Moral High

Oval BY Elvia Wilk. New York: Soft Skull Press. 352 pages. $17.

The cover of Oval

In a 2015 Guardian article titled “The Death of Writing,” the novelist Tom McCarthy argued that fiction, which had retreated into “comforting nostalgia,” had been replaced by the “funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the cultural avant garde.” “If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce,” he went on, “they’re probably working for Google.”

Oval, the first novel by the thirty-year-old writer Elvia Wilk, is a box-tickingly perfect dramatization of the landscape McCarthy envisioned. The novel, a satire of the very possibility of a “cultural avant garde,” is set in a near-future, peak-gentrified Berlin. Wilk’s narrator, Anja, has moved with her boyfriend, Louis, to an eco-community owned by fictional megacorporation Finster on an artificial mountain called the Berg. Their house is on the cutting edge of sustainable architecture, complete with monitoring, composting, and climate control systems, and a lot of glitches. “The interior was so humid that condensation had gathered on every surface, and now the untreated wood was engorged.” They live there for free not out of need—Anja comes from money; Louis is a successful “artist-consultant”—but for the “cultural and ethical capital”: “The Berg had proven their specialness, which they’d suspected all along.”

Anja is a scientist at Finster, where she works on developing cartilage architecture made of cells that would “sprout on demand” to create eco-friendly, reproducible buildings. Louis, the “artist-consultant,” is employed by an NGO called Basquiatt in a lucrative post that involves showing “the institution how to think better, how to critique its institutionality.” In the universe of Oval, art and corporate sponsorship have merged into a kind of creative feudalism, where artists, if they are lucky, receive tenure from corporations and become a part of the investment portfolio. Louis has the “peculiar genius,” as Anja sees it, “of being on both sides at once.”

Louis has just come back from his mother’s funeral in the US but seems mysteriously unfazed. Much of the drama is in Anja’s anticipation of his grief and confusion at its absence. The novel dissects their relationship and the subtle transaction that underpins it: Anja provides the gentle corrective to Louis’s colliding desires—to “do good for the world” and to be successful at any cost—by not letting him “cloak his aspiration with moral goodness.” Louis provides a link to the social world “she found barren” and removes “the pressure on her to perform.”

Anja looks out from the center of her complicated privilege with a nervous skepticism. Seeking to distance herself from her jet-setting parents and sister, she has “indulged in the shame of privilege, obsessed herself with growing her own food, recycling, borrowing, trading. Living sustainably for her . . . was an embarrassing overcompensation.” As a narrator, she is locked in a cycle of relentless self-analysis and interpretation of her own motives and those of others. Complicity with the system is like the weather—it is visibly disturbing, but there’s not much you can do about it except take notice.Yet Anja can’t help noticing and attempting to disentangle the ethical from the self-serving, if only in her mind.

On the day she is about to run a crucial cartilage experiment, she is called in by Howard, her older ex-boyfriend and one of the higher-ups at Finster, who tells her she has been promoted to management consultant, something she recognizes as a suspicious sinecure, a “bribe to get us out of the lab.” Soon after, the house on the Berg falters and the eco-community gets evacuated. Louis has been working on a secret project—a pill for generosity that he hopes will trigger an altruism revolution on the Berlin club scene. Anja suggests that the problems he is trying to solve are structural, starting with “corporations and stuff,” but for Louis corporate philanthropy is a no-brainer: “We get the selfish class hooked on supporting the needy, and we make Basquiatt the main supplier of their moral high.”

In a complex cycle of moral accounting, the novel occasionally tips into overcompensation. The vacuity and dystopian flatness of the cultural-corporate nexus Oval depicts come across as easy and often trivial targets for a writer as talented as Wilk. The satire can turn sour, overly literal, as when we encounter a cautionary tale about an artist-consultant who made a career of boosting productivity by exposing herself to office workers and is now suffering the consequences of aging.

Oval is a high-minded, intelligent novel with slight performance anxiety over its hypertopical subjects. Sometimes that means remarkable precision in merging plot with ethical treatise; in other places, Anja’s internal monologue echoes Carrie Bradshaw’s “I couldn’t help but wonder” refrain: “Then she thought, fuck and—there was such a thing as a wrong way to deal with emotions.” Bradshaw is a reference Wilk makes herself, almost preemptively: Anja catches herself posing “in the arch with one hip jutting out, a Carrie Bradshaw move she had once postured as a joke that had by now lost its original template and become a reflex.”

The strongest section comes at the end, which charts the twin unraveling of Anja and the decomposing Berg house. Robinson Crusoe–like, Anja moves back to the mountain, scavenging necessities from neighboring houses and the grounds, enacting a fantasy of self-sufficiency on a crumbling planet. In the city below, Louis’s altruism pill has wreaked havoc, leading those hooked on it to devise “tactics to preserve the class of takers so that the class of givers could continue to give.” In a sharply allegorical turn, a great fire erupts. Though the final pages hint at regeneration, the novel’s ultimate fantasy is not redemption but relief—from guilt and moral burden. With this, far more than its subject matter, Oval strikes a note that will vibrate with Wilk’s contemporaries.

Maria Dimitrova is a writer and editor in London.