Olivia Sudjic’s smart, savvy debut novel is a digital-age cautionary tale about liking too much, following too intensely and unraveling while striving to connect.
“Sympathy” comes with an epigraph from Lewis Carroll and features a protagonist called Alice. Her wonderland turns out to be cyberspace and birthplace. But as Alice loses herself in each, she becomes entangled in family ties, infatuated with a soul mate and increasingly unsure of her sense of self.
After growing up in England and floundering after university, Alice returns to New York to discover “who I was and what it was I was supposed to be doing.” Prising herself away from online porn, internet gambling and virtual friends, she sets out to re-engage with real life and real people. She walks, writes in her journal, takes and posts pictures; she bonds with the Rooiakker family, dates former Mormon Dwight and finds a kindred spirit in Mizuko, a Japanese writer.
Slowly but steadily, this recluse who has lived her life through screens manages to venture out and “fall into place.”
But halfway through her narrative, Alice explains that this point marks “that exact moment of dissolution — when the obsession began.” Suddenly, she wants Mizuko all to herself. She trawls her phone, raids her photos, reads her messages and stalks her online. Their friendship strengthens, particularly when Alice learns that Mizuko’s “origin story” is similar to hers.
However, just when we wonder if “Symmetry” might be a more apposite title than “Sympathy,” both women start to come undone and veer off on divergent paths, one succumbing to illness and the other to paranoia, hallucination and shattered illusions.
Sudjic excavates the dark depths of the soul, but she also hits us with regular bouts of comic brilliance. Dwight, an app-happy tech guy with an “insatiable appetite for new experiences,” is hilariously awful, while Silvia, Alice’s no-nonsense, cancer-riddled grandmother, delights with her endearing quirks and stubborn resolve. “She said she had no need for eyebrows anymore anyway,” Alice reveals, “as nothing surprised her.”
This is a fresh, topical, switched-on novel. “You have the zeitgeist,” Mizuko tells Alice, and so does Sudjic. Unfortunately, while the book is in tune with the age of information, it is also in thrall to it. Some pages are clogged with unprocessed data on everything from tsunamis to black boxes to particle physics. Alice talks about her generation being adept at “gleaning information at the touch of a button.” Having gleaned it, Alice distributes it in chunks.
“Sympathy” is fact-filled, but it is also packed with tension, pathos and vitality. Whether in New York or on detours to Texas and Tokyo, in conversation with Mizuko or alone with her curdling thoughts, Alice proves a captivating narrator, candidly sharing her passions, jealousies and heartache, together with her views on fate, coincidence and “the hidden connections between things.” This is a potent first novel from a formidable talent.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Olivia Sudjic.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 406 pages, $25.