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The First Great Instagram Novel

Olivia Sudjic’s “Sympathy” meets the reader at intimacy’s new frontier.

Photoillustration: Jeshoots

The year you graduated from college, did you lose your mind? Every new graduate does a little, because you go from a life of regimented achievement into a world where recognition is hard to find. Alice Hare is the 23-year-old protagonist and narrator of Olivia Sudjic’s debut novel Sympathy, and it is in the post-university void that her grip on reality loosens. The book begins near the end of its action, with Alice drawing us into the fullness of her insane fixation on a woman named Mizuko Himura.

“Unfollow. Intended as a symbolic gesture only, a symbolic fuck you, assuming that I’d still have a level of public access.” Alice has hit the excommunication button in anger, not realizing that Mizuko has recently changed her privacy settings. What was meant to be a small gesture turns out to be a big one. No longer following this private account, Alice is shut out. “A white wall had descended, blank except for a padlock symbol.”

SYMPATHY by Olivia Sudjic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pp., $25

We don’t yet know what has brought Alice to this point; the novel will unspool that out for us in a nonlinear way. But Alice’s impulse is so familiar. It’s like the vicious text you send during a fight and think, with relief, “Well, it’s done now,” seconds before regretting everything. It’s the suicidal move in a power game that has no ending. It is the nuclear option.

The dynamics of iPhone-mediated intimacy and the (related) problem of finding one’s true self are the chief themes animating Sympathy. Sudjic’s figurative approach to depicting social media is what really marks it as the first truly literary book largely about Instagram. For example, the tsunami that destroyed so much of Japan in 2011 is a major motif in Alice’s reflections. Early on, Sudjic describes the horrible and certain way that the black wave moved in footage of the event. Later, she repurposes the wave to describe how the self lives online. “That generation,” by which she means those in old age now, “tends to think in terms of beginnings and endings. They don’t understand what you can do with the Internet, or how there’s no end to things, no way out. They don’t understand that nothing stays private and nothing goes away. It’s like the wave—the back catching up with the front.”

What does it mean to compare one’s internet presence to a destructive wave? Sudjic is describing the shape of this information. Old data—the back of the wave—can move to the front. No part of one’s self online is truly fixed in time, or in the shape of a biography as we traditionally know it. Instead, like an amorphous and murderous body of water, it just drifts and nobody knows where it is going.

Dreams also figure prominently. There are parts of Sympathy where the line between consciousness and dreaming is as untraceable as the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, another recurring motif in Alice’s thoughts.

Alice finds Mizuko through a 23AndMe-esque genetic testing service. They both have murky family backgrounds containing wayward male figures, and Alice has found out by accident that this beautiful Japanese teacher of creative writing at Columbia shares genetic data with two children she looks after. She quickly hunts her down on Instagram—a platform she has begun to use on a post-college trip to New York, to make herself feel like she is “really there”—and becomes obsessed. Mizuko becomes, for Alice, a secret; something to harbor and fetishize.

Alice’s boyfriend inadvertently takes a photo of the precise moment she finds Mizuko’s account. It is a picture of her falling into a picture: Alice is “bent low over her life in miniature.” “I can see in my downcast eyes,” Alice says, “that I am starting to fade. Or that the solid world around me, the reality of it, is starting to slide away, like wet sand sinking beneath the water.” She monitors Mizuko from a distance, then engineers a “chance” encounter that leads to friendship.

Sudjic achieves a true drama of the virtual by casting her protagonist as a woman without an identity. On a literal level, Alice’s birth parents have been totally absent from her life. She also seems to have no information about her ethnic background, no real interest in a line of work, and little feeling of connection to her body except when walking punishing distances across Manhattan. Alice’s sexuality flares up only in paroxysmal blooms as her intimacy with Mizuko develops. She has no mechanisms of self-control; perhaps no self at all.

Despite the many opportunities this subject matter affords, there is only one hackneyed pun in Sudjic’s book. Alice collects her phone from Mizuko’s friendly doorman after a temporary self-imposed ban on devices is over. “I guess it’s out of power,” she says out loud, trying to turn it on. To the reader alone Alice writes, “I knew mine had gone, too.”

But in the main, Sympathy is an exceptionally unnerving read. The book explores digital power dynamics, and the deep implication of our selves with these dynamics, with a sophistication that never feels pretentious. Sympathy is a remarkable debut, and with the arrival of such a novelist we can finally welcome our techno-dystopian future with open arms.