Alice Hare, the main character in Olivia Sudjic’s novel Sympathy, is at a crossroads of sorts. Not one perhaps that involves the typical trepidations of a young woman leaving her home in England for the unknown urban jungle that is Manhattan. The crossroads here is one that blurs the lines between Alice’s real life and the one that lives solely in her imagination, which becomes dangerously close to the one that exists behind her computer screen.
Describing Alice as an outcast would be too easy. Discarded by her real parents, stuck in the middle of the dysfunctional marriage of her adoptive parents, Alice doesn’t have anyone to trust or confide in. Although she does travel to Japan, looking for something she can’t find, Alice finds herself without a place in the world, her sense of belonging completely nullified by a mother who doesn’t really know what to do with her. The only beacon Alice finds is her elderly adoptive grandmother Sylvia, who writes to her from New York City asking Alice to join her and serve as a related companion.
Alice’s first experience in New York is awkward at best. She arrives at Sylvia’s house, who seems to have forgotten Alice was coming and is intent on preserving her dead husband’s memory in the apartment at all costs. Alice is at odds with the city, not certain if she has any place there at all as the city moves on relentlessly without her.
Eventually she meets Dwight, a man who suffers from his own bouts of disassociation with reality, and who is for Alice more of a convenient way to lose her virginity. Sylvia’s friend Nat takes an initial shine to Alice, and invites her to join her daughter Ingrid and her husband Robin in their lavish penthouse while Sylvia is reluctantly taken to a rest home due to medical complications. Alice and Dwight are later invited by a reluctant Ingrid to join her, Robin and the children in the Hamptons, at the home of Robin’s debonair associate Walter, with whom Ingrid is seemingly having an affair.
What Alice experiences with Ingrid, Robin, their children, and Dwight who pops in for visits becomes even more complicated with the presence of Japanese writer Mizuko Himura whom Alice has decided is her “Internet twin” and emotional equal. Alice steadily develops an unhealthy fixation with Mizuko after meeting her at NYU and feigning a distant friendship with Mizuko’s boyfriend Rupert, submitting her to unrealistic standards of perfection when the truth is that Mizuko deals with powerful demons of her own.
As her life becomes more in tandem with the bustle of the city she inhabits, Alice’s relationship with Mizuko begins to unravel, becoming disjointed in its impossibility to subsist outside the realm of her fantasies. While Mizuko pulls gradually away from her, Alice desperately cyber-stalks her with messages written in angry caps: “WHERE ARE YOU?” “WHERE ARE YOU?” WHERE ARE YOU?” Mizuko refers to Alice as “Rabbit,” a rather obvious pun of her name, but it becomes clearer that the references to Alice in Wonderland at various points in the novel, is a parallelism of this Alice, falling down her own self-made rabbit hole.
I spoke to Olivia Sudjic about the inspiration for Sympathy and her views on obsessive relationships and technology.
How would you describe your writing process?
Weathering and erosion, sedimentation, cementation, carving. I need to add polishing next time.
Which authors have inspired your own work as a writer?
Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, Teju Cole, Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus, Ben Lerner, Miranda July.
Sympathy is an unusual title for a novel that has so many disturbing relationships. How did you decide on it?
It was the first thing I decided. It came about because the novel originally focused on a seventeenth century pseudo medicine/technology called “Sympathy Powder”, which I then updated to the internet. I decided to go ahead with that title when I realised it hadn’t already been taken as a single word, which seemed surprising.
There are several allusions to Alice in Wonderland in the novel, and your main character’s name is Alice Hare. Would you say your Alice has some common elements with Lewis Carroll’s Alice?
The allusions are mainly to Through the Looking Glass, which is a much more ordered world than the chaos of Wonderland. That’s where I took part of my epigraph from – a line about Alice wanting to be a pawn in the chess game, though nearly every time it’s mentioned in a review of write-up it’s attributed to Wonderland. I should have specified.
Like Carroll’s, my Alice wants to be a part of the chess game even if she doesn’t understand the rules, or really know whose moving her about the grid. She slips through a mirror into a world of reflection, moving about as a mirror-version of herself. She seems not to feel like she has much agency or much responsibility for what happens.
The relationship between Alice and Mizuko isn’t truly a relationship, but rather a struggle for the emotional and even psychological upper hand. Would you say this is accurate?
I would certainly agree it’s not an ideal relationship – neither really knows the other, and it is horribly imbalanced. And yes, Alice is trying to manipulate and control Mizuko. I don’t necessarily agree that this dynamic can’t be described as a relationship, unfortunately. Many relationships, whether between individuals, individuals and technology, or individuals and corporations, are like that.
Which character did you find the most challenging to write?
Robin. The husband/father in the family Alice is again transplanted to in New York. During the editing period, I was told I needed to signpost his evil/exploitative tendencies more clearly.
New York City is one more character in the novel, it seems to come alive in Alice’s descriptions of her life there. Would you say this is true?
I hope so. I saw New York as the motherboard. The chess board. The Instagram grid. Cities are places of connection, collision, isolation, atomization. Manipulating it either means a Robert Moses or a Jane Jacobs approach, and this drastically affects the characters who live there.
There was a Jane Jacobs quote I was influenced by while writing Sympathy – “The decay of cities … goes right down to what we think we want.” That rule – of opposites – is present in Through the Looking Glass. And it is present in Sympathy in the way that our manipulations, the technology we create, can achieve the opposite effect or environment to what we intended.
Is Sympathy a story of obsession or a reflection about misconceptions brought forth by technology and the Internet?
It’s about obsession. Superficially, between individuals. Beneath that, between individuals and the internet. In both directions. It’s about how the web, created in order to open up our world, enlarge our experience, free us from physical confines, barriers, and help individuals situate themselves within a larger whole, has begun to close in on us. Stalk us. Our experience narrows the more our web is “personalized”. The more corporations and governments exploit us online, the more we are in the crosshairs of a telescope turned back on us.