Sympathy opens with what must be the most intense description of an Instagram follow request ever committed to print. Alice Hare, the 23-year-old narrator, relates the agony of waiting to be granted access to a private account. She aches for that pale grey "requested" button to give way to its more reassuring successor; to confirm that she's "following". With this, the stage is set for a contemporary tale of obsession.
It feels as though the world has been waiting for a literary take on the photo-sharing app. Who among us hasn't been queasy after a bout of girl-crush stalking, or that very particular self-aware frustration when unable to find the right angle for a cocktail snap? Not posting would be like having a margarita without the salt. What makes Sympathy such a standout in its approach to social media is a move way from Black Mirror-style satire and, instead, a smart and lyrical evocation of that murky emotional terrain between our online and offline selves.
The novel, written by 28-year-old London native Olivia Sudjic, has already been praised by the likes of Diana Athill and is one of the most talked about debuts of the year. We meet in a cafe near my flat, which I've chosen specifically for its Instagrammable properties: millennial pink tables, food served on pastel plates. It's the kind place I imagine Sympathy's characters might post about, tagging the location like a breadcrumb to be found.
Alice, the book's lead, is living in limbo after graduating university, and in search of a "single, coherent narrative" about her origins (something her adoptive English mother has been unable to supply). After striking up a correspondence with her ailing grandmother, Alice travels to New York to help out during Silvia's cancer treatment. Once there, she becomes increasingly obsessed with a Japanese writer and Instagram cool-girl named Mizuko, in whose life story Alice detects odd parallels to her own. Any similarities that might not be present between the pair, Alice is able to manufacture, mining Mizuko's online presence for likes and interests with which to furnish her own personality. When Alice orchestrates a "chance" encounter with the writer – cheers geotags – Mizuko is unable to see that what feels like a happy coincidence is anything but.
Full of wry humour and sharp observations, Sympathy explores the ways we struggle to fully understand an experience that is not our own. We relate to others – as we must – through our own limited perspective. In this era of hyper-connectivity, the illusion of sympathy is everywhere, but are we really connecting in the way that we imagine ourselves to be?
Sudjic describes how, at 25, she'd tried a few different jobs and found herself working at a branding consultancy, but the idea that would evolve into Sympathy had already begun brewing. She decided to take a six-month sabbatical. "Of course, what happened is that I didn't write anything." she says. "Suddenly I had all this free time. I just freaked out."
Nearing the end of the six months, Sudjic's boss told her that they'd given her job to someone else, but that she was welcome to take a role in the Dubai office. "There was nothing like the threat of having to leave London to light a fire under my ass!"
"Throughout history, the tools we make end up shaping us" - Olivia Sudjic
She wrote the bulk of the book in three months in a self-confessed "fever-dream", fitting for a novel rife with mysterious illnesses, identity slippages and swift, feverish descents down social media's rabbit holes. The narrative's non-linear structure imitates the feeling of scrolling through an Instagram feed, where past and present co-exist and a #tbt might pop up at any time. It was meticulously plotted, so that Sudjic's writing space looked more like "a crime scene" than an author's desk. "It just felt like a much more authentic way of storytelling according to the way modern minds work," she says.
Surprisingly for a book that reads like The Talented Mr Ripley for the 21st Century, Sudjic says that she initially conceived it as a historical novel about a 17th century "medicine" called Powder of Sympathy. "I'm quite glad now that I can talk about this historical element, because it guards against the idea that this book is only about now. I feel like there are these age-old human frailties that technology can take advantage of. The point is that, throughout history, the tools we make end up shaping us."
That Alice's character has been shaped by life online is immediately evident. "I was interested in how the internet sees you," says Sudjic. "To a machine, you're viewed as this collection of metadata; the things you like and click on, what you've spent time doing." What's most specific in Alice's characterisation are the traits that can be easily understood by our devices; locations she visits, the amount of time she spends walking around the city and the sights she trains her iPhone lens on.
Despite the first person narration, Alice's inner-psyche remains blurry, mimicking the way someone is seen by a browser's internal algorithms. Later in the novel, strange coincidences begin to occur that mirror how a Facebook advert might anticipate a user's needs. "These things that we think are all about choice are actually being predicted, nudged and shaped. What we get access to online, the links that float to the top of our searches – that's all coloured by information we often don't even realise we've given out".
"The digital apparatus we have with which to affect change slightly tricks us into feeling like we're more powerful than we are, and actually, we're quite passive" – Olivia Sudjic
Sudjic compares buying a smart phone to a kind of Faustian pact: "There's this trade off between privacy and convenience." She points me to the novel's epigraph, a line from Alice Through the Looking Glass, in which Alice tells the Red Queen, "I wouldn't mind being a pawn, if only I might join." It is exactly this bargain we enter into when we share information about ourselves online. I ask whether Olivia was nervous about writing Alice as a character who, though the driving force of the novel, is quite passive – a pawn – when it comes to her interactions IRL. "She is passive, but I feel like that passivity is what a lot of our generation is coping with. The digital apparatus we have with which to effect change slightly tricks us into feeling like we're more powerful than we are, and actually, we're quite passive."
It's proof of Sudjic's electric talent that Alice's voice remains captivating, even as she seems to become a conduit for other people's experiences (her boyfriend Dwight's, for instance). Alice is simultaneously relatable and inscrutable, sympathetic, caustic and infuriating all at the same time. Of course she is – she's a 23-year-old trying to figure out her place in the world.
Acutely aware of the difference in the ways male and female novelists are asked to promote their books, Sudjic says she fought hard to keep the novel's original title. "I just thought, if Franzen can do it, I can. Men seem to have ownership of those one word titles. Also, I couldn't believe that it hadn't already been used, given what novels, from their genesis, are supposed to be about."
We discuss the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy: "It was about how we can over-identify with characters and it can lead us astray morally." Sudjic was drawn to the idea that novels used to be a slightly perilous moral undertaking. "Now novels are good and it's Instagram that's bad. Every single time a new format comes up for identifying with other people, we all throw up our hands thinking it's a disaster."
For Alice and Mizuko, it just might be.
'Sympathy' by Olivia Sudjic is published by ONE/Pushkin Press on the 4th of May, via Pushkin Press. Also available on audible.co.uk.
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