Elvia Wilk: Oval
by Stan Portus
Anja and her two friends Dam and Laura look out over Berlin from the top of the Berg, an artificial mountain and eco-community built on what was once Tempelhof Airport. Beneath them, they can see how Berlin has turned into one endless, debauch party, induced by the drug Oval, developed by Anja’s boy- friend, Louis, to induce generosity in anyone who takes it. For Anja, Laura and Dam, this moment provides the answer to a question that has been lingering on their minds: is Berlin over? Its cool credentials haven’t been superseded by another European city—however, at one point, Dublin and Vilnius are suggested as the next hip places—but Berlin has fallen into what seems to be irreparable chaos.
Throughout Oval (2019), Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, there is always a fear that things are shifting between the bearable and the worst. Its characters have given over their artistic talents to corporations where they work as consultants in “bullshit jobs,” lose themselves in their phones, play Candy Crush, experience terrible FOMO and read the now-erratic weather as a sign of an irreversible planetary shift. In short, Oval seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to the present, but this resemblance is one through which Wilk pushes contemporary concerns to absurdist extremes.
The novel opens with the protagonist, Anja, a scientist, living on the Berg with her boyfriend, Louis, an artist-cum-consultant. Like much of the city, the Berg is owned by the conglomerate Finster, whose lousy and neglectful operations have led to the Berg falling into a state of disrepair. The house sweats as it overheats while struggling to process the waste Anja and Louis feed into its composting system, and the paths across the Berg are muddy tracks that have never been paved or even given a tokenistic smattering of gravel. These are things, however, that the young, eco-conscious couple grins and bears, knowing that Finster records them via cameras and the house’s computer system, and that their habits and behaviours could be used to determine whether or not living sustainably is possible. They thus come to see their role as residents of the Berg as “putting a good, clean face on sustainability”—even if that means dumping the excess waste they produce off the mountain to keep up appearances.The fact that the onus falls on Anja and Louis to show whether sustainable living is feasible—rather than Finster taking responsibility for their shortcomings and making it possible—feels like a bleak continuation of an age in which the actions of individuals are often stressed over corporate negligence.
In an interview with the Chicago Review of Books, Wilk noted her interest in “embedding resistance within systems of power.” How can people within structures that seem so detrimental use them to antagonize, and affect change? This idea is played out when Louis turns to Finster to manufacture Oval; he sees the drug as a means to remediate Berlin’s inequality by overriding a “survival of the richest” attitude and “endless selfish consumption.” On Oval, the reward and satisfaction felt from earning money is instead felt from giving, eventually—or hopefully—making people realize that there may be “another way of living and exchanging.” When Louis and Anja take Oval for the first time, they descend into a weekend-long drug trip that sees them giving away money, not eating meat, hatching plans to solve their friends’ housing issues and even not smoking: “Think of the environment,” they whisper to each another.
Once the drug makes its way into the Berlin drug supply, the breakdown of the city into one endless act of giving turns competitive as people try to out-give one another. But no one is giving others what they need, instead they are giving to absolve themselves: the drug is “white-saviour complex in pill form,” an ego release for Berliners who want a conscience. The result is not a “pharmacological utopia,” but rather a hell that acts as a warning. Empathy and understanding cannot be manufactured, and the gifting is firmly tied to money as people take out loans to give more. Generosity thus becomes another signal of an individual’s capital. Oval shows that the strictures of the economic and social systems in which people live cannot be broken so easily, and action more drastic than a palliative high is needed if these things are going to change. What this action is however is left open-ended. Wilk, having played out her fantasy of what the future could look like, seems to be asking the reader what theirs might be.
Wilk is at her comic best, and most cutting, when satirizing the art world, which exists in Oval largely in the form of commercial galleries that have “transitioned into venues for product launches” and performances by artists that are intended to reinforce a company’s brand. “Private views” are, predictably, events where no one is willing to express what they really think of the work. Amongst the characters, there is an acceptance that the art world is “hermetic” and “apolitical” but also a belief that artists have an ability to show the world what ethics look like: at one show, audience members find themselves sitting on “collapsible stool-like things” that are meant to “subvert ‘the chair’” as a form of institutional critique.
Such observations make painful reading for anyone who has spent their professional life or education in the world of gallery openings, talks and baffling press releases. The flipside to this is that Oval may have limited appeal to those who have already dismissed the art world as ludicrous, or who simply hold little interest in it. Oval is an attempt by Wilk, an arts journalist, to reckon with a world that seems to have grown exasperated by itself. How can art and those who work with it break free of the art industry? Will creatives in general cave and take up corporate “bullshit jobs” to pay the rent and live comfortably? How will artists and the creative industries grapple with a future that looks so bleak and one that is already so dominated by the climate crisis?
In Breathing: Chaos and Poetry (2018), Franco Berardi says that in a time dominated by global warming and “mental collapse, spreading depression and panic … it is totally understandable for a human to be, whether consciously or not, preparing for a flight from planet hell.” The anxieties and fears Anja holds read as consequences of just such a collapse, and her turn to excessive drinking, and even the comfort she eventually finds in isolating herself on the later abandoned Berg, seem like attempts to form an exit strategy. If Tempelhof was still an airport, Dam reflects, “We could just take off.” But it isn’t. They have to stay.