Review: Elvia Wilk’s Oval



Elvia Wilk’s novel Oval is about a green-washed near-future Berlin that moves straight into disaster without anyone seeming to notice it is too late, without anyone talking about the actual problems around them. All the characters seem too invested with a narrow vision of their immediate situations, of wondering about their social circles, with small pleasures of distraction. The main character Anja is the only one who seems capable of developing real solutions to climate change and yet we see what is possible only towards the end and when things already seem too dire. Why don’t we find out more about her work, why is she so worried about her boyfriend, what actually happens in the end?

Of course most of the knee-jerk reactions to the novel feel like they could be succumbing to traps (and some hints to this are explicit in the book). At one point in the novel it is mentioned that women are seen as being too emotion or caring to much about relationships which should warn us about reading Anja’s portrayal that way. The world that leads to disaster is one of men who are comfortable before, during, and after, who are giving funds and support for solutions that seem radical when in fact they are merely a shiny-looking shortcut.

The near future Berlin of the novel does seem familiar but only in a few details but this is not because it has radically changed rather it is because a place where everyone lives but never lives in (ex-pats who work elsewhere) is reflected in the Berg itself. The Berg (an artificial mountain eco-living collective community built on the ruins of Templehof) is a fantasy island/housing development. Nothing works quite right but that’s (at least in part) because no one follows the rules. People leave and work and consume normally but enforce micro-discipline when it comes to the garbage (or owning pets). Berlin is lived in for its short term cultural life but not really lived in – the Berg is a eco exception zone that does not really mean the people on it ‘are’ ecological.

If I have a criticism of the novel it is that the time it spends too much time lampooning the art world. It is not that the art world does not deserve this (it does) it rather that I think that the art world does a good enough job making fun of itself most of the time.

The strongest take away from reading the novel for me was this: Anja and Louis both demonstrate – the ecological crisis seems to necessitate the growing of roots but this makes us too often mistrust technological solutions in social isolation as well as social-engineering as if it is a straight forward affair or hopelessly manipulative.  The novel also makes clear that this distortion has more than a few feminist concerns – and that part of this requires changing one’s perception of feminism as stuck in 2nd wave performativity. Part of the hope of the novel is that there can be an eco-feminism which is sufficiently weird and sufficiently technological.

Note: I also was not sure how to draw the threads between the novel and Wilk’s non-fiction other than (as others have pointed out) to insist that Anja is infected by her eco house and that, at the same time, Louis could have drugged himself and others in to being socially empathic. There is still much territory to be explored in terms of the relation between ecological and the weird. There is an old text of mine here as well as the work of Ali Sperling among others.


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