What is one person supposed to do when the world is falling apart? In a near-future Berlin where seasons as we know them no longer exist, corporations call the shots, and sustainability is an excuse for anything, life seems to—if you can believe it—go on.
Anja and her American, consultant boyfriend Louis live on the Berg, a man-made mountain built by Finster, where Anja works as a scientist. Their house is an experiment in sustainability, it’s supposed to make their lives completely carbon neutral. By living in the house, they’ve become pioneers of this new lifestyle, an endeavor that promises a contented conscious and a measure of nobility. Instead, the house is soon the first promise to falter, the first part of their lives to show outward signs of decay.
When Louis’s mom dies, his relationship with Anja slips off-kilter; Anja begins spending most of her time and energy guessing what Louis is thinking and predicting how she should respond. She’s proud of their modern relationship, her playing the part of a low-maintenance girlfriend who still can’t “resist the urge to piece together a basic biographical scaffolding for her boyfriend. She carefully gleaned facts that he tossed off incidentally, crusts from other stories. She compiled the facts carefully. It was important that she knew him better than anyone else.”
Anja can’t quite remember when the last real summer was, she guesses it was a few years ago. Now, seasons are a thing of the past, the weather changing from 30 degrees Celcius to below freezing over the course of a day. The weather forecast has become unreliable, and Anja counts on mass texts from her friend Dam for accurate weather information. She can’t remember when they stopped trusting the public broadcast either. It’s a slow slide that feels exceedingly modern, an utter acceptance of life as it is now, that almost forgets the way it used to be.
The reader exists mostly inside Anja’s head, a place that feels inherently relatable. She’s debilitatingly shy. She feels different than everyone else, noting their ease, judging their motivations, analyzing their behavior. But her judgement, scrutiny, and otherness exists behind the scenes of a life where she’s behaving exactly the same as everyone else. They’re going to the same parties and hanging out with the same people, showing the same outward face. But she thinks she’s only one who sees the cracks, asking her friend Laura, “Why do we willingly submit ourselves to social defeat at the hands of those we don’t respect?”
Nothing escapes Wilk’s scrutiny, but she especially focuses on the way we’ve let capitalism bleed through the cracks, slowly becoming not just an economic system but our champion of the arts, the first line of defense for the environment, and the lawmaker. She skewers corporate philanthropy, by way of Columbus, Indiana: “Irwin invented the creative city concept, by building architecture to suck smart young people to the middle of nowhere to work for his engine company. He built up the town’s cultural capital and he got to hang out with famous architects. And all the while he created this elaborate tax dodge.” And critiques modern “bullshit” jobs, “a job that should have been made obsolete by technology but that has instead been created to turn the human worker into a bureaucratic functionary.” But her characters continue to feed into the system they know is poisonous, unable to extricate themselves or quell their conscious entirely.
As their house falls apart, growing too hot and swelling up so that the doors can hardly be opened, Anja and Louis fracture further. They’re eventually made to evacuate, but they’ve managed to degrade more quickly than their home. Louis is already sleeping at his studio, working nonstop on a secret project. Anja moves in with her friends Laura and Dam, finding out she’s been laid off from her job in the lab and rehired as a consultant.
If Wilk’s aim is individual responsibility, her conclusion seems to be one of powerlessness. Anja longs desperately for Louis, “the funnel through which all the anguish of life leaked...He was the only problem and he was the only solution. He was the plague and the pox and the salve and the salvation.” She yearns quietly on the fringes of the social scene. She is moved through the corporate world like a pawn, unable to use even the most damning information. She is distressed, but never seems convinced of her situation, or even of her own emotional. It’s a disgruntled and sometimes confused acknowledgement of the way things are now, the way they’ve come to be.
This is the atmosphere that creates Oval, a pill that makes the act of giving the highest form of pleasure, and it explains why it’s such an affront. This pill, Louis’s project, is finally an opportunity to do something big, to make a positive change, but it’s all wrong. The execution is so convoluted that even the motive becomes suspect. In a world ruled by capitalism, defenseless against corporations, is changing individual behavior really the best we can do? Oval takers get a rush from giving, with little care for the recipient. In one breath, Wilk skewers a generation of GoFundMe donors.
Oval is a compelling, if terrifying, picture of dystopia at its most nondescript. More than a dramatic, climate-changing, science fiction novel, Oval digs its fangs into the story of one woman, showing us exactly how we’ll be feeling and thinking as the world crumbles around us. It makes clear what we're already beginning to understand, even the apocalypse can feel a little ordinary.
By Elvia Wilk
320 pages. 2019.
Buy it here.