Book Review: My First Book // Honor Levy

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The twenty-six-year-old writer Honor Levy is controversial. Some have dubbed her, somewhat predictably, the “voice of her generation”. Others have dismissed her as privileged and self-involved. But she’s made a mark on the US literary scene regardless, despite being barely out of college. My First Book is her highly anticipated first collection, the title evoking both the bold self-assurance and child-like vulnerability that is a hallmark of her writing. 

The collection is a series of short stories offering a snapshot of the lives of Gen Z—the first generation to grow up on the internet. They tick off many of the archetypal Gen Z experiences: navigating romantic relationships online, cancel culture, identity politics, climate anxiety. On the surface, nothing Levy addresses seems ground-breakingly new. Cancel culture and identity politics feel like hackneyed topics, and Levy’s Chronically Online characters appear to uphold prevailing stereotypes of Gen Z. 

Yet, Levy successfully captures the essence of a generation whose formative years haven’t just been shaped by the internet but configured and filtered through it. Beneath the stereotypes, she reveals a generation grappling with being exposed to too much too young, feeling lost in an increasingly connected world, and struggling to find meaning and identity in a hyper-performative, social media warped reality. 

‘Internet Girl’ is a coming-of-age story – the online version – in which Levy charts her obsession with the internet from the age of eleven. Freed from parental controls, Levy dives into this new world and absorbs it all. Before long she discovers chat rooms, and in one chilling memory recalls playing a “dress-down” game with a man who gives her points for taking pictures of herself naked. Afterwards, she does not feel guilty or wrong, but is filled with a feeling of specialness: “I wondered if he understood that I found pleasure in winning, that I was the best.” 

Now, at the age of twenty-one, she laments how the internet has gone from a place to escape to, to a place we can’t escape from. The thrilling universe she basked in as a child has gone— and there’s no going back. If she’d known what that world would turn into, would she still have entered? 

In ‘Love Story’, Levy depicts the twisted way that Gen Z falls in love online. She writes almost entirely in internet slang, a lexicon of memes, GIFs and neologisms that will only be decipherable to those who are Extremely Online. Capturing on paper the non-linear and associative way we consume content online is no easy task, but Levy’s attempt is impressive. Through her choppy, jumbled sentences, we’re shown inside an internet-rotted brain in real-time, in which thoughts are memes and memes are thoughts, and where reality and unreality are completely fused. 

In the opening paragraph, she describes the lovers’ first ‘meet’: “He was giving knight errant, organ-meat eater, By-ronic hero, Haplogroup R lb. She was giving damsel in distress, pill-popper pixie dream girl, Haplogroup K.” Their digital romance blooms, then falters when he leaves her nudes on ‘read’. As she plunges into a spiral of existential dissociation and self-loathing, he flies into an internal fit of misogynistic wrath. Eventually, he responds: “Sorry for the late reply. I was away from my keyboard.”

Levy’s deep cynicism of woke culture and identity politics is palpable. She rails against her generation’s compulsion to adhere to labels and causes, which she finds as “cringe” and she does hollow. Her characters are frequently offensive—a far cry from the politically correct virtue signallers that Gen Z are portrayed to be. In ‘At the Party’ her female character is rebuked by her peers for making rape jokes. Later, she indulges in the conservative narrative that woke culture has gone too far, declaring that “everyone is being diagnosed with autism these days”. 

Yet the cynicism and moral apathy of Levy and her characters shouldn’t be taken at face value. At the heart of it all, they are contending with the reality that wokeism has failed to make the world a kinder and less painful place to exist. Levy argues it has only obscured society’s evil. Cancel culture and #MeToo haven’t stopped women being raped—they’ve only stopped people making rape jokes. 

On a personal level, she is grappling with the confusion of working out who she is in an age where she can identify as anything and everything. In each story, she’s asking herself over and over: Who am I? What does it all mean?  

Like Levy herself, My First Book is a book you’ll either love or hate—or love and hate at the same time. It’s provocative and disagreeable and projects an overwhelmingly pessimistic view of how the internet has changed society and seeped into our offline selves. But, whether you agree with her or not, it goes a long way to contextualizing Gen Z in a way that profoundly resonates, and is sometimes genuinely moving.

Words by Rachel Fergusson

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