The story begins with the death of one woman. It ends with the death of a city.
Elvia Wilk's novel Oval is like an ever-expanding sphere. A slow-growing, smoldering fire that doesn't really dig in and become something until the very, very, very end.
The first death is banal (sadly) and common (sadly). Louis is a "consultant" living in Berlin with his girlfriend Anja, and at the beginning of things we learn that his mother has died — the funeral, the paperwork, the awful bureaucracy of modern death having drawn him home to the United States. He returns quickly enough, the absence of him in Anja's life suddenly filled by a man who is the same size, the same shape, goes by the same name, but is ... different.
How? Dunno. Just different. Anja (whose story this is, far more than anyone else's) insists on it. She'd expected Louis to have been changed by losing his mother — had expected grief in any one of its myriad acceptable forms. But what bothers her is that Louis (who she loves, who she lives with, rent-free, in a failing experimental zero-emissions community halfway up a manufactured mountain in the middle of a city too expensive now for anyone to live in) just seems fine. And this bothers Anja a lot.
This bothers Anja for something like a hundred pages.
So she observes Louis. She analyzes his every word, and every tone of every word, and every gesture, and every hidden meaning of every gesture. She talks to her friends about it — other young, vaguely artistic quasi-adults living in a city being eaten hollow by the various cutting-edge, transnational corporations that employ them.
They go to work and come home, Louis and Anja. They live a sham version of the zero-emissions lifestyle demanded of them by the company that owns the experimental house they live in. They go out to clubs on the weekends in mimicry of their younger selves, always terrified of missing out on whatever it is that everyone else is doing that weekend. Oval itself — the book, the story of it — seems to be going nowhere, and taking a damn long time to get there, too.
But then, something clicks. I don't know where it happens. Might be different for everyone who reads it. But somewhere, right around the point where Louis reveals that he's secretly been using his time at work to develop a club drug that makes (forces) people to be generous, you realize something.
These people are awful. They are petty and small and completely self-involved and their stories — their looping, navel-gazing, frantically FOMO-obsessed stories — are absolutely pointless.
You realize that every relationship problem, every late-night conversation, every weekend party and argument over grief or recycling was like vapor. A fog, meant only to obscure the hard, grinding machinations of a completely different story happening underneath.
The experimental green housing project is failing around them — the walls swelling in the wet heat generated by the composting, molds colonizing the bathroom.
The companies they all work for — these ecologically conscious, pure-science incubators of disruptive innovation with their treadmill desks and solar panels — don't do anything. They exist in a state of pure atavism, seeming to exist only as vehicles for buying up massive swaths of real estate around the city, evicting people, knocking down buildings, and then rebuilding them as environmentally friendly live/work spaces or laboratories for their own spin-off working groups. It would be beautiful satire if it didn't all ring so true.
Berlin is full of homeless people. No one ever seems to eat anything. The only green spaces are engineered ones, owned by this company or that one, exclusively for the use of their employees. Every art opening is an IP offering. Every club a lab for designer drug trials.
And when you get it — when the nickel finally drops — you see Oval for what it is: a disaster story just waiting to happen. A disaster story that is happening, while you were paying attention to other things.
With only a few pages left to run and Berlin in flames around them, Wilk lays it all out plain in a conversation between three of the main characters, looking out over the ruin of their city:
"'It feels like the apocalypse,' said Anja.
"'It is the apocalypse,' Dam said.
"'It was always the apocalypse,' Laura said. 'You guys just didn't notice until now.'"
And yes, that's a great kicker. It really is. But the problem with Oval is that I'm not entirely sure how much of the rest of it was intentional. Though, by the end, I could see the balance of Wilk's various metaphors, her careful obscuration of very real, serious problems by small, petty, day-to-day ones, getting there was a mighty wander. Oval is a short story dressed in novel drag. It's a game of chicken played with a lovely sense of boredom. It's like she took Gibson, Palahniuk, Huxley, Vandermeer and whatever radical economist was nearest to hand, locked them all in a room, and didn't let them out until they'd collaborated on a too-long, too-diffuse novel about Millennial angst in Germany, set a week from next Tuesday. Brave New Welt, v.2.0. A story made exclusively of recycled nightmares. Really, it ends where I wish it'd started — with everything in flames and something needing to be done. Because as much as I liked where Wilk ended up — as much as I appreciated her juicy language, her eye for trauma, the scalpel-edge to her sense of the absurd — the road she took to get there just wasn't interesting enough to make the trip worthwhile. Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.