Set in Berlin in the near future, Oval is a wry and timely novel that speaks to some of the biggest issues shaping today’s society: the effects of climate change, the growth of corporate conglomerations, the (over)reach of health care, and the role of the artist who explores all of this.
The novel introduces us to Anja and Louis who share a rent-free, eco-friendly home built on the side of an artificial mountain, a home that always seems damp, whose technology always seems half-broken. After Louis’ mother dies, Anja worries about his mental state. He’s become obsessed with a special project at work: a pill called Oval that makes its users act more generously. The couple disagrees on the morality surrounding the pill, and what follows is a thought-provoking and wonderfully written story about the unequal distribution of power on a quickly warming planet.
In our interview, Elvia discusses her own feelings about the future, the role of the artist, and the importance of storytelling about climate change.
Amy Brady: Your novel paints a bleak environmental picture of the future. Are you hopeful or despairing when it comes to climate change?
Elvia Wilk: Both. Optimism and pessimism go together and flip back and forth. My best weapon against despair is acknowledging the weirdness of the current moment – the fact that such bizarre, unexpected things are happening all the time allows me to imagine that anything could happen. Of course, on the global scale, the most likely thing that will happen is probably a continuation of what is already happening: a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, a steep change in temperatures, and sea-level rise that will displace millions of people. The science is pretty hard to dispute (although plenty of people try).
But then incredible and creative initiatives are sprouting up everywhere, many of them, the ones I am most impressed by and believe the most in, focused and functional on quite a small scale. There is hope in everyday actions, even though it can be hard to feel like you’re having an effect. Ultimately, corporations and nation-states that prioritize short-term profit over the long-term survival of ecosystems will have to be forced to change. In the meantime, a lot of individual decisions add up.
In response to questions about whether I see the future as total dystopia, I often try to ask the reverse: whose dystopia? And whose utopia? Seen from the perspective of a person living the Global South rather than where I’m sitting (from a position of privilege in New York), would those futures be framed very differently? And zooming way out, what if the human is no longer the center of the story of the planet? A utopia for mosquitoes may not be the same as mine, but when it comes to the health of ecological systems as a whole, their thriving might be a very hopeful scenario.
Amy Brady: At the heart of this novel is a critique of corporations that co-opt progressive goals, especially those pertaining to the environment and inequality. What inspired this perspective?
Elvia Wilk: Reality inspired this perspective. But I don’t know if the book tries to offer a singular critique of corporate co-option, as much as an articulation of the situation as it stands. It would be hard for me to offer a straightforward critique in a book about how critique gets co-opted.
Instead I wanted to explore the possibilities for resistance in the cracks of corporate profit structures. Does it take the teeth out of a progressive cause for a corporation to bring it in-house, using it as an advertisement for social or environmental responsibility, a pretense for self-critique? Or is the only way for progressive causes to survive and be effective in fact to interface directly with mega-systems of power and profit? It’s hard to imagine an outside to capitalism, so I’m more interested in ways that embedding resistance within systems of power could actually maintain the antagonism necessary for change.
That said, tried and tested forms of resistance and activism are by no means obsolete. Incredible unionizing efforts are occurring in the creative industries right now, governments are managing to place rent caps in cities like Berlin, oil companies are responding to pressure from investors to reduce their climate impact. I think those forms of organizing can coexist with other forms of sneaky activism that work from the inside out, ones that until recently may have been framed as solely complicit. Assuming every political tool is tainted in one way or another, you just have to pick a dirty tool and use it as best you can.
Amy Brady: Artists are depicted in the novel as consultants, brand experts, and content creators who are working within corporate structures to make such places more streamlined, efficient, and “better” in corporate speak. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the artist in today’s society. Do you see artistic work as being compromised?
Elvia Wilk: To be compromised, or to be complicit, or to “sell out” aren’t pure categories, and never have been. Everyone I know is compromised by the imperative to produce value. And artists have never operated in a vacuum where they were free to authentically create. They have always been part of social and political systems – just like everyone else – and the powerful art that effects change is probably art that acknowledges its own role, including its own potential instrumentalization, within those sociopolitical ecologies.
That said, I think a lot about how the artist’s role might be changing in response to the current moment’s peculiar kinds of class disenfranchisement, burgeoning nationalism, and the climate emergency. I still believe that art’s political potential lies in its ability to avoid serving a single “client” or set of political interests. I don’t think artists need to propose practical solutions – designers and architects are better equipped to sketch out fixes – and I don’t think the role of art is to educate or “raise awareness” – educators and activists have those tools. But I do think artists could more explicitly collaborate with others outside the culture sphere who are dealing with urgent problems on a practical level.
The unique tools of the artist include: inventing new forms of meaning and new ways of being in the world; making beauty happen; expanding the political imaginary untethered to the constraints of reality. Those are really important, on their own and in conjunction with problem-solving kinds of production. But anyway, nobody says an artist can’t also be a climate activist or an educator. People can have many roles.
Amy Brady: On a related note, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the novel (and novelist) in an age of climate change. Do you think that books that address climate issues can have an impact on how readers think about or perceive climate change?
Elvia Wilk: I think stories are necessary for many reasons, and one of them is the way they can operate on multiple scales. A piece of fiction can interweave human-scale, personal, intimate stories with the stories of gigantic systems – political, technological, environmental. A novel whose only goal is to transmit information or awareness about a cause is probably not a good story, but a good story that places characters in direct contact with, say, the effects of climate change can really change the way we think about the role of the individual and the collective.
I love many Kim Stanley Robinson books that follow the lives of individuals across the solar system, over lengths of time far beyond the current human lifespan, who are dealing with the fallout from climate change. That kind of multigenerational and interplanetary story about environmental conservation has exploded my thinking about the future. What would humanity untethered from Earth look like? If we weren’t Earth-dependent, what would we need to save, and what would we want to save? Should we save ourselves at all?
Amy Brady: I loved the book’s wry, humorous tone. How do you keep a sense of humor – or at least the ability to write with one – when the future seems so dire?
Elvia Wilk: The future is both dire and wonderful, just like today is awful and great, depending on who you are and where you are. Humor is a backdoor out of determinism, solutionism, and capitalist realism. And it’s a really important political tool. Fascism is notoriously devoid of a sense of humor.
In medieval manuscripts, sometimes you’ll find images of people suffering in eternal damnation or descriptions of hell in the center of the page, and then the drawings in the margins are full of dirty jokes. A monkey poking a man’s ass, or a silly person dancing around the page. Humor is not antithetical to horror. In fact, they probably need each other.
Amy Brady: Finally, what’s next for you?
Elvia Wilk: I started working on another novel that picks up on many of the themes from Oval, but realized I need some more intensive research time before forging ahead. In the meantime I’m working on a series of essays about weird fiction, black holes, and love.
Oval by Elvia Wilk, Soft Skull Press, published June 4, 2019
Elvia Wilk is a writer and editor living in New York and Berlin. Her writing has appeared in several publications, including frieze, Artforum, e-flux, Metropolis, Mousse, Flash Art, Art in America, and Zeit Online.
Reprinted with permission of Amy Brady and Chicago Review of Books, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.