A Book Report in Four Shapes
Oval: Berlin Dystopia 3

Oval 3 Cover
© Soft Skull Press

How do you approach reading and thinking about a book that is, mysteriously, called Oval? I stared at the cover of Elvia Wilk’s Berlin novel, flipping it over as if I could crack open some prophecy from the purple egg shape illustration. Taking up the US author’s challenge, I followed form(s): looking for lines, triangles, rectangles, and ovals to reveal some of the book’s themes, from housing to sustainability to inequality. The symbology proved a suitable reading framework for the book’s ominous urban rumblings as well as familiar images of transient expat life in a 21st century “creative” city. Get the book from your library and retrace this four-part geometrically patterned book report or try your own “graphic” approach on your reading list. 

By Jutta Brendemuhl


In the near future, Berlin’s real estate is flipped in the name of “sustainability,” only to make the city even more unaffordable. Artists are employed by corporations as consultants, and the weather is acting strange. When Anja and her boyfriend Louis are offered a rent-free eco home on an artificial mountain, they seize the opportunity, but before long the experimental house begins malfunctioning.

Oval GIF animation
© Soft Skull Press
While Anja develops self-generating architectures, Louis has become obsessed with a secret project he believes to solve Berlin’s income inequality: a pill called Oval that temporarily rewires the user’s brain to be more generous. Oval is a fascinating portrait of the unbalanced relationships that shape our world, as well as a prescient warning of what the future may hold. (Soft Skull Press)

"Wilk's novel is like an ever-expanding sphere . . . It would be beautiful satire if it didn't ring so true." — NPR

Rectangles: Housing

“Even though the speaker was floating three feet above the floor as advertised, its Bluetooth connection had never worked, so they had to connect content-filled devices to it with a long black USB cable, which undermined the aesthetic effect... ‘Just another reason the past is prologue,’ said Laura, fumbling with the cord until a sound stuttered through.”

The house that Elvia Wilk’s Berlin protagonists inhabit is a not-so-smart box in “an assortment of experimental architecture clustered a thousand meters up the side of the Berg.”

Tempelhof Field, Berlin, 2016
© Samuel Zeller, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The house appears as anthropomorphic, self-generating, and even gendered. The protagonist couple, Anja and Louis, think of it as female, and its increasing malfunctions—sweating, indigestion, a tangible sense of irritable discomfort—seem to insinuate something like metabolic or hormonal change, or perhaps the wrath of a primordial nature goddess.

Inside and outside are dissonant in Oval, the housing situation is no exception: The house creates its own microclimate that sends Anja back up the Berg to get a jacket when she steps out. There’s always “a few house things” that weigh on the Berg’s inhabitants. As with other interventions in the Anthropocene, the development is a failure with a vengeance. Everyone knows it, but no one has the energy or impetus to do much about it, outside of developing apps and drugs.
© Immanuel Giel, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Before, Anja and Louis lived in a more traditional Berlin structure: the Schrebergarten, the small allotment gardens that often host a rough cabin and vegetable patches. Wilk delves deep into the urban history and meaning of the Schrebergarten, letting a bit of light or perhaps just retrospective utopia or nostalgia in. She describes the “urban farms, amounting to an ur-sustainable-living movement...[When] the war ended and the embargoes were lifted and the bombed-out city was temporarily left to its own devices, displaced people set up camp in the gardens. Sheds became homes. Temporary visitation became habitation...[after WWII]; city was once again an enormous expanse of empty real estate;…and the forebears of Anja and Louis started to show up. One by one each tiny garden and all its historical baggage became a sliver of private vacation property...By the time Anja arrived in the city, when rents everywhere inside the S-Ring were at an all-time high, the central Schrebergarten had all been renovated…, their miniature charm canonized into tiny overpriced rentals for urban getaway ‘experiences.’”
Oval 3 rectangle photo Jutta Brendemuhl
© Cover Soft Skull Press / drawing Jutta Brendemuhl
Next and finally, we get to the oval and a look at urban inequality.


Elvia Wilk

  • Master’s degree from the New School for Social Research, New York;
  • Recipient of an Andy Warhol Arts Writers Grant and a 2020 fellow at the Berggruen Institute run by German-American billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen to explore “Ideas for a Changing World;”
  • to be continued