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Literature And Social Media Collide In 'Sympathy'


Olivia Sudjic is a young British writer - presumably also a brilliant one judging from the prizes she's won. She identifies herself on her Instagram account as baby novelist. Her first novel, just published here, is called "Sympathy." Maybe what it's about is falling in love in the digital age. Possibly, it's about identity and obsessively tracking that identity through the endless possibilities of the web or not. Ms. Sudjic joins us from London, where she lives, to talk about her book. Welcome to our program.

OLIVIA SUDJIC: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there are a handful of things we know about the narrator of your book, Alice Hare. She's a philosophy graduate. She's adopted. She has complicated relationships with her adoptive and her birth relations. And she is obsessed with a slightly older woman, a Japanese writer called Mizuko Himura. So could you sort of pick it up from there?

SUDJIC: I think you're totally right in saying that she is completely obsessed with this older woman. And I think part of the reason why that happens is because her own story is very dim. And in place of any sort of certainty about who she is or where she comes from or what her own origin story might be, she starts to fixate on this woman who, for her, is this mixture of some parallels that she perceives between them, but equally quite a lot, I think, of wishful thinking and this sort of imaginary bond she assumes them to share.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Alice's relationship to Mizuko in real life is a creation, right? I mean, she's done all this research. She's googled all over the place.

SUDJIC: (Laughter).

WERTHEIMER: And in the end, I sense that she doesn't really get to know the real person, but it's still what happened, right? It's still real life, or is it?

SUDJIC: I mean, I still am not a hundred percent definite, even with myself as a writer, about exactly what does and doesn't happen in this story. It's all narrated by Alice, who is, as you will discover, a very unreliable narrator in various ways and who, whilst writing it, is still trying to imitate her heroine's confessional style. The thing I think about what you just said in terms of googling all over the place is that I saw, in lots of ways, Alice and Mizuko's relationship as a kind of metaphor, in a way, for our own individual relations with the internet itself. So the way that the internet both tracks us and the way that we use it to search for other things.

WERTHEIMER: So this is sort of a new path or a new direction for literature and fiction - the - creating narratives on social media, as we perhaps used to do in novels and stories?

SUDJIC: I guess I wanted to sort of explore a form of storytelling that could compete or co-exist with this supposed, you know, death of publishing, death of the novel, which is obviously always being - you know, there's so much doom and gloom about that. I think, actually, at one point, Mizuko, who is a writer, says, oh, there's no point anymore in being a writer and writing novels because, you know, the internet kills every plot. You can just find out exactly what you want to know straight away. Alice responds that, actually, maybe it's more like a game of chess where you know everything or you can know everything, but the trouble is knowing what your opponent plans to do next. So it's sort of about how we can know everything, but we still have to choose. And we still have to try and predict what those moves might be amongst, you know, the possibilities.

WERTHEIMER: I would be interested in how you think this affects plot. Your own plot swoops and swerves from walking around New York City, going out to Roosevelt Island and so on. And then - and then you're talking about the Higgs boson and a discarded supercollider in Texas.

SUDJIC: Yeah, it's hard to follow. I think that as much as I'm sure a part of it was because this is my first novel, and I know that everyone sort of tries to write every book with their first novel, it wasn't entirely an accident, I promise. I think what I was trying to do - or I know what I was trying to do - was to mimic the way that we get led astray by the internet and how, for example, whilst you can be reading a very serious story on the news about Syria, a sofa that you looked at a year ago but didn't buy will pop up. And the way that these algorithms nudge us away maybe from where we wanted to get to when we first opened our, you know - or clicked onto a website. That kind of looping path was - obviously, I took a gamble that people would want to follow me on it.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you said that your narrator is an unreliable narrator who obviously leads us down some kind of rabbit hole - Alice Hare - but at the end, is it the reader who is unreliable?

SUDJIC: Well, so the thing about the way that she's writing this is she's writing into the void. And so she addresses herself to a huge range of people who might be listening, who might be on the other end. And I do think that in the end, it means that a reader might come away from this feeling sort of perhaps resentful or cheated somehow out of a kind of nice, neat ending. I sort of hoped a reader might go back over certain bits and think, well, she faked this at one point, so maybe - does she do that again? - et cetera. I wanted the reader to feel like they had to kind of rake over certain parts. I feel like maybe I'm asking quite a lot from someone who just wants to go on holiday.

WERTHEIMER: The book is called "Sympathy." Olivia Sudjic. thank you.

SUDJIC: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.