When does life online shift from broader horizons to tunnel vision?
A new novel called “Sympathy” sends us tumbling down the rabbit hole like Alice. And like her, it makes me feel somewhat nauseous. I might even have to say I dislike the story. That’s not to say it isn’t good – and powerful. I look forward to interviewing its author Olivia Sudjic on BBC World this week.
“Sympathy” is largely set in New York City where the narrator – Alice, from England – links her life to Mizuko, from Japan.
She links them virtually – finding and following Mizuko – as her own addiction to social media grows. “Follow”. “Online”. “Typing”. She’s stalking.
And then she links them physically – tracking down Mizuko, obsessing over the weird coincidences between them like the men in both their lives (Rupert, the boyfriend, and Robin, the older man). Men whom we never see clearly; they’re always strangely filtered.
Alice Hare – whom others call Rabbit – becomes infatuated. She’s trapped in a Wonderland which she’s constructed, step by step.
Her New York City world begins with fresh air and spring blossom.
“I stopped on a bench and contemplated the blank canvas of my Instagram account.. I wanted the world to know I was here, not me as I had been but a self constructed from bits of New York. My vision zeroed in on a city made up of little squares. I began popping them like vitamins”.
She chooses a filter: Mizuko Himura, a Japanese writer who like Alice had moved to Manhattan in her twenties.
“My attachment to her was cultivated through her pictures and photographs and quotes and all the things she put online, not just because of what they were and how they related to me, but because of the attitude, the way of seeing the world they suggested… Even before she knew I existed, I saw myself in her, and whenever I did anything, I was watching her in the rear view mirror.”
But reality slides. Alice’s New York becomes steadily seedier, more claustrophobic, a place of sexual compulsion and drug-filtered paranoia. Over the course of the chapters, things that really matter – like the failing health of her benefactor in New York, her grandmother Silvia – just seem to recede into mist. The obsession is all. The smartphone, the “device”, its blinking light, its notifications, is constantly in the foreground. It is proof of the presence or otherwise of Mizuko online – “my beautiful quantum self”.
“I messaged her but got no reply. I hated it when she did this. Especially if she posted something in the meantime, underscoring her silence… When I wasn’t with her and couldn’t follow her, I spent my time watching her go on- and off-line”.
When Mizuko stays silent, “This kind of torture has a particular name, of course. As you’ll know already, I had been ghosted.”
And in this Wonderland, “it was the medium itself, I now felt, as much as Mizuko, that I was enslaved by”.
Reading “Sympathy”, I feel echoes of the dystopian worlds of Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” and of Dave Egger’s “The Circle”. The isolation chronicled in Olivia Laing’s “The Lonely City”, through artistic visions from Edward Hopper to David Wojnarowicz. And flashes of similarity to Donna Tartt’s brilliant epic “The Goldfinch”.
I also felt strangely detached in a way that made me feel my age – the author Olivia Sudjic is a twenty something digital native, which I am definitely not, which I’m increasingly beginning to feel is a lucky escape.
I was really struck, in a class at Harvard in 2011, by Eli Pariser’s outlining of his theory of the Filter Bubble. The questions Sudjic’s novel throws up are also obsessions of our age:
How does life online change our framing of the world around us?
Do we need validation online in order to accept ourselves?
Are our carefully curated online identities increasingly traps of our own making?
Is the phone our Pandora’s box – or as she translates it – the jar?
At one point Alice says this:
“Have you ever truly, keenly felt like you don’t know who you are? Do you ever do something and think, Who is at the controls? Like some mad pilot has locked you out of the cockpit? I definitely do”
The writing – the world of the novel – is itself claustrophobic. The scenes are weirdly compressed. The characters only seem half real. I still don’t know whether this is a deficiency in the writing, or a deliberate effect – a stylistic matching to the moral of the tale.
The narrator is unreliable. And what she does to others while in her own wonderland makes for a chilling read. The whole thing made me shiver. And feel shallow as I finally realised just how much I checked my own feeds – my emails, twitter, Instagram – while I was supposedly focussed on my reading.
At one point, Alice reflects that the architects of the World Wide Web “can hardly be blamed for the plague they have let loose”. Mizuko – a decade or so removed – says this of Alice’s generation:
“The way we thought we were so tuned in to the rest of the world, gleaning information at the touch of a button. In fact… we were drawing a veil over it.”
I wonder whether Sudjic – as opposed to her narrator – would like to uninvent the internet. I’ll have to ask her.