Honor Levy's 'My First Book' short stories review Social media discourse and the inevitable backlash aside, the 26-year-old writer's first book is an amusing, if uneven, take on growing up white, privileged, and Gen Z.

Review

Books

What are 'the kids' thinking these days? Honor Levy aims to tell in 'My First Book'

Penguin Press
Cover of My First Book
Penguin Press

What are the kids thinking these days? That seems be to the question behind the publication of My First Book, the buzzy debut story collection by Honor Levy.

The 26-year-old writer was the subject of a viral profile in The Cut, earlier this month, in which she described the praise she received for her story "Good Boys" on The New Yorker website as "not undeserved" and demurred when asked whether she's the voice of her generation. Social media discourse and the inevitable backlash aside, Levy's first book is an amusing, if uneven, take on growing up white, privileged, and Gen Z, the first generation to completely be born after the existence of the internet.

Readers won't find meticulously plotted story arcs, fleshed-out characters, emotional epiphanies, or any other earmarks of conventional literary fiction. Most of Levy's stories run fewer than 12 pages and feel like very long flash fiction, written in a voice dense with the chaotic patois of the internet. In her strongest stories, Levy channels the blitzkrieg of contradictory micro-observations we absorb from social media, video games, and doomscrolling to create the absurd, incomprehensible cacophony that anyone born after 1997 had to grow up enduring. These stories seem to ask: How can anyone expect a well-adjusted adult to rise from all this noise?

In "Internet Girl," the main character is 11 and very online, and Levy's portrayal of her narrator's interiority is both compellingly satirical and frighteningly plausible. She writes:

"It's 2008, and my dad gets laid off and everything is happening all at once. All at once, there are two girls and one cup and planes hitting towers and a webcam looking at me and me smiling into it and a man and a boy and a love and a stranger on the other end. All at once, there are a million videos to watch and a million more to make. All at once it's all at once. It's beginning and ending all at once all the time. I'm twenty-one. I'm eleven. I'm on the internet. I'm twenty-one."

Another strong piece is "Love Story," the collection's opener, which is about a boy and a girl having an online relationship that seems to consist entirely of texting and sending pics of their bodies to each other. Levy poignantly captures the girl's vulnerability. "Little girl lost can't even find herself," Levy writes. "Pictures of her naked body are out there everywhere, in the cloud floating, and under the sea, coursing through cables in the dark. It's so dark."

Levy smartly skewers late capitalism in "Halloween Forever," about a young woman trying to survive a surreal and drug-filled Halloween night in Brooklyn. She meets a "boy from Stanford dressed as a cowboy," who, when sufficiently coked-up, muses about the romance of the Wild West and how "The West was freedom...just like the internet originally was!" The narrator is skeptical:

"Freedom is the stuff of dreams and nightmares only and our free market doesn't make us free people, but the cowboy doesn't care. Silicon Valley must have burrowed itself deep into his brain underneath that hat. He is probably afraid of blood, or social media, or something stupid. My drink is seventeen dollars."

As the collection progresses, the unique blend of the satirical and the poignant gives way to a more essayistic approach to storytelling. In "Cancel Me," which is about cancel culture, the characters — a young woman and two "Ivy League boys with kitten-sharp teeth and Accutane-skin," all of whom have experienced cancellation for murky reasons — gradually fade into a series of observations about wokeness that aren't much different or more insightful than what one might find on X or Reddit.

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"Z Was For Zoomer," which runs more than 50 pages, seems to be a continuation of "Cancel Me," except the two male "edgelords" — someone on an internet forum who deliberately posts about controversial or taboo topics to appear edgy — are named Gideon and Ivan instead of Jack and Roger. Just as in "Cancel Me," the narrator's relationship with the men is never defined and doesn't progress. Character-driven narrative takes a back seat to dashed-off, inch-deep lines like "Identity is a Swedish prison, comfortable but you still can't leave."

It should also be mentioned that these stories won't pass the most permissive of racial Bechdel tests. The number of non-white references in this 200-page book won't go past one hand, unless you count the few references to anime and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West. The milieu of Honor Levy's fiction is undeniably white and privileged, but her best stories exaggerate that milieu to great satirical effect. Perhaps her second book will contain more of them.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, including the latest No Good Very Bad Asian. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets.

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