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My First Book by Honor Levy; Brat: A Ghost Story by Gabriel Smith reviews – audacious darlings of the digital age

My First Book by Honor Levy; Brat: A Ghost Story by Gabriel Smith reviews – audacious darlings of the digital age

Although the internet-driven “alt lit” scene that sprang up in the US in the 00s never really caught on in the UK – its best-known figure is Tao Lin (Taipei, Shoplifting from American Apparel) – it quickly accrued a certain kind of insurgent glamour, its unkempt aesthetic thrillingly indifferent to prim metrics of poetry and empathy. Many of the scene’s canonical titles – Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life?, Megan Boyle’s Liveblog – came courtesy of the taste-making US indie publisher Tyrant, whose founder, Giancarlo DiTrapano, died in 2021 just as he was about to publish a new breed of punky proteges, among them Sean Thor Conroe (Fuccboi), Gabriel Smith and Honor Levy, who caught DiTrapano’s eye – the story goes – when she tweeted that she was writing a book for him; she wasn’t.

Levy’s debut collection, My First Book, is the fruit of that chutzpah: a jittery sifting of post-Trump digital flotsam, crackling with Xanax-numbed shock value (“When I was 12 I watched beheadings before dinner”) and the casual bad-taste humour of an online shit-poster: someone here snorts so much amphetamine they “could dig a hole to China and save the Uyghurs”, while more than one narrator refers to images of death camp prisoners as “thinspo”.

These aren’t stories so much as an attitude: Levy’s speakers wear their privilege tauntingly slack, which isn’t always unfunny (“When I grow up I’ll control the media or the banks, but first I’ll study comparative literature or new media or Nietzsche like my brother did at NYU”). Somehow, the hyper-adrenalised staccato and pitch-dark cynicism generates moments of real feeling: in Love Story – a sort of Zoomer On Chesil Beach counterpointing the thoughts of an unnamed guy and girl during a message-fuelled flirtation – we’re crushed when the male character ruthlessly “leaves her on read”, toying with her emotions (“Sorry for the late reply I was away from my keyboard”).

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Levy has predictably been hailed as the voice of a generation, and her taste for explanatory footnotes seems all too ready to embrace that tag; one item unfolds as a glossary of internet terms. But there’s a sense, too, that her narrators don’t want to be an authority on anything. When one story opens by not knowing whether to use “began” or “begun” (“There was no way to check anymore. No one to ask”), it’s a joke – yet for all the swagger, the moment poignantly sums up this ragbag collection’s equivocal take on the predicament of being left to your own devices, a cause for mourning as much as merriment.

Gabriel Smith, too, knows the value of audacity. He recently made headlines after posting online that the singer Charli XCX asked to use the title of his haunted house debut, Brat, for her new album, when she obviously hadn’t (classic alt-lit shenanigans). Like Levy, he’s got Bret Easton Ellis in his DNA, but his key text is the hall-of-mirrors horror, Lunar Park, not the dead-eyed disillusionment of Less Than Zero.

Gabriel Smith: ‘stories-within-stories’View image in fullscreen

Brat follows a blocked young author – Gabriel, of course – who moves back into his family home, alone, to oversee its sale after the death of his father. Then things go bump in the night. His skin starts flaking uncontrollably, he’s plagued by nightmares, and while rooting around in the house, he discovers a home video and an unpublished manuscript, each portraying events from his life in sinister ways; and almost as troublingly, his girlfriend has just become a viral sensation with a short story about an oligarch who gets his kicks ejaculating on art.

Peel away the adversarial trappings and spooky meta styling and there’s a moving coming-of-age family story here: by far the most engaging sections are the irregular outbreaks of phone dialogue between Gabriel and his older brother, a financially overstretched surgeon whose livelihood depends on selling the house (not helped by Gabriel’s decision to attack the estate agent who comes to value it).

While we’re never sure whether what we’re reading is merely a grief-fuelled hallucination, there’s also the nagging sense that such questions represent a feint on Smith’s part. As the knot tightens, the ghoulish body horror and endlessly recursive stories-within-stories come to seem a kind of procrastinatory defence mechanism against the possibility of genuine emotion. Like My First Book (also dedicated to DiTrapano), it sometimes feels like it’s been put into the world before quite being ready, but Smith definitely has something; and his next novel, already announced, is called The Complete, which sounds like a promise.

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

Source: theguardian.com