‘I’ was for internet: My First Book by Honor Levy

In honour of the publication day of Honor Levy’s My First Book, a review by OLIVIA WACHOWIAK. 


Honor Levy’s My First Book is a debut long awaited: rumoured years ago on her popular, now-defunct podcast, Wet Brain. And it is high time mainstream publishing embraced writing which tackles online discourse in a way which feels accurate and natural, or rather, appropriately artificial; for the ‘Big I’ in ‘Internet’ to finally be dropped. It has been eight long years since ‘the Associated Press Stylebook changed internet to be spelled with a little i’, as the author herself, now 26, pointedly remarks.


Though, another ‘Big I’ finds its way into the book ad infinitum, a collection of what Levy calls ‘fake personal essays’ written with the ‘first-person-present mode activated’. The reader is confronted with a sort of adverse, faux-naif ‘confessionalism’: ‘Sometimes the personal is not political,’ we are told. Yet the events and experiences described are not quite socially irrelevant. True, Levy’s arguably unrelatable, enviable life might have informed the narrative: she grew up in LA and attended Bennington, before moving to New York City; she was positioned as a ‘next big thing’, affiliated with the so-called ‘Dimes Square’ literary scene and had her work published at just 21 by big names like The New Yorker and NY Tyrant. She repeatedly admits her privileges. For this and many other things, like writing ‘a sentence so on the nose’, she is ‘so, so sorry’, adopting a highly self-conscious, probably glib, apologetic pose. ‘A hot take won’t keep you warm at night’, she is aware.


What she is not, or should not be, sorry about is the self-indulgence of the ‘I’, for it is not a mere by-product of the first-person narrative voice. In her self-mythologising, it becomes reflective of zoomer hyper-individualism, manifesting itself perhaps most strikingly in the disingenuousness of their concern for ‘the oppressed’: ‘Do I care because caring feels good and I want to feel good?’. This self-absorption may be propelled by a desire to pinpoint one’s elusive, or maybe non-existent, essential identity: ‘Me! Me! Me! Me! Me! A word impossible to define’. The ‘I’ thus becomes equally as universal as ‘he/she/they’.


Consequently, the speaker ‘larps’ as countless avatars, enabled by the online spaces she occupies. She can be ominous, documenting the internet ‘Love Story’ of a girl ‘giving damsel in distress, pill-popper pixie dream’ and a guy ‘giving knight errant, organ meat eater, Byronic hero’, or into the mind of a ‘blue-pilled’ ‘beautiful boy’. She deploys the persona of a pick-me; a college girl; a victim of cancel culture, Adderall, preteen internet addiction, and baby fever… Once she is haunted by Sylvia Plath (‘although work sets you free, as it turns out, the ultimate freedom is death’); she later evokes Yeats, via Didion (‘Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, haven’t you heard’). She ‘shout[s] out’ John Milton for proliferating neologisms, with which she concerns herself in ‘Z Was for Zoomer’, a glossary of ‘words that briefly built a world [she] briefly lived in’ (including autism, cringe, quirk, and UwU). She also shouts out Kathy Acker, Ovid, Mark Fisher, The Bible, Twilight, and more. Yet her favourite reference remains herself, as is stylistically evident in persistent repetition and self-reflexivity.


Image source: Granta Books.

The latter also testifies to Levy’s participation in the continued literary attempt to make sense of the disparate semiotics in the contemporary, online, world: as the subsequent stories repeatedly reference each other, an illusion of connection breaks through its fragmented structure. From its limited means to satisfactorily articulate the internet zeitgeist, the book also enters a graphic dimension, making use of topical ASCII art, in-text emojis, and variations in font and typeface. Together with its saturation with irony, puns, utterly pleasing imagery, and hyper-online vernacular, the experience of reading My First Book resembles a satisfying scroll through TikTok.


This familiarity might feel comforting, but it is quickly rebuffed by a bluntness of language and hotness of takes only ‘edgelords’ will remain unmoved by. One mustn’t forget that this is, after all, fiction; the effect is largely manufactured, in line with the duality of Levy’s overall long-term vision: ‘We are the products of our time and soon our time will be a product of us. Isn’t that terrible? Isn’t that wonderful?’. Whatever the answer, Levy’s work can be expected to exceed its self-proclaimed ‘of the moment’ status in the current world, where time ‘has never moved faster than it is moving right now’—so accurately does it capture the online zeitgeist. No wonder the speculations of her status as a VOG (voice of a generation).


My First Book is released in the UK through Granta Books. Featured image courtesy of @thenovelistbyjordancastro.