London-based author Olivia Sudjic wrote a novel which illustrates people’s obsession with an online world, especially with Instagram, in a smart and lyrical way.

 The internet is a place where we have a special kind of relationship with our acquaintances. It allows us to show what we do and where we are, share our love affairs and many other things to do by posting photos or just by writing something. Also, it breeds some negative feelings such as greed or even sudden repulsion syndrome when we see that some friends have unfollowed our account.

Olivia Sudjic’s smart debut novel, Sympathy, is a contemporary tale of unrequited love and obsession in the internet age. The narration is taken in form of the memoir of Alice Hare, who is the 23-year-old millennial, and it consists of a description of Alice’s cleverly way of starting a friendship with her internet idol, Mizuko. The narrative’s non-linear structure make us feel like scrolling through an Instagram feed, where past and present co-exist and a #TBT might pop up at any time. Sudjic plotted the book meticulously, so her working 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.

Sympathy is considered to be a literary take on the photo-sharing app. We all know that situation when you just can’t find the right angle for a selfie so that’s where a very particular self-aware frustration comes. Not posting makes people feel like they are deprived of something and just don’t have anything interesting in their lives. A move way from Black Mirror-style satire and, instead, a smart and lyrical narration about online world affecting us, makes Sympathy such a standout in its approach to social media. The novel has already been praised by the likes of British editor Diana Athill and is one of the most talked about debuts of the year.

Alice, the book’s main character, is unemployment after graduating from college, and she is currently in search of a “single, coherent narrative” about her origins, which is something her adoptive English mother has been unable to supply. She leaves England and travels to New York to help out her grandmother Sylvia, who communicated to her granddaughter via mailed letter (she is one of the smartest characters of the book, who are Luddites). Once there, Alice becomes increasingly obsessed with a Japanese writer and Instagram cool-girl named Mizuko, and Alice detects odd parallels between their life stories. Alice mines Mizuko’s online presence for likes and interests with which to furnish her own personality. When Alice orchestrates a “chance” encounter with the writer – thanks to geotags – Mizuko is unable to see that what feels like a happy coincidence is anything but. Broken-heart syndrome is compounded by the peculiar emotional turbulence of digital heartbreak. When Alice steals Mizuko’s phone and starts scrolling, she was unable to stop. Alice throws Mizuko’s laptop into the Hudson, which is the ultimate writerly betrayal. Finally, Alice must live with the metallic aftertaste of the “unfollow.”

Sympathy is self-consciously clever, riddled with a network of allusions book, which is full of an ironic humor and sharp observations. It explores all the ways we struggle to fully understand an experience that is not our own, also we relate to others only through our own limited perspective. In this era of hyper-connectivity, the illusion of sympathy is everywhere, but it seems to be not that real.

Alice’s character being shaped by life online is immediately evident, as Sudjic was interested in how the internet sees you – as the collection of metadata; the things you like and click on, what you’ve spent time doing. Alice’s characterization is specifically made by the traits that can be easily understood by devices: locations she visits, the amount of time she spends walking around the city, and the sights she captures through the lens of her iPhone. The book is written in first person narration, but Alice’s inner-psyche remains blurry, mimicking the way someone is seen by a browser’s internal algorithms.

Sudjic says she fought hard to keep the novel’s original title as she was aware of the difference in the ways male and female novelists are asked to promote their books. She wanted to name her book with a one-word title and she decided that if Franzen can do it, she can too. It seemed to her that men have ownership of those one-word titles.

The author compares buying a smartphone to a tradeoff between privacy and convenience. The novel’s epigraph is 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 the bargain we enter into when we share information about ourselves online. Despite the fact that Alice is the driving force of the novel, she is quite passive  – a pawn – when it comes to her interactions IRL. Sudjic describes that she is really passive, but to the author’s mind, “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”.

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