Oval

Anja and her boyfriend Louis live in a supposedly sustainable housing enclave in Berlin, all thanks to Anja’s employer, a corporation devoted to science and sustainability (or the appearance of it). Anja, Louis, and their friends spend their evenings partying at Berlin’s clubs and talking about the new innovations they’re working on, such as an app that will commodify personal connections in an obviously misguided attempt to make money less important.

In one way or another, money infiltrates every part of life in Elvia Wilk’s near-future novel, Oval. Corporate interests govern environmental preservation efforts, scientific advancements, artistic pursuits, housing options, and it’s beginning to creep into personal relationships and philanthropic efforts (as if it weren’t there already). As such, the novel serves as a smart satire of capitalism as its worst. When everything is a commodity, what is actually real? If everything we do is part of an exchange, whether of money, connections, or good feelings, can anything we do be treated as sincere? When the novel homes in on these ideas, it’s smart and funny and disturbing.

Unfortunately, the novel spends too much time, especially in its early chapters, on dull relationship angst and seemingly endless partying. It’s meant to set the scene, I suppose, but it’s just not interesting. But even worse, the back cover copy and the novel’s cover art and title put the spotlight on one tiny element of the story, blowing it all up way out of proportion to its place in the novel. It’s significant, but not to the degree we’re led to believe.

I know many people who don’t like to read cover copy or much of anything else, for fear of spoilers. And it is true that sometimes cover copy gives away too much plot. But I like looking at the cover copy because it helps me set my expectations about what I’m reading so I can read it more intelligently. Am I looking at a satire? An experimental structure? Something plot-driven? I read better when I have at least some sense of what’s ahead, and most of the time, cover copy doesn’t give away so much of the story that I know exactly what’s going to happen at every point. (I’m also, I have to admit, someone who doesn’t care much about spoilers, unless a book hinges on the element of surprise in some way.)

In the case of this novel, however, the cover details an event that doesn’t occur until more than halfway into the novel. And even then, it’s not the main focus of the story. When I read the cover copy, I was really intrigued by the development described, as it set up lots of questions about personal morality, motivations behind acts of goodness, and the possibility of making generosity compulsory. Those questions do come up in the plot, but they are just one thread in the overall picture of capitalism and markets that Wilk is painting. The picture that she paints is also intriguing, but I didn’t go into the book primed for those ideas, and so it took me a while to find my footing and get interested in what this book was actually doing, instead of what I was led to believe the book would be doing. It’s a shame, really, because I ended up not enjoying the book very much until I was well past the halfway point. Would I have liked it more had I been given a clearer picture of what Wilk was up to?

I’m afraid that this experience will not stop me from reading cover copy. I still find it useful most of the time. But I’m curious as to what others think? Has cover copy, cover art, and other material meant to pique your interest ended up ruining a book for you? I’m not thinking so much about spoilers (although that’s relevant), but about wrong impressions of what a book is doing. Have you ever felt so misled that you couldn’t enjoy the book in front of you?

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2 Responses to Oval

  1. Jeanne says:

    I can’t remember feeling especially misled, but I do seek out satires and I’ve noticed that the cover copy is often misleading for those, especially if they look like novels. My most recent review, The Captain and the Glory, is such obvious satire that it didn’t suffer this fate, but most of the more subtle satires I’ve read in the last few years have.

    • Teresa says:

      I have read some books that I might have liked more if I’d come into them expecting something satirical. This book was odd in that I think the satire was pointed at a different target than the cover copy led me to think.

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