23 October, 2017Issue 3535.3Fiction

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Adam Guy

Olivia Sudjic







One of the minor fantasies that emerged at the time of the last dot-com bubble concerned The Novel. This fantasy lines up the standard straw people of every emergent technological era – our attention spans have diminished, anything not instantly available and instantly gratifying has fallen into obsolescence, etc. etc. etc. – and knocks them down to reveal that, actually, things are much better than we, steadfast guardians of The Literary, had thought. Not only will The Novel revive in its new internet-saturated environment, but its revival will accord with the predictions inscribed in the literary past. For the hyperlink, for wiki-wormholes, for the creative remixing of the world’s archive that is made possible by your small device, for the endless web of interconnection incarnated in your social media platform of choice, is the prophecy come true of Joycean (always Joycean, never Woolfian, Proustian, Rhysian, Kafkan) modernism. Thanks to Joycean modernism, The Novel has the equipment to depict the internet age, and the internet age has the equipment to decipher this depiction.

Today, reading the Anglophone literary novel as it comes to terms with the internet, it is striking how quaint this fantasy seems. Works like Tao Lin’s Taipei (2013) and Natasha Stagg’s Surveys (2016) understand that the experience of constant connectedness is patently not an experience of the sublime. Hyperconnectivity is experienced not heroically, but through a kind of paradoxically managed passivity. Such novels are concerned with levelled-off, low-key affects. And nor do they derive moralizing traction therefrom; they realize that the loaded keywords of much discussion of digital life – information overload, oversharing, alienation – don’t see the wood for the trees. A more serious job for the novel is an old one: to show how people in a given historical moment are embedded in their particular environments. The hour spent scrolling through a single Instagram page, the entire waking day spent in constant WhatsApp contact with another person are extraordinary experiences that seek transmutation into art. Here, the Joycean networked sublime falls short as a medium.

The prophesied hypertext novel seems mostly to have gone the way of GeoCities and ‘dot com parties’; whether the present-day internet novel will go the way of Juicero is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, Olivia Sudjic’s debut novel Sympathy enters the fray. Sympathy is the story of Alice Hare, a twenty-three year old British woman who moves to New York and becomes obsessed with Mizuko Himura, a thirty-two year old writer and much-followed Instagram user. The main action of the novel takes place in 2014: Maya Angelou dies; characters talk about the Ice Bucket Challenge and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; Hillary Clinton gives a book-signing in the Hamptons; events unfold on TV news following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson; Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up trickles into daily life. Despite its thrillerish central plotline, such details are the main substance of Sympathy as it seeks to create an intricate picture of the way we live now.

What do we imagine characters in novels to be doing when they are at rest? Sudjic knows that any novel set in the present-day with even a remote claim to realism should have these characters fixed to their devices. Therefore, one of Sympathy’s most significant achievements is the catalogue it assembles of images and experiences that have emerged from a world where mobile phones are said to outnumber human beings. Devices provide lighting for the mise-en-scène, police social situations, and become implements of physical torture: “I could tell he was awake, looking at something on his phone, from the ghoulish glow, the halo of hair it lit up on his shoulders”; “Silence was only okay if one of us was looking at a device”; “I had to turn over, onto my front, and lower my device-holding hand to the floor to steer the blood into my fingers”. Sudjic also captures the rituals and torments of social media time: “I’d kept our message thread open, in order to watch her name waxing on- and offline in the grey bar at the top of the screen”. While such details are the building blocks of Sympathy’s realism, they are also help to generate its conceptual substance. The novel’s title in particular provides a centre of gravity for its expansive portrait of contemporary networked living: in a culture centred on following and friending, the vocabulary of sympathy too often becomes a cover for relations built in fact on performance, surveillance, and even control.

Sympathy also realizes how these details and insights resonate too easily with the commodity forms of ‘innovation’, ‘development’, and ‘disruption’. As a counterweight, the novel also collects together a range of symbols that challenge the idea that what we do online separates us out decisively from people who have gone before. Archives, communications technologies, and social networks are the long-established trappings of a long-established modernity, nothing more. Alice comes to New York after corresponding by letter with her adoptive grandmother, Silvia, who lives there. On her third day in the city, Alice is given access to three crates consisting of her adoptive father’s “childhood remainders and funny school memorabilia” as well as “items from Silvia’s own life in scrapbooks and folded letters”. Pages later, Alice explains Instagram to Silvia:

“So it’s like a scrapbook,” she said finally.
“No,” I replied, faltering. I wasn’t sure why it wasn’t.
“What’s different?”
“The grid format of the app means you play with juxtapositions.”
“Um. It’s public, I guess. And if you put one of these––” I pushed my device towards her and she jerked backwards.
“Number sign,” she said warily. “Yes, I know what that is.”
“Hashtag,” I corrected, detecting impatience, even arrogance in my tone.
“Well, what happens if you use that?”
“Then it links you up with all these other people who have used it for something they’ve posted, and people can look through – they’re called threads.”
“What people, strangers?”
“Yes, I guess.”

This exchange is typical of Sympathy, a novel constantly oscillating between a sense of its subject-matter as either old or new. And despite its millennial-pink endpapers, Sympathy is all the more astute a study of people who – as Sudjic puts it – “didn’t grow up IRL” because it rejects generational exceptionalism. Its cast of characters spans the generations, and though these characters like to frame their differences on generational terms, they always end up looking more similar than different. Of a middle-aged character, Ingrid, Alice notes the contradiction between an “obsession with organic things and natural childhood and how much time she spent on her device”. The recipients of this “natural childhood”, Ingrid’s children, are sent to a Steiner school that “tried to limit pupils’ usage of technology and balance it out with plenty of pinecones, shells, rocks, and woodworking”. Technology is technology, whatever the particular character of its various contingent forms.

Unlike Taipei or Surveys, the formal stakes of Sympathy are not particularly high – it never seems that Sudjic is grasping towards a new or personal style. A concern with uncertain filiation does seem to carry a lot of aesthetic and thematic weight for Sudjic, but it is also the novel’s most frustrating aspect. Mizuko’s signature short story opens with the line, “Origin stories make us feel secure; untangling them can undo us” – an organising principle for the parts of the novel that deal with Alice’s identity as an adopted child, and a foreshadowing of a major plot revelation concerning Mizuko’s own parentage. In this respect, Sudjic’s occasional evocations of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl just about makes sense: Sympathy too is a novel about the criss-crossings of romantic love, erotic love, and family love. But it is never wholly clear whether the novel’s family secrets are mere grist for the mill of its elaborate plotting mechanism, or if they are intended to be a rich source of conceptual material. Nonetheless, Sudjic does draw deeply on other resources that the Jamesian novel perfected: attention, connection, attachment, and intimacy have always been the domain of the novel, within the worlds it portrays, and in the relationship it develops with its readers. And as Sympathy shows, so too attention, connection, attachment, and intimacy are the dominant notes of hyperconnected living.

Another central task of the novel as a form is to gesture towards the conditions and contexts of the particular modes of living that it portrays. Again, in rising to this task, Sympathy emphasises historical continuity rather than change. The Anglophone novel is conditioned on and most usually represents lives of relative privilege and comfort. This is as much the case Sudjic as it is for James. Therefore, though Sympathy can’t – or won’t – break with the received conditions for the novel as a form, at the same time, it can’t help but demonstrate the strains of accepting such conditions in 2017. Sympathy uses an easily accessible grandmother in New York City to set up its characters’ relationships and to get its plot moving. Unlike Lin, for example, at least Sudjic does the work of sketching out details about her characters’ family backgrounds and professions: it is always clear that one character is an architect and another a tech entrepreneur, while another comes from a family of company-founders and corporate executives, and so on. Ultimately, though, such information in Sympathy is presented as relatively insubstantial. These details are merely interchangeable placeholders, insurance policies against the killjoy reader who reminds you that no-one on even an average salary can afford to live in New York City these days.

No-one on an average salary can afford to live in New York City these days. But if novels like Sympathy can’t give up on New York, perhaps the most that can be asked is whether it is enough for a contemporary novel to offer a set of merely functional, throwaway narrative details about the labour or capital that enables its characters to study at Columbia and holiday in the Hamptons. We know that the true millennial subjects of the internet age are the people labouring to make iPhones in China or Ivy Park hoodies in Sri Lanka. Most contemporary Anglophone novels concerned with lives governed by the internet and networked technologies know this too. Sympathy is representative in this sense because it does not find a means of expressing this knowledge in any way other than as a form of bad faith:

Sometime before we met, a friend at Columbia gave Mizuko a book that was always next to her bed. She liked to pick it up and read parts of it to me. It essentially said that my generation used the Internet too much. Hers was fine. It also pointed out that the carbon that fuels our electronic life is melting the icecaps. The melting ice is relieving gravitational pressure, and this, the book said, meant that the Japanese earthquake in 2011 was “no coincidence.” There was a picture in it of a lonely Japanese house adrift in the Pacific, which Mizuko would shove at me occasionally as if I were personally responsible for the devastation.

Here once again, Sudjic is brilliant at showing up generational difference as a kind of consolatory fiction, a set of fine distinctions that function counterproductively, exposing a deeper commonality. But the other work going on in this passage is less edifying. The passage is Sympathy’s mandatory concession to the fact that it is not just at the level of production but of consumption that a device-centred culture has a catastrophic global effect. After stating this fact, the action of the novel can move on. But should it? Or – perhaps a more useful question – in what ways can we imagine it not moving on? Today, it is difficult to envision the book Mizuko has by her bedside to be a novel. It is equally difficult to envision a novel like Sympathy presenting this bedside book’s lesson as anything but an awkward moral concession, done away with in a paragraph. Many contemporary Anglophone novels – Sympathy included – end up telling one of three stories about the totality that encompasses us today: stories of global capitalism, climate change, and the internet. Perhaps one path forward for the novel is to find a form that properly reconciles the three.

Adam Guy is a Postdoc in the English Faculty at the University of Oxford.