My First Book by Honor Levy review – extremely online

“My rules for our world weren’t followed.” Thus laments Honor Levy, NYC lit scene enfant terrible, in her debut short story collection, My First Book. Levy’s legislative longing becomes a kind of refrain, revisited and reconstructed throughout the book’s vignettes. These index the worries and fixations of an extremely online young person (Levy is 26): internet love, cancel culture, apocalypse, techno-dystopia, the merits of identity politics, the hatred of identity politics, the increasingly indistinct and inaccessible real life. With each dispatch, Levy’s stand-ins contend with this battering frustration: there are, Levy is sure, rules for life; but no one follows hers, and she can’t figure out theirs. How is she supposed to play?

Levy’s business is dowsing for truth in a frantic modernity, where sensations once bodily and sufferable, like love and longing, are filtered away into digital sediment and inscrutable signifiers. The collection’s first piece, Love Story, is a peek at an online romance between a feral young woman (Levy describes her inhabiting a number of animal states, among them “mouse mode” and “rotting fox”) and a young man torn between the vexed humours of internet masculinity (“kamikaze mode”, “chill sigma”, “xenoestrogenic alienation”). For Levy, narration is an inter­dimensional road map, winding through space and time, combining as signposts her two decades of encyclopedic meme knowledge interspersed with curveball references to antiquity. “She’d be his cat-girl gf, his tradwife,” she writes. Later, “he was Pyramus. She was Thisbe.” But there’s no crack in the wall here, and really there are no walls – these lovers’ containment is digital. They sit alone at their computers, decomposing and calling to each other through the wormhole of the internet.

Sometimes, though, things are too topsy-turvy for Ovidian analogues. In Do It Coward, Levy finds salvation – maybe even God – in a Chinatown arcade. The “story” is a moment: Levy, or her narrator, stands in the middle of this “holy and historic place”, once a penny arcade in the 1940s, now, like everything else in Levy’s world, stuffed with blinking lights and screens. She becomes overwhelmed by our manic associative hyper-reality, its psychic weight: “Everything always happens again and again and then again stops too,” she says. And what can we do? How can we slow the tilt-a-whirl enough to unblur our surroundings? Can we ever get off the ride?

Levy writes in her own referential language, a lightspeed style that must be post-post-post modern. The lexicon of memes is important to Levy (though perhaps less so to any reader over, say, 28), so significant that she spends the longest section of her book explaining it to us. Z Was for Zoomer is Levy’s dictionary of online slang; an ABC of neologisms from the internet’s collective consciousness, often illustrated with the author’s personal experiences.”, but as a true historian of the web, Levy further fleshes out several concepts.

She tells us that “fail” is not only a superordinate of “falling”, “breaking”, “slipping” and “accidentally punching”, but also a quaint reminder of a time “before each of us who grew up on the internet filled our squishy, spongy brains with hyper-specific signifiers”. NERF, the toy gun company, stands for “non-expanding recreational foam”. Levy explains that to “nerf” is now a verb, to “weaken or make less dangerous”, a way of evening out the game. “A prevailing theory is that if we want to play fair, we should nerf rich white men,” writes Levy, but she has her doubts.

I am 24 and have spent plenty of time online, enough to know what Levy is referencing when she writes that “fat bugs bunny is named Big ChungusHer language system finds good use describing existential confusion; it’s a strange language for a strange epoch. Levy needs these words to tell us what it’s like to be on so much Adderall your head might explode, or to realise that your entire social circle have become personae non gratae. Nerfed.

Hall of Mirrors, the collection’s best story, ends with a thoughtful soliloquy. As Levy’s narrator walks back to her university after a day of volunteering with impoverished primary school kids, she wonders why things are the way they are. Why has her life been so easy while other lives are so hard? Why don’t our leaders protect us from starvation and poisoning? (Levy, always self-conscious, excuses the banality of her questions with another question: “Why did I have to write a sentence so on the nose?”) She concludes: “Breaking the rules is the only hope we have.” It’s a singular sentiment from a writer who is preoccupied with structure, who seeks solidity. But perhaps Levy believes these longings are parallel, not perpendicular. To be free, to break the rules, first we all have to know them.

skip past newsletter promotion

My First Book by Honor Levy is published on 23 May by Granta (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

The Guardian

Leave a Reply