cycle it’s a part of. The consultant telling management what it’s doing wrong, or the institutional critique telling the institution what it’s doing wrong, might seem superfluous, but it’s integral to the very system it purports to critique.
Rumpus: When confronted with the concept of a cultural capital app, which trades networking connections with other resources, Anja responds, “It seems like it turns relationships into commodities.” I guess I wonder if you think that that’s the future?
Wilk: I think it’s probably the now. I mean, that’s the question—how can we have meaningful relationships when all our relationships are monetized? How can how can we do good in the world when doing good is sold back to us as a product? Is the only way to do good to be a responsible consumer, or do you need to have ethical frameworks beyond what your consumption allows? That definitely ties back to the idea that Anja and everyone else are trying to have friendships and relationships that are not simply commodifiable, that don’t just exist to be instrumentalized in order to get into the club or to get a job, and yet Anja, just like everyone else, wants to get into the club and have a job. So knowing this system, what is a friendship that isn’t able to be reduced to its instrumentalization?
Rumpus: The heart of the book revolves around Louis having invented this pill that is supposed to eliminate the barrier, or part of your brain that stops you from wanting to share and give, with the hope that it will create an ethical revolution. Louis wants this kind of pure good and love to go viral, but also, selfishly, I think, he wants to be the person who creates this goodness. Whereas Laura and Dam offer Anja a pure kind of unconditional love that doesn’t necessarily depend on them as the giver or what they are reciprocated with in terms of giving.
Wilk: I totally agree with that reading. It’s important that Laura and Dam are siblings, and so they’re actually the only people in Anya’s world who represent “traditional familial ties.” In my experience of Berlin life—this is changing now that my friends are starting to have kids, but for a decade, it was quite possible to live in a world where you didn’t know anyone who wasn’t part of your age bracket, or who wasn’t doing similar things to you. That can result in a real narrow-mindedness, a poverty of ways to imagine other kinds of relationships.
The fracturing of the family unit that many millenials are clearly experiencing can be wonderful, opening up new ways of creating social relationships and support structures, and eventually new models of reproduction. That freedom is really important and it actually takes a lot of creative work to come up with something new. The characters in the book are trying to do this, but they are trying to do it a vacuum, and that’s really hard. Friendships are incredibly important; I need my friends for all of my writing, not just to get something published, but because that’s how I think through things. I talk to my friends about every aspect of my life and work and they fill the roles that, for many American thirty-year-olds, a family would be supposed to fulfill. How to have relationships that aren’t instrumentalized, while also relying on them as support structures? I certainly am not asking for a substitute or a replacement for the family, but a new model of togetherness that at some point I hope becomes more intergenerational and class aware. It definitely isn’t in Anja’s world.
Rumpus: Which, in the novel, is something that Louis attempts to provide with Oval.
Wilk: Right—and in that attempt he reproduces a lot of ideas about individualism and the idea that empathy is just a button you can press. The goal of Oval is not exactly instilling empathy, but about instilling financial generosity, which Louis falsely equates with empathy. Within the framework that Louis has, he can only imagine generosity being correlated with consumption and then being literally manifested in the form of material generosity.
Rumpus: I know it’s not a climate change book, but it’s a climate book for sure. It speaks to the climate of feeling. I kept thinking about this one stand-out line: “People liked to think they were having a relationship with each other, but really they were having a relationship with the relationship itself.”
Wilk: Strange! Several people have asked me about that line. I also think it’s a very important line but I don’t really know why. I guess it’s an idea that I still haven’t figured out. I don’t remember what I meant when I wrote it, but there’s something really weird about it—it’s a weird idea that your relationship is something that you produce, that then becomes independent of you. It goes back to how we inherit relationship patterns, and how we don’t know how to direct them ourselves so they feel like they’re running away from us all the time, and become this external thing.
But I think it’s also something much more basic about what it means to love someone… There’s a rhythm and inertia in the way of being with someone that does feel like, in the best relationship at least, it’s produced something greater than the sum of its parts—it’s greater than both of you.
Rumpus: I think fascination in that line is because it kind of cements the notion that when you’re in a partnership, the easiest part is being together. Having that is the easy. But nurturing it, and taking care of it, and being tender, and all of these things that it asks of you, this becomes the project of your life. I think there’s a current understanding around relationships where we don’t need to figure out love, we understand love just kind of happens, but we’re trying to figure out how to live in love.
Wilk: Right. How do you build it? I totally agree with those aspects of nurturing and watering and tending to relationships—that is the type of emotional labor that, especially in the vacuum of family life, you have to invent from scratch. I think the best relationships are invented according to the needs of the participants, and creatively, and with a lot of work. I continually find myself saying that relationships are so much work—but the best kind of work.
Photograph of Elvia Wilk by Nina Subin.