Famously described as “poor but sexy” by its mayor, Klaus Wowereit, in 2003, Berlin—with its grungy appeal, remarkable affordability, and extensive public funding for the arts—stood apart from Europe’s sleeker cultural capitals. In the last decade, though, the city’s property prices have risen faster than anywhere else in the world, and a recent tech boom is filling Berlin with start-up workers who fancy themselves creatives. In 2016, Google announced plans for a 32,000-square-foot start-up incubator in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, a historical haven for queer culture, immigrants, and artists.
Two years later, in a rare defeat, the tech giant revealed it would not open the incubator, after a sustained campaign by local residents—including protests and a brief occupation of the building site. In the corporate doublespeak of our era, Google officials said that the company was aware of the protests but that the demonstrations hadn’t affected its decision to provide the soon-to-be-completed space rent-free to two nonprofits; the tech giant had wanted to “open the space up to social organizations” all along.
Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, Oval, exquisitely depicts the exhaustion of trying to maintain your footing among the reality distortions of 21st-century companies like Google. In the near-future Berlin where Oval takes place, corporations aren’t just people, they’re good people. Finster, the reigning corporate overload, is dedicated to solving the world’s problems or, more accurately, earning a lot of money, with PR robust enough to make that aim seem nothing more than an unexpected by-product. For example, Finster’s greenwashing reframes the company’s real-estate aims as environmental ones; it’s buying up whole swaths of the city to make the buildings more sustainable, jacking up rents in the process, and using the veneer of green tech to stave off criticism.
Their most egregious project involves redeveloping Berlin’s centrally located and historically significant Tempelhof Airport, a 740-acre airfield that became one of the world’s largest inner-city green spaces when it opened as a public park in 2010. In Oval, Tempelhof has transformed once again, this time into the Berg, an artificial mountain developed by Finster to “re-nature” Berlin via sustainable, zero-waste housing. (In 2014, city residents voted down a referendum that would have ceded part of Tempelhof to developers, but that housing plan didn’t involve a faux mountain.) Anja, the book’s protagonist, and her boyfriend, Louis, have been bestowed (or burdened, as it becomes increasingly clear) with one of the high-tech prototype houses on the mountain’s face. In fact, Finster’s reach extends across all aspects of Anja’s life—professional, personal, and physical. Finster doesn’t just own her new home but also the think-tank-y research lab where she works. Over the course of the book, Finster buys the NGO employing Louis and the building where her best friends live, too.
As the world slowly crumbles around her, Anja is primarily concerned with the ruptures in her personal and professional lives. She’s apolitical and self-obsessed, so the reader doesn’t see much beyond her social scene. When Louis returns from a trip to the United States after his mother’s unexpected death, the only indication of what happened is the iPad of hers he’s brought back. Louis, the smoothest of social operators, is acting normal, which seems far from normal to Anja. Still, they pick up their banter, “the game of endlessly countering and counter-countering and punning,” and she observes him from the doorway of their bedroom in “a Carrie Bradshaw move she had once postured as a joke that had by now lost its original template and become a reflex,” while trying to determine how he’s really feeling.
For Anja and her friends, scare quote is a verb, and feelings are tamped down with ironic distancing. These measured and carefully controlled expressions of emotions contrast with weather so rapidly fluctuating that it’s producing conspiracy theories. The internal temperature system for the Berg’s model homes is similarly off-kilter, such that living in one of the hyperprogrammed houses feels closer to camping in the jungle than residing in pioneering, eco-friendly housing. To escape their uncomfortable home and Anja’s mounting concern, Louis begins spending more time at the office.
Basquiatt, his NGO employer, is both outlandish and surprisingly easy to slot into our current world. Louis isn’t supposed to address any particular real-world issue: “He was not to make this place or that place a better place, but to make Basquiatt a better place and therefore to help Basquiatt make The World a better place.” Grief inspires him to develop a designer drug—Oval—that spurs in users a feeling of financial generosity, his personal answer to rising inequality. But Anja is skeptical of Oval and surprised by his inability to see the problems it presents, which causes a rift between them.
Before the drug comes into play, Anja and Louis live a relatively normal and recognizably Berlin life. They go to art events and clubs, try to compost properly and navigate cohabitation. Against these routines, Wilk accentuates everything from the horrors of the culture industry to the cultures of corporations. Conversations are impeded by endless nondisclosure agreements. “Are we allowed to talk about anything tonight?” Anja’s friend Laura asks over beers one night. The irritants, multiple and multiplying, suggest something worse is to come.
Oval magnifies the existing love story between the art world and the tech-inflected corporate one, in which the ability to positively change the world is dogma and the mandate of apps and artworks is the same: subvert, disrupt, influence. “A corporate lobby may have been full of art objects, but management realized it needed artists inside the building to keep a finger on the pulse,” Wilk writes. Corporate benefactors are nothing new, but in Wilk’s world, they’ve bought more than the art; they’ve bought the artists themselves. Louis began his artist- consulting gig for the Basquiatt immediately after he finished his MFA; more traditional artists are also consultants, though they are sometimes called brand ambassadors. There are emerging consultants and midlevel consultants, research consultants and management consultants, reluctant consultants and consultants for consultants. Even Anja, a scientist, can’t escape consultancy for long.
Instead of selling art objects, which has become passé, the gallery is now a venue for concept launches. At one of these concept launches, for the artist/consultant/brand ambassador Snow White, Anja is joined by her lab partner Michel in a church turned gallery turned performance space. Snow White’s piece involves 3-D printing, the use of Comic Sans, flames, gongs, and poetry, all culminating in the revelation of a cosmetics line he conceived for the corporation employing him. After the performance, Michel is nearly apoplectic. He never goes to these sorts of events and cannot figure out what’s going on.
Anja explains that it’s obviously a joke and one that’s funny to the artist-cum-consultant and the artist-cum-consultant-adjacent like Anja but that it’s not supposed to be funny to the corporate overlord. Michel remains skeptical. They must get the joke, he prods. “Of course they do, but they pretend not to, which is an even bigger joke,” Anja explains. “And [the artist is] pretending he doesn’t know they’re pretending. And that just makes it an even bigger joke. And on and on forever in an endless loop.” Even though both consultant and consulted recognize the absurdity, not acknowledging it breeds a sense of superiority. “That’s how consulting works,” Anja explains before offering a perfect summation of the gig: “Each side thinks the other one is the chump.”
Who is being had and who owns what are two of the strongest emotional undercurrents of Anja’s world. With the closed circle of self-congratulatory art-speak, managementese, and tech jargon, it’s hard to tell, initially, if Wilk’s Oval is just a relentless tap dance in the language of now—delightful in its own right, but eventually exhausting without something weightier to ground it.
Though the erratic behavior of Anja and Louis’ eco-home portends greater climate catastrophe, Oval is more comedy of manners than climate fiction. It’s interpersonal dynamics that capture Wilk’s attention. Her dissection of an opening and the following dinner—likely drawn from her many years writing about art for outlets like frieze and Artforum—is particularly biting. Friends surround the performer (“adjacency to fame is falsely presumed equivalent to fame”), give congratulations and receive congratulations on behalf of their friend from the less well connected. Next, the performer decides who will come to the post-opening dinner. “Like fame, invitations are falsely presumed contagious,” Wilk writes. As the rest of the invitations are offered, there’s aligning, realigning, chatting, and then “a silent call is sent through to the invitees, like an electric zap only they can feel,” indicating that the cars for the dinner have arrived outside. Then there’s the pageantry of the chosen few as they extricate themselves from conversations with the non-chosen, “casually mentioning ‘a dinner,’ which everyone knows to be the Dinner.”
For most of the book, Anja is paralyzed by her fear of being some sort of left behind—a fear that articulates itself in near constant self-analysis and hyperawareness of her surroundings. But when you pay that much attention, everything begins to feel alien.
At one point, Anja walks through “a body factory” offering “a way to move without moving anywhere” featuring “forklifts” for “soft goods,” a place she more succinctly refers to by its common name—the gym. After the post-workout shower is the communal ritual involving “elbows raised, using a wind-making device invented for the sole purpose of removing the water,” or blow-drying one’s hair. It’s not just a rhetorical flourish but a skillful revelation of the oddness beneath the everyday.
At the glamorous party where Anja first meets Louis, she notices the shrunken heads of deceased consultants serve as decor for the über-wealthy homeowner. “It was hideous, but it wasn’t outrageous,” Anja thinks. “It followed the logic of a system where a person’s whole life was part of someone else’s investment portfolio.” The shrunken heads disappear from the book as quickly as they appear, but the small decorative detail pulls to the foreground the very real and often deadly debt economy of our current society.
While she is a master of detail, Wilk struggles with the book’s central arc, the titular designer drug with big promises. Louis introduces his invention to Anja just over halfway through the novel, but Oval isn’t really released near the end, with Anja and Louis trying it before the conclusion. Oval’s true impact on society is squeezed into the last few pages, primarily coming to Anja secondhand.
Anja was skeptical of Louis’s colossal ambitions for the drug; the massive impact Oval has, while not what Louis hoped for, is similarly hard to swallow. Even Wilk’s characters acknowledge the effect of Oval “seemed so outsized,” which feels more like a way to preempt this kind of criticism than a genuine reaction. There’s a delightful opacity to the final sentence of Oval but a nagging sense that the book’s end comes hastily. Wilk didn’t need to deliver us from late capitalism, and it feels like a relief that she doesn’t offer some grand solution, but she did need to stick a landing that feels real. Instead, Oval’s over-the-top ending contrasts with the believable excesses carried off well elsewhere in the book.
Earlier in the novel, as Finster buys up building after building in the name of sustainability, there is hardly a response. It has become too common. “People are bored of this story by now,” says a former activist Anja is friends with, adding, “Even I’m tired of it.”
But in contemporary Berlin, the story has not yet grown stale, and a different chapter seems poised to unfold. The city is now seriously considering options like a five-year rent freeze and a ban preventing landlords with over 3,000 apartments from operating in the city—initiatives that suggest Berlin might be “on the cusp of a housing revolution,” according to CityLab.
How Berlin will reckon with its tech boom is less clear. While Google’s start-up campus won’t go ahead as planned, the new nonprofit occupants have offered the company fantastic PR. One of the group’s founders said he believes in emerging technology’s potential for social good but, as he told The New York Times, “to do it, you need friends like Google on your side.”