'Oval' Perfectly Skewers Capitalism, Art, And "Do-Gooder" Men

Talking with Elvia Wilk about her brilliant debut novel

In Elvia Wilk's brilliant, biting debut novel, Oval, the world is weird. This isn't to say it's unrecognizable. In fact, the specific weirdness of this world is what makes it so familiar; this dystopia bears contours as intimately known as those of our own face.

Set in Berlin, Oval centers around Anja, a woman who grapples with her responsibility toward the many things collapsing around her, including her relationship, her career, her house, her city. Anja feels trapped, hemmed in by all that is falling apart, but still, at the start of the novel, convinced that she can effect change on scales both grand and small if she just tries to be better. To Anja, this means, if she extends unlimited empathy toward her boyfriend, Louis, whose mother just died, perhaps he will stop acting so strangely and emotionlessly toward her. Or, if she just gives it some time and makes enough allowances, the sustainable community in which she lives, perched on the side of an artificial mountain, will actually become habitable, instead of a humid, humming deathtrap. Or, if she accepts a new position at her company—Finster, a late-stage capitalism nightmare—perhaps she can make sure that her work actually means something.

But what becomes more and more apparent, even as concepts like sustainability and responsibility and philanthropy are elucidated in terms that conceptually are clear even if they practically make no sense, is that none of this means anything—or, rather, that the ruling class' adoption of the language of reform and revolution has neutralized it, rendering it empty.

And so Anja must find her own way toward making meaning in a world that has lost its way, where solutions to problems are proposed in the form of a pill. It is a search that is achingly familiar, one that Wilk renders with sensitivity and humor and just the right tinge of absurdist despair. It's a reminder that, for many people, "sustainability" isn't the only trendy concept from which they can profit, they're seeking to make money off every aspect of our existence, off our humanity, and they'll mask their intentions by promising that all they want to do is help us, um, optimize our lives.

Below, I speak with Wilk about Oval, conspiracy theories, and why it's fair to say the world is weirder than ever.

What was the genesis of this novel?

It's hard to remember. It's been through many lives. But I think the genesis was personal frustration, which is a great reason to write any book. [laughs]

I was frustrated in personal relationships. I was frustrated with the city of Berlin. I was frustrated by the narrative surrounding the city and also my own position there, not really understanding what my life trajectory was looking like. Frustrated by the things we are all frustrated with, like capitalism, and frustrated by my job being a freelance art writer—not because I didn't love what I was writing, but because the format was so restrictive. I felt like I wasn't allowed to write about myself, and I wanted to indulge myself. [laughs]

Indulgence is one of the main inspirations for good art, I think.

Indulgence, revenge, jealousy. Love.

This novel is set in Berlin; I've not lived there, nor been there, so my thoughts on it are speculative, but what's interesting to me is this aspect of Oval that feels like it exists both a little bit in a dystopian future, yet there are also aspects of it that feel like they've already come to pass, especially judging from life in a city like New York.

Totally, I think it's in this weird in-between space, especially because I started writing it a good six years ago. A lot of things that felt more speculative then are by no means speculative now.

Did you feel prophetic while you were writing it? Were there any things you finished writing, and then, later on, you were like, Oh, this is actually just happening all around me?

On one level, I feel like everything in the book is true. Whether or not it's real, meaning factual, it's true at the core. Like, there may not really be an artificial mountain in Berlin called the Berg, as there is in the book, but there are a lot of monolithic, megalomaniac urban renovation projects premised on sustainability being built in Berlin and elsewhere. Writing a mountain into the city isn't intended to be predictive, as much as to reflect what's already happening through exaggerating it. Science fiction is often talked about in terms of prediction, where the goal would be to presage something that ends up coming true. That's not my goal in my own writing, mainly because I'm not a futurist; [laughs] my mind doesn't really work like that. I'm way weirder than practical thinker. But it's also because I'm not projecting into a specific future moment, just trying to write about the now in as true a way as possible.

Imagining alternate futures is an important tool, but I don't think of fiction as a place to propose solutions. I believe in the idea of an earnest proposal, but I don't think that the proposition has to be a straightforward, positive one; you could also propose something by offering a totally negative nightmare scenario, then searching for the positive cracks in that dystopia, and in the process show how utopia and dystopia coexist. Utopia and dystopia are supposedly opposites, but more often they're flip-sides of the same thing.

That fine line between utopia and dystopia is fascinating, and part of the awareness of living in this time of extremes, and not knowing how to think anymore other than in extremes. Which means we're just doing this constant balancing act of conservation and consumption and productivity and, like, self-care, and it leads to feelings of helplessness and stagnation. Not that Oval is all darkness and super-serious. It's also so funny.

There has to be some lightness.

Especially because you get sick of being generative, but also tired of feeling so stagnant and helpless, you need an escape from that. While you were living in this book, what places did your writing take you that you weren't expecting, in terms of how you're pursuing things?

When I started writing, I felt trapped in a lot of ways. I was trying to confront the feeling of personal and political futility, paired with the demand for constant productivity. I fictionalized my situation in order to displace it from myself, so I could see it from another angle. I didn't get to any practical answers, and neither do the characters—but the writing process itself became a sort of answer for me. I started to better understand the power of stories to concretize abstract problems. Not to solve them, but to draw their shapes or articulate them in nuanced ways.

Stories about people and their relationships are the best way I've figured out to parse the effects of all those giant, complicated systems that we feel so helpless to deal with—like the climate, or finance capitalism, or the internet. A lot of what I was trying to do while writing was to get the various plots on different scales to drive each other and coincide. Sometimes the human relationships are the clear focus of the story, sometimes the strange weather is the center of the action, and other times the machinations of a nebulous corporation are moving things forward. These plot lines are constantly intertwining, as they do in real life. I wanted the story to resemble an ecosystem. If you could start to see yourself as one small but important part of, say, the collective ecosystem of a city, maybe that allows a reckoning or at least an acceptance of political accountability on a human scale.

That is sort of the thing that I tell myself when I can't sleep at night, that I will find a way to get to a place where I can comprehend things on a scale that is actually recognizable as something that's part of my reality.

Yeah, something that you can even just bump up against or make contact with. The economy is not something I make contact with—I make contact with Seamless. I don't make contact with the global climate, I make contact with the weather. In the book, annual seasons don't exist anymore and the weather is constantly changing, which gives the characters some way of understanding that there are things happening beyond their control. But it doesn't actually give them a window into what's happening, and that's why there's this paranoid character who's endlessly speculating on conspiracy theories—which, personally, I don't think is crazy at all. The current world is constructed by conspiracy theories. Whether or not the conspiracies are factual, the constant feeling that there's a conspiracy going on is true.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist; I won't let it go that far, but... [laughs]

Do you have any favorite conspiracies, though?

Like, historically favorite ones? Well, the weather conspiracy is actually one of my favorites.

Like cloud-seeding?

Yeah. So the book starts with an epigraph by Kurt Vonnegut from his novel, Slapstick. Vonnegut was a big influence on me while writing, for many reasons, including his use of humor to undercut the gravity of it all. Vonnegut's brother happened to be the guy who developed cloud-seeding—a kind of dubious scientific method of making it rain by shooting chemicals like silver iodide into the sky. Cloud-seeding is just one type of weather manipulation that comes up briefly in the book, but in an early draft, I spent a lot more time on it. I was really obsessed with this idea of what seemed like such a demonstration of helplessness, trying to shoot something into the sky to cause it to rain. It's so megalomaniac—the hubris of manufacturing weather—and also so defeated, in that it shows how little deliberate control we actually have over the environment. Seeding clouds sounds science fictional, but there's plenty of evidence from declassified documents that, for instance, the U.S. government has tried to wage war via weather manipulation. As a conspiracy theory, it's not crazy!

And that level of control over nature kind of ties into something else I wanted to talk about, which is Oval's focus on architecture, and the appeal it has to a certain group of people as a way to problem-solve, which, obviously it is…

In some ways.

Right, but not always, as seen in this novel. It's also something that you can talk about in an aesthetic way, that blend of form-meets-function, but sometimes the function actually winds up being forgotten. Especially in big cities where we have housing crises, and yet aesthetics are prioritized over anything else. What was your interest in focusing on architecture in the narrative?

I worked in architecture for the first years that I lived in Berlin. I was an architecture writer and an editor at a magazine about architecture, art, and design. The early 2010s were an interesting time to be in Berlin and dealing with architecture, because it was post-financial crash in Europe, when a generation of architects in many European countries, especially ones like Spain and Portugal, had become licensed and entered into an economy where they wouldn't be able to build anything their immediate future. Architecture firms were collapsing or firing people or at least not hiring, so suddenly speculative architecture became a thing. There was this new discourse about like, "Wait, what if architecture were not about building megalomaniac projects in Dubai, what if we could use architecture skills to critique or reimagine the way things are built?"

This conversation about quote-unquote "critical spatial practice" was definitely needed, but it's also something that the characters in the book make fun of. On the one hand, it opened up the field of architecture to critical positions, allowing architecture to see itself as politically accountable and responsible for its effects beyond aesthetic statements. But on the other hand, it can become a way of never building anything, of never really tackling the built environment or physically altering it. And I think that's a fascinating tension. In a lot of ways that embodies Berlin—the space of both endless speculation and endless not-doing-anything.

Speculation is incredibly valuable, it's creative and generative, and we have to make safe bubbles in which to come up with new ideas, but then you can also end up in this total dearth of political engagement and a lack of practical, applicable skills.

That kind of paralysis really reflects how we've been fed this idea of perfection being the only endpoint, or else everything else will just be disastrous.

Definitely. Knowing that there is no quick fix or perfect solution to political problems can be paralyzing. Figuring out how to act is hard to define according to your own terms, and that's partially what the main character of the book is trying to do. She's trying to figure out what it would mean to her to be a good person, in contrast to her boyfriend, who is a bona fide do-gooder, the "young man fixing the world." He believes he can invent a one-size-fits-all, app-for-that solution to income inequality and the housing crisis. He creates a pill, Oval, that's meant to induce financial generosity in whoever takes it, and circulates it at nightclubs. It might seem like an ironic proposal, but he means it earnestly: If we can't each individually figure out how to overhaul the system that has led us here, why not collectively change the chemical composition of our brains? His position is that it shouldn't matter if generosity is "artificial," as long as wealth gets redistributed.

Yes, there are a lot of those guys right now.

There are a lot. I can imagine many of us have dated them. [laughs] By writing about one, I was asking: What does it mean to try and do good on a macro scale if your personal relationships suffer? Is saving the world actually possible if you're mistreating or just not paying attention to those around you, or are those kinds of "goodness" inseparable? I suspect there might be a self-righteousness inherent in grand solutionism that will always defeat its own aims.

Maybe one way to think about this idea of perfection is through the idea of social performance; or, performing to a standard or to a type, or a social role, or a gender role. A lot of the scenes in the book revolve around the characters' hyper-awareness of performativity in a social environment. The main character is struggling with the imperative to perform, whether socially, financially, or on the level of being a moral person. She'd rather opt out of performing altogether, but she can't quite let herself, because opting out just feels like failure.

Once you spend so much of your life participating at various levels in this performance and in this constructed identity, the specter of failure is so real, and you know that it will be perceived as just the next step in this performance. And so even if that comes from the conscious decision of opting out, it's really difficult to actually separate yourself from what you know will then be a part of how everybody sees you.

And is that even responsible to opt out? Because then, aren't you just opting out of the responsibility to fix things?

And there's nothing inherently wrong about being a part of a system that everybody, virtually, is a part of. But it can then send you to these weird places.

I've been very into the idea of "the weird" lately, including the emerging fiction category of the "New Weird." Weirdness is a way of reframing the current moment as an alien one, rather than speculating on alien or future scenarios. Life is bizarre enough that trying to describe it in all its strangeness is a tall order. Weird fiction, then, isn't fiction that is trying to predict the future but finding the uncanny and inexplicable in the here and now. The weird encompasses our moment pretty well, because we're so embedded in ecosystems that are too big and complex to grasp according to current human-centric ways of thinking. It is exceptionally weird to be alive now.

Oval is available for purchase, here.

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