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12 June 2024

Honor Levy’s journey to the centre of the internet

My First Book is an endearing attempt to capture the chaos and cringe of Gen Z life.

By Finn McRedmond

Generation Z, so we are told by a certain contingent, are entitled and nihilistic brats. They are so consumed by irony and so deathly afraid of sincerity they will never produce anything of real value. This is a prevailing picture of the young: poisoned cynics destroying the shibboleths our world has long functioned on. They are immiserating the cultural landscape, too. The source of all this rancour? The internet, duh!

Honor Levy’s debut work of fiction is unlikely to disabuse readers of such notions. In My First Book the Californian writer rattles through unconnected stories about young people at breakneck speed: their lives online and offline, how the internet has infected and coloured everything they think, say and do. It is messy, ill-disciplined and uninterested in presenting today’s youth as model citizens. Critics have been wondering for some time now where the great internet fiction is. Here, at least, is an attempt.

My First Book is disagreeable. Levy complains that “everyone is being diagnosed with autism these days”; she wrestles aloud with the social propriety of making rape jokes; she suggests one of her characters could dig a hole to China “to save the Uyghurs”. Levy is at once painfully aware and totally dismissive of the woke milieu cultivated by her millennial forebears. If this makes her sound like a cynical brat, then perhaps this is a fair critique of Generation Z after all.

But I don’t think the book shows its author to be a nihilist. In fact, Levy is completely endearing as the ventriloquist of her generation. Within the admittedly bitter pith of her fiction there is a searing earnestness; a longing to understand the world and her place in it; a very real and slightly wounded heart. Sincerity is the soul of My First Book.

She writes, for example, that identity politics is “cringe”. But beneath this flippant dismissal there is a tangible upset. What she really means, it seems, is that identity politics has left the world in an angry and unhelpful place, one that was extremely confusing to come of age into (Levy is 26). Her lack of interest in kowtowing to politically correct linguistic norms emerges from a similar place. Levy sees the world handed to her and her peers by millennials and cannot conceal a sense that she has been awfully let down.

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For all its depth, though, My First Book is also replete with platitude that doesn’t even bother to masquerade as insight: “Humans crave labels. It makes us feel safe”; “I read a little Marx so I know that it is class that divides us and that capitalism will up and appropriate and commodify.” She quotes Pierre Bonnard in a manner that makes me think the book has absolutely no intellectual hinterland. It’s an impudent device, as if Levy is standing with a megaphone shouting, “You think we’re shallow? I’ll show you shallow.”

Many of the stories comprise a series of staccato sentences with no apparent linking thesis. A sceptic could call this lazy. It is certainly evidence of a writer who is unafraid to reveal a lack of technical skill. But this is precisely how information is conveyed in cyberspace: a series of short text messages sent in quick succession; a flurry of videos on a TikTok timeline, aesthetically and tonally unconnected. My First Book is like an endless series of notification pings. The prose is as wearying as doom scrolling any Twitter feed – which is to say, extremely so. But we can’t hate an internet fiction for sounding exactly like the internet. Otherwise we risk being like one of William F Buckley’s men who stand “athwart history”, begging it to stop.

Fiction is still grappling with the web: how to capture such an amorphous entity in prose? Sally Rooney’s attempt at email dialogue in Beautiful World, Where Are You was clunky and self-involved. Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts grasped a few truths about life online but was ultimately too diffuse to function as an internet novel. The internet’s changeability creates an occupational hazard with attempting to codify it in literature. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, for example, uses memes and slang in a way that unmistakably dates it to 2021.

My First Book is no exception to this – but perhaps it has cracked something nonetheless. It is a book about the internet imbued with the soul of the internet: chaotic, cringe, mimetic, of the moment. The spiritual opposite of a timeless classic.

My First Book
Honor Levy
Granta, 224pp, £12.99

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[See also: The insular world of Rachel Cusk]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency