Saturday, October 5, 2019

Review: Oval by Elvia Wilk

I don't read too many dystopian novels. The present day can be scary enough that I don't need to insert myself into someone else's fevered imagination of what the future gone terribly wrong might look like. I can appreciate dystopias as critiques of our current society, our obsessions, the goals we strive for, and the many, many ways we get it all wrong, heading to a place from which there is no return but it can be deeply horrifying to read them. Elvia Wilk's debut novel Oval doesn't, perhaps, rise to the level of horrifying, but it shows a sinister and unpleasant future with neoliberalism, corporations, and science run amok.

Anja is a scientist who has run simulations in her lab but has yet to run the actual physical experiment. She lives in Berlin with Louis, an American, who is an "artistic" for a non-profit and who is developing a new pill that will induce a chemically-induced, unbridled generosity in the people who take it. The two of them live in the corporately owned Berg, a sustainable, eco-living experimental housing site, a place that is meant to push to the extreme just what it means to live zero waste. Although this near future setting might be initially appealing, as Anja and Louis's story unfolds, it becomes more and more ominous. There is corporate oversight on nearly everything from the house they live in to the jobs they have.  Questioning the status quo is actively frowned upon.  Technology and engineering are tested without enough safeguards or understanding of the fallout, of which both Anja's unfulfilled experiment and the gradually malfunctioning Berg are emblematic. Unexamined motivations and outcomes abound. But as much as the novel shows these horrors, it is mainly focused on Anja and Louis' crumbling relationship. They become increasingly separate and alone as the entire infrastructure around them also slides into ruin.

There is a rising creepiness to the tone of the novel but it's hard to pinpoint why. Anja and Louis seem to be detached characters, with the reader staying fairly remote from them. The descriptions of the relentless social scene, the clubbing, and the constant drug use has the effect of a flashing strobe light on the reader's sensibility, leaving them disoriented. This effect may be intentional on Wilk's part; it certainly isn't pleasant for sure. The themes of the perils of unchecked gentrification, powerful corporations, and a fervent neoliberalism weave uncomfortably throughout the novel. The secondary characters here feel flat and even Louis isn't particularly well defined for the reader. The premise of the novel doesn't really come into focus until well into the story (unless you read the cover copy) and even then, it takes a while to be clear. The ending of the novel is as strange and unsettling as the rest of it and this reader didn't know what to make of it. There's a malevolent reclamation by nature but it's not really organic so what is reclaiming everything, accelerating the decay and ruin, isn't really clear. The world of Oval is one of dissolute human beings, secretive companies, and impending disaster. This is not a world I want to live in.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me this book to review.

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