Olivia Sudjic’s engrossing debut novel, Sympathy, explores how technology dissolves personal boundaries. Alice, recently moved from London to New York, becomes obsessed with author Mizuko Himura. Physical, emotional, and digital boundaries are tested and broken as Alice struggles to replicate her close connection with Mizuko’s social media persona in her organic relationship with the real Mizuko. Sudjic picks some of her favorite books about obsession and love.
I’m often less interested in books about reciprocal love than its edgier sister, longing. Longing does not require the feeling to be mutual, or even for the longed-for to know of their admirer’s existence. It does nothing to satisfy a hunger but sharpens it. The books listed below turn the narrative of longing into a kind of exorcism, an attempt to free the mind by committing the object of infatuation to paper. Writers themselves are prone to obsessive tendencies, creating intense attachments to their fictional characters. When I was in the middle of writing my novel, it felt like the most intensely one-sided relationship I’d ever had.
1. The End of the Story by Lydia Davis
The narrator of this novel makes no claim to anything unique about herself, her obsession, or its object. It is presented almost as an accident that the speaker falls for the man she does, who is left nameless. Davis applies her forensic attention and wry humor to what the mind does when it refuses to let go, and how one might try to prize someone from its grip. It is told in retrospect, with a kind of detachment that suggests not cauterization so much as bemusement at the person the speaker used to be, stubbornly stalking this unremarkable man, finally replacing him with a book: “I didn’t have him, but I had this writing, and he could not take it away from me.” The story is told in order to estrange, to bring the obsession to a close. To read it during heartbreak is a precise and mathematical kind of healing.
2. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Memoir, poem, lyric essay, or 240 fragments of prose, fact, and quotation that build, lattice-like, contemptuous of genre, a sensation of being inside Nelson’s head. A place that is occupied with loss of love and the color blue. I’m interested in how heartbroken storytellers find a substitute audience to address in the loved one’s place, when other lines of communication have been shut down. “Perhaps it is becoming clearer,” Nelson states near the end, “why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman […] I wrote it because I had something to say to you.” If you’re lovelorn, this book is so slim and weightless that there’s no reason for it not to be with you always.
3. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
This book came out in 1997 and grew its devotees, cult-like, until it was reprinted in 2015, blew up, and became a TV series which I’m not sure about. It blurs all lines between fiction, essay, and memoir, and a few others along the way. Chris, the artist at the center of the book, falls inexplicably in love with Dick (a “transitional object”) the first time they meet. She and her husband (older, more successful) write letters to Dick as a kind of therapy, temporarily reigniting desire in their sexless marriage (“finally inhabiting the same space at the same time”). Then, when they start to send the (unanswered) letters, it is reframed as an art-project. Gradually, it becomes a vehicle for Chris’s liberation and catalyst for her own philosophy on art, love, and being female.
4. Beloved by Toni Morrison
This needs no introduction, least of all by me, but for the uninitiated: Margaret Garner is the runaway slave who inspired Morrison, murdering her own child rather than letting it be captured. Morrison then fictionalizes this real-life story, the history and legacy of slavery, by immediately fixing the reader within a world where ghosts concretely exist. The unimaginable, inhuman horrors of slavery make ghosts seem inevitable. I am in awe of the complexity of Morrison’s characterization, the fierceness of the love described, and her sympathetic treatment of the demonic. When Amy, a poor white woman, helps a pregnant Sethe escape on feet so damaged as to lose all feeling, Morrison writes: “Then she did the magic: lifted Sethe’s feet and legs and massaged them until she cried salt tears. 'It’s gonna hurt, now,' said Amy. 'Anything dead coming back to life hurts.'”
5. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides does dark humor brilliantly, and his Greek chorus of infatuated boys turned grown men perfectly frame the story from a distance (the best place for all infatuations to arise) without intruding on it. Their obsession and subsequent documentation of the girls is based not on intimacy but the ephemera of female adolescence and local myth. The result is that the girls become larger than life, iconic as the laminated Virgin Mary Cecilia clings to having slit her wrists. The boys fill in some of the gaps in their knowledge using their imagination, aware that, though devoted, they are not quite up to the task. The mystery of female subjectivity they stand outside, trying to peer into, extends far beyond the parts they have salvaged.
6. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Another literary Dick that becomes the object of infatuation (Chris does mention Dickie Greenleaf in one of her I Love Dick letters), but this time as the product of homosexual desire. Tom Ripley is the amoral protagonist of five Highsmith novels, often diagnosed online by fans as suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. The brief, intense attention of Dickie makes Tom feel like a somebody, but Tom’s desire for Dickie is not returned. “Anticipation! It occurred to him that his anticipation was more pleasant to him than the experiencing.” Tom’s fetishization of Dickie causes him to withdraw from Tom. Tormented by Dickie’s silence, Tom kills him and steals Dickie’s identity. Highsmith is excellent on paranoia and this means Dickie’s murder (which Tom convinces others to be suicide) sets in motion a psychological exploration of longing and guilt.
7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I first read Lolita at 13, in the same way I listened to Nirvana’s Nevermind, or wore clip-on ear studs at that age: self-consciously. This meant I missed the humor in it, the sadness, and much else besides. I reread it more recently and this time laughed aloud at Humbert’s machinations, the elaborate dance he orchestrates in order to claim his prize. I didn’t skip the less sexy parts, in the epilogue Nabokov talks of the genesis of Lolita as a “throb.” A throb committed first to a short story, which he then destroyed, a throb which persisted until it grew into a novel, one which he also considered destroying many times, but “stopped by the thought that the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life.” He could, of course, be describing Humbert’s infatuation. The book, and Nabokov’s nymphet, which scandalized so many on publication, is now a part of our culture, even if many have never read it.
8. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
I read an interview with Moshfegh before I’d heard of her, in which she took aim at people who wanted answers for how and why she wrote such an unlikable character (which, when Trump is electable, seems a moot point) and hit back at the idea that her protagonist, Eileen, is some kind of freak or monster. That alone made me want to read Eileen. I did so after I finished Sympathy, and was both pleased and alarmed to find a line almost identical to something I’d written in my book. It was eerie to read, but then Moshfegh and I examine a similar dynamic between women. Her book is about many things, mainly isolated women, longing, and imprisonment, but it is partially disguised as a thriller. If the reader meets it on its own terms, rather than the blurb’s, it grows into something excellent.