Shifting Sympathy

Book Review

Sometimes a novel is almost too good—I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Süskind’s Perfume, Nabokov’s Lolita—“almost too good” because, do you really want to understand and empathize with murderers and with a pedophile? I’m also thinking of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, in which you are not only the reader but also The Reader, a character of sorts in the author’s deftly played game in which you’re seeking the perfect story—of course you are; the storyteller’s got you pegged there—and you are just on the point of finding it, time and time again, through a series of compelling story beginnings, each of which is its own distinct and well-executed genre, only to realize that your seeking the perfect story to fall in love with is only synecdoche: you are seeking the perfect love, more generally—of course you are; who isn’t?—and there you are, you realize as you read, just a character in a story, despite the depth of your feelings, despite how compelling was each story (whether on the page or in your own life, what’s the difference after reading Calvino’s novel?).

Olivia Sudjic’s debut novel, Sympathy, is one of those rare novels that is almost too good. It turns out that, yes, this reader for one wants to understand and empathize with murderers and pedophiles and all sorts of different persons—it is one of my primary reasons for reading fiction, in fact, as fiction provides one of my hopes for a world that is too often divided by persons who don’t understand each other: octogenarians and 18-year olds; Trump supporters and Trump resisters; violent religious extremists and quiet secular pacifists. If we could understand and empathize with each other than perhaps we wouldn’t hate each other and we wouldn’t hurt each other. Sudjic’s novel, to this end, has broadened my world and deepened my understanding by helping me empathize with new characters.

Of course it can be disturbing to read good insightful novels that help you empathize with murderers or pedophiles or other folks with whom you would rather not associate. For me, a late-30s late-adopter of technologies, one of those stereotyped demographics from whom I would prefer to keep a healthy morally-superior distance is the group referred to by Sudjic’s character Mizuko as “digital natives:” those who are addicted to their “smart” devices and who see the world through frames imposed by social media platforms.

Unlike If on a winter’s night, Sympathy is not written in second person, and thus as you read it you are not directly implicated or exposed. Instead, you are a voyeur, like in Crime and Punishment, Perfume, and Lolita. One primary difference in Sudjic’s novel is that you’re a voyeur in contemporary New York, a world in which there is the potential for a lot more of characters’ lives to be made public (via Internet and social media) than in the worlds of those other great novels. In Sympathy, you read the musings and confessions and logistical gymnastics of a recent college graduate (Alice), who, like her namesake in Wonderland, is a bit sleepy, a bit dreamy, and a bit lost. In a rabbit-hole journey of an attempt to understand and/or create her own life story, she becomes infatuated with a writer-professor-Instagrammer (Mizuko) with whom she shares some uncanny biographical details.   Alice’s infatuation leads her to engage with Mizuko disingenuously to an extreme level that has only been made possible in the last few years. In Alice’s contemporary obsession with Mizuko, all that Alice knows (or thinks she knows, and pretends she knows) about Mizuko is what has been shared about Mizuko online, all of which is immediately accessible and retrievable on “smart” devices, such that Alice can look up information on her phone in her lap at a restaurant in the middle of a conversation, then claim shared interests and familiar knowledge about data that has only been downloaded moments before.

Following Alice’s relationship with Mizuko as it is perpetually mediated through so-called “social media” platforms is like following hyper-links on an Internet search, and although readers immediately get information, they can’t immediately know which pages they can trust. Normally, readers would be inclined to empathize with their narrator, but even with lying, lost Alice? She behaves in troubling ways, as does the object of her obsession, and where does this leave us, the voyeuristic readers in this contemporary tale of self-discovery, self-creation, and self-erasure? That is where Sudjic has opened up a new window into World Wide Web-era fiction because, like other almost-too-good novels, readers will empathize with troubling characters, but, unlike other novels, that is not Sudjic’s main game. As the title reveals, this novel is more about sympathy than empathy. And perhaps this is Sudjic’s commentary on the contemporary world. Can you really understand someone to the point of empathizing with them by following their Instagram feed, or is this merely sympathy, a quick judgment, a separation between viewer and viewed? I see you have snapped and posted a photo of your napping cat, and the accompanying emoji suggests that you are crying and laughing about it; I think you’re amused, and although I don’t understand why, I can be amused with you (shared feeling with someone = sym-pathy) if that is what the moment calls for.

However, by manipulating readers’ changing sympathies through the course of this fantastic four-hundred-page novel, Sudjic achieves the same effect as empathy: broadening our worlds and deepening our understanding. When Alice lies to Mizuko I sympathize with Mizuko, but when Mizuko abandons Alice I sympathize with Alice. Likewise, in the mother-daughter relationships of the novel there are times when I sympathize with the daughters and times when I sympathize with the mothers. As readers, when we watch our sympathies shift, and when the author repeatedly reveals the frames of our mediated information, we can’t help but empathize: we are in the same position as the characters: looking for a good story that answers our questions; looking for love that makes us feel whole; looking to figure out who we are. Sudjic deftly reveals and conceals information, and compels us to follow the anxious rabbit (narrator Alice Hare is, interestingly, both Alice and the Hare of Wonderland) moment by moment in her troubling adventure. Like in If on a winter’s night, with each new piece of the narrative I think I might have found what I’m looking for, but Sudjic shows that, even in an era when we seem to have access to infinite information at our fingertips, we never get the full story, and we have to keep reading for better understanding.