Elvia Wilk in Conversation with Sam Diamond

Elvia Wilk’s first novel, Oval, takes place in a Berlin where strange weather is running rampant, artists are masquerading as corporate consultants and a new drug that rewires the brain towards generosity has just hit the market. It’s funny, uncomfortable and, ultimately, human, exploring climatic and technological questions we might have hoped would remain in the realm of science fiction but, when we stop to think, are already very real considerations in our lives today. Oval will be published in June 2019 by Soft Skull Press (see here)

Sam Diamond spoke with Wilk about Berlin, estrangement and oxytocin from across the Atlantic.

S.D. I recently saw you speak about ‘The New Weird’ at an event you curated at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. You explored emerging forms of speculative fiction that fall outside of typical genre classifications.

Oval isn’t so much a ‘weird’ novel as an uncanny one. A lot happens which seems very strange until you realise it is in fact normal in 2019. There’s strange weather, which changes radically from day to day—conditions not far from our present which will only become more common. But also Berlin Brandenburg Airport is open in the novel, a point which initially feels rudimentary but, as every Berliner will know, is actually akin to the most radical speculative fiction (the $6-billion-and-counting airport might never open). There’s an artificial mountain in the book, which seems crazy, but actually there is an artificial mountain in Berlin: Teufelsberg. Oval takes the parameters of a social novel but adjusts them slightly.
E.W. I wasn’t thinking about or researching the weird when I started writing the novel, but over time I started to realise that the idea of ‘the weird’ in fiction collects a set of terms together that helped me realise what I was doing. I think the book could be considered weird in the way Mark Fisher describes it in his book The Weird and the Eerie: as the moment when you see the inside from the outside, when you see something that seems strange until you realise you’re looking at reality.

To avoid taxonomy like ‘science fiction’, ‘speculative’, or ‘weird’, sometimes I call the book ‘reality-adjacent’ to indicate I’m not trying to be predictive. The predictive element is often seen as the goal of science fiction—as in when a technological innovation in a story becomes actualised—but I’m more interested in what’s happening now in the world and the inherent science-fictional strangeness of it. It doesn’t take much to ‘weird’ life.

I was reading Kurt Vonnegut while writing, and some of the strategies in his work became a big influence. One is comedy, which is important to me. The other is introducing the world as if to an alien or to a child, which he does in almost all of his novels. So he’ll say: ‘This is the President of the United States. The President is someone who…’ and then gives a basic definition of what the President does, and it’s so odd and discomforting because when you just say what something is, it’s often unrecognizable.

You’re right that many of the elements of the book are literally transposed from reality, such as The Berg, the artificial mountain in the book. So there’s a Berlin-specificity that I think affects how you read the book; it might be stranger or closer to reality to some readers than others.
I was going to say—Oval reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut a lot, and also of someone like Thomas Pynchon. The difference is that projecting into the future or indulging in the ridiculous in the way Pynchon does isn’t required, we’re already there.
One of the main starting points for the book early on was my minor obsession with consultants, specifically cases of artists serving as corporate consultants and the history of that type of relationship. I’ve also written some essays about that from an art-historical angle. So I wanted to untangle—or maybe further tangle—that type of creative-corporate relationship, to see what the artist embedded within the corporation might look like if the situation were taken to its logical extreme. One assumption I’m making is that part of the reason creative workers are valuable in that context is to offer implicit criticism just by being there, so the corporate machine can slap itself on the hand and keep going. The criticality is built-in to corporate processes as a type of self-validation, which complicates any straightforward dichotomy between complicity and criticality in art and political life in general.

In this way I wanted to consider how artists are increasingly becoming brand identities along the lines of corporate personalities, and speculate on how an artist could simply become a facet of the corporate brand, tenured as a consultant and paid for brand or time rather than product. If there’s anything a little forward-leaning in the book, where I try to take things a little further, then it might be this. But again, you can see it happening right now, just not in such overt or literal terms.
This touches on something else I noticed which I felt is maybe the book’s central theme. This idea of artists working as consultants on behalf of brands is transposed on to a macro level, where you have these big companies trying to do positive, philanthropic work. This is presented as if it’s the only way to solve problems. Whether they’re social or environmental, they’re approached through a neoliberal system of quantification.

The drug that one character named Louis invents, “Oval”, ties into this, again in the sense of estrangement. Oval is a drug that makes people more financially generous and selfless, and Louis presents it as a cure for societal ills. This might seem insane, but we already have drugs that do just that for happiness and the treatment of depression. Fisher wrote a lot about this kind of thing, about a system that’s created or exacerbated these ills while simultaneously presenting itself as the cure.
That kind of circularity is definitely one thing I wanted to address. One way of going about that is, as you say, trying to find points of connection between the micro and the macro, for instance, how personal relationships drive and are driven by the power structures we’re all locked into. This is a challenge of the formal level of writing: while I was writing I was constantly trying to figure out whether the world was driving the relationships or whether the relationships were driving the world. But on a story level it’s a question the main character struggles with too. She’s trying to figure out whether her romantic relationship is being governed by social constructs like gender, and whether her lover’s politics are being governed by his personal grief—or whether it’s all the other way round. But no one can ever find a causal system to decode these things because cause and effect are circular—and there can be a deep pain in the inability to ‘solve’ the puzzle.

I like that you mention the rampant current pathologisation of what are probably completely human emotional states and reactions in the world we live in, such as constant grief, such as depression, such as rage. What would it mean to not pathologise those things, pathology being defined in my mind as diagnosing something according the system that created it?
At one point your protagonist, Anja, meets up with a close friend whom she used to go to political demonstrations with. In the context of the novel that type of political participation is presented as painfully nostalgic, and the potential for change through this avenue is batted away. On the other side you have this system of quantitative and pathologising neoliberalism, which is also clearly not the answer. But the crux of the novel is your protagonist’s romantic relationship. Although Anja’s emotions about Louis and about the drug’s effects are  incredibly painful, they are real feelings and a potential way out of the binary of nostalgic politics and quantitative neoliberalism.
I’m happy that you found at least a kernel of a way out! I agree that an open and fearless confrontation with one’s own emotions could be thought of as a possible way to confront or even seize political agency.

In the novel the various protest movements in Berlin have, if not been batted away, petered out in a way that many of the characters feel sheepish or ashamed about. The character you mention, Anja’s friend Laura, used to be a pseudo-anarchist but can’t even bring herself to show up to a protest anymore. Anja has also stopped going to political events, partially because of an episode at a ‘refugees welcome’ action where she saw a violent confrontation between Israeli and Palestinian protestors, which ruined any remaining belief in the idea of solidarity for her. No one in the book knows how to deal with the splintering within the microcosm of ‘the left’.

Throughout the book there’s a clear analogy made between some characters’ desire to be seen as politically active and their desire to be seen at a gallery opening or a party, which suggests the commodification of all types of social participation as performance. The question of motive or intention becomes even more explicit when Oval is introduced. Does it matter if political activity is a performance? Does it matter if it’s chemically induced? Does it need to be driven by awareness and compassion? Does it matter where it comes from at all?

That relates back to the idea you mentioned of confronting the ‘real feeling’ as the way out. I agree with that, but I also think I’m trying to destabilise the idea that there is such a thing as a real feeling or motive. I mean, a lot of us are eating food laden with hormones, living in polluted cities, and taking medications and drugs. Does that mean our emotions are artificial? A lot of personal beliefs are inherited from faulty political structures or implanted by corporate aesthetics. Are they ‘our’ feelings? Of course that kind of destabilisation—when you can never sort out what’s real and what’s artificial, what’s yours and what’s not—can cause horrible existential vertigo. But it’s a productive discomfort. In the book the idea of authentic emotion is consistently undermined and, I hope, never really resolved.
I guess this is the bind you end up in when you admit that everything is constructed and there’s no escaping that.
There’s no moral message in the book. That would just be more propaganda. But a lot of what Anja is doing is applying her intellect and scientific background to examine those constructions, approaching the constructed world as a ‘new nature’ that can also be beautiful. And love and friendship are not irrelevant when it comes to escaping the bind; her friendships are maybe her best way of confronting the mess, although they are also flawed.

On the other hand, a lot of the moral tragedy of the central relationship between Anja and Louis lies in the fact that the male partner is not willing to do the labour required, politically or emotionally, to sustain either intimacy or political engagement. He’s not willing to do the really hard work to figure himself out and to figure out the structures that he’s complicit in. He opts out of emotions like grief and he invents a quick-fix drug instead of imagining structural change—it’s the ‘app for that’ mentality.
To speak to the position of emotional labour in the novel and address something you identified in a recent essay on the subject, I was wondering whether the final part of the book, in which, there’s an outbreak of Oval-related chaos at the same time as Anja gets her period, was in some way a comment on the complicated gender dynamics at play when constructing the natural versus the artificial.
In some ways the whole menstruating-woman-at-the-climax-of-the-story thing is an inside joke with myself. It's just such an egregious image: the narrative is at its emotional height and the woman is having her period. There’s something almost offensive about it taken at face value. Is she just overreacting? Is she causing the drama? But I like the idea that the image could be somehow flipped: that her body is instead a brilliant force of prediction with potential to be read as information about the state of the world.

A lot of the book deals with Anja’s alien encounters with her own body, which have to do with the alienness of gender. She has a rash. She loses a lot of weight. She can’t sleep. She often analyzes these reactions in a scientific way, and they weirdly start to seem like evidence—maybe evidence about how she is physiologically and emotionally interfacing with the world. And she starts to undergo various physical changes at the same time as the urban organism of Berlin kind of goes haywire. This leads her to turn inward and rely more on her body clock and her internal rhythms and try to identify her actual desires. I guess I’m also trying to bring the sense of estrangement onto a bodily level as a way denaturalising sex and gender from the inside out.
You write for art publications and you’ve previously written essays exploring some of Oval’s themes. There are plenty of artists in the novel and seemingly in your life. Why did you choose a novel as your medium for exploring these issues rather than a work of non-fiction or art?
The first and most basic thing was that I was dealing with a lot of feelings I didn’t know what to do with, so fictionalising them was just a way of processing. I was tired of being confined to traditional art writing formats, and writing a novel was also the most fun and the most difficult thing I could imagine doing.

But something I can only talk about in retrospect is that I think stories are really important. Reading and writing fiction are still the best tools I have found to re-identify with my humanity and with the world. The estrangement presented in a work of speculative fiction is nothing compared to the estrangement I often feel from politics and daily life.

In my introductory talk about The New Weird at HKW, I mentioned that I think stories provide access points to gigantic systems that would be incomprehensible otherwise. How else to understand how big things—finance, corporations, the internet, the climate, cities—affect internal states and vice versa? Insisting that there’s a relationship between a person’s life and large-scale systems is, fundamentally, to insist on political agency.
You clearly have a love/hate relationship with Berlin. I very much identify with this impulse as someone who lives here, but you no longer live in Berlin. Is this your Goodbye to Berlin? A savage satire on the city? Something else?
Oh, the book is an incredibly impassioned love letter to Berlin, and at the same time an angry fist-shaking letter. Ultimately it’s about ambivalence. I think you can love something and also be completely ambivalent about it—ambivalent doesn’t mean lacking feeling, but feeling very strongly in opposing ways. Like cognitive dissonance.

Berlin has historically been an incredible possibility space. It’s a bubble that offers protection and safety for experimentation and also total navel-gazing and the ability to stop engaging with the rest of the world.

I think the city has always been a weird outside, which is precious but also dangerous. Ambivalence is a very rich space from which to write a story. Ambivalence might be where the best stories are.
In the novel there’s a rant from one of your characters about how she and her friends have spent a decade in Berlin under the impression that they were reinventing how to live, when in fact they’ve just been on drugs for ten years. It’s so real.
It’s so real! And we’re all in it and not in it, and just constantly identifying one’s own position in it doesn’t really help. But what else can you do besides acknowledge that you’re aware of your own position and your own subjecthood? I guess one way is to write a story about yourself that becomes about way more than yourself.

Oval will be out very soon. How do you feel about it being out in the world?
Good question. I started writing it six years ago, and that time lapse is extra strange because it feels like so many things that I was struggling with and trying to speculate on now feel far less speculative. That in itself is very interesting to me. There’s a time-scale issue, just reckoning with the writing process as a really slow medium and often wondering whether there are other media that could be more responsive. But I’m writing another novel now and I’m sure it’ll take just as long.

Oval is published by Soft Skull Press in June, 2019;
the book is available for pre-order

Elvia Wilk is a writer and editor living in New York. She writes about art, architecture, and technology for several publications, including frieze, Artforum, e-flux, Metropolis, Mousse, Flash Art, Art in America, and Zeit Online. Her first novel, Oval, will be published in June 2019 by Soft Skull Press.

Sam Diamond is a writer, editor and researcher originally from London and now based in Berlin. He is currently finishing a PhD project on the conceptual history of authenticity in 20th Century American fiction and journalism at Queen Mary University of London, and works in technology. You can follow him on Twitter.

The portrait of Elvia Wilk is a photograph by Lena Giovanazzi (see here), © 2019 



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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.

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