(REVIEW) overlove, by Geraldine Snell (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018)
In this review, Maria Sledmere explores the poetics of limerence, obsession, millennial friendship and the desire networks of social media via Geraldine Snell’s nonfiction novella, overlove (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018).
> There’s this ambient Yves Tumor track, ‘Limerence’, which moves through airy arpeggios and thunderstorms, all the while you hear a woman addressing her lover in bed, cajoling him to ‘Say something’, to speak back to the rolling camera. There’s the soft, drawn strings, the rolling synths, reminding me of a DVD menu screen, music that loops and promises options, the hesitant sense of a press or reset. Music that lulls so as to want your response. So much of what she says trails off into ellipsis: ‘As we get older and older and older…’. Limerence is a psychological state in which obsession and fantasy are born from a specific object of love or attraction, and the desire to have these euphoric feelings reciprocated. In the space of this song, you have a seemingly one-way dialogue, whose words nonetheless strongly evoke in the listener the presence of the silent, reticent lover. She can’t finish telling us, telling the camera, how long she’s been with her boyfriend for. We don’t get narrative closure. There’s a sadness to the song, when you think about the title, its implications of a one-way state of mind. But the sadness, the possible lack, is obviously part of its beauty and play. Since the song retains a quality of drift, it doesn’t quite feel for us; as listeners, we feel a little voyeuristic, accessing this intimate moment and just slipping out again.
> Maybe something of limerence is the impulse towards distraction itself, as much as the desire for some organising principle: if he loves me back, everything will fall into place; love will structure our reality at last, will bring us meaning. Yet limerence does not settle into stasis: it involves a sort of stammering of the central nervous system, a sense of temporal and physiologic interruption. Limerence is not love because limerence thrives on absence; it requires an opaque miasma of potentiality from which to construct the fantasised reciprocation. This is why social media is the ideal breeding ground for limerence, of course: it delivers a constantly refreshing metropolis of lived fragments, broken episodes, with which we might conjure our image of the ideal Other. The level of detail we go into with limerent obsessions would warrant, surely, a book. In fact, the whole work of limerence is a sort of speculative fiction, lust generated from conjecture. It’s how we rearrange reality from the skein of our dreams and carefully curated memories. As Alexandra Molotkow puts it:
Half the time I crush, what I want — or what I want to want — is not possession, but instead a respectful and completely unilateral relationship to the idea of someone else. I want to be let alone to contemplate, and to leave alone — to respect the difference between my interest and the unknown, or unknowable person it correlates to.
These are the ideal conditions in which Geraldine Snell’s book overlove (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018) came into being. The book’s epigraph, from Luce Irigaray, complicates Molotkow’s evocation of the crush as a question of respectful distances: ‘How many times must we give up the illusion of a perception of the other as other before getting to be able to meet this other?’. What constitutes, as Irigaray names it, ‘a real sharing?’. Perhaps half the time we crush, we crave the space of contemplation and obsession; the other half, we seek a state of prospective intimacy sufficiently intense to produce this genuine sharing. A sort of paralanguage where the aura, identity and expressions of the Other are spoken in the ana-state (up/behind/again) of limerent projection, which, among the easeful channels of social media, accelerates into obsession and desire for reciprocation. As Snell writes to her crush, ‘I kept imagining you in my day-to-day […] I imagine receiving an early harassment notice from the police, and sort of desire this as recognition that I have in some way influenced your actions’.
> Limerence is a state of interruption within the rhythms of the daily. It’s no coincidence that the object of Snell’s crushing obsession is a drummer. Curt lives, neatly, up to his name:for all the addresses to Curt, Curt himself says little back. He is a kind of glitch in Snell’s life that takes over, opens the possibility conditions for rearranging things. The point of overlove is an exercise in self-discovery, a thought experiment in how far we can go when pursuing the object of lust. Curt is in some sense a cipher, a supplement, rather than a love object: ‘I guess you could’ve been anyone’. The pleasure of Snell’s text, to borrow Barthes’ phrase, is its constant intimation of touch, experience, stimulation. Text becomes the interface through which we might conjure not only Curt himself, but more importantly the erogenous zones of the female gaze explored in writing. And to call it a gaze would be to forget how multisensory, how voracious this desire is. It is a veil, a drapery, a multiplicity of appetites that make up a relational interface that is more than skin, that is thick as text.
> Bodies touch bodies vicariously through text. When we scroll our socials, we assemble from the jumble of daily events a certain imaginary, itself the projection of desires already embedded in text and data. Take for instance a memorable moment from the novella’s opening, where Curt’s curt reply to Snell’s inquisitive, red herring drum pad enquiry (‘Super simple. Look up Roland spd-sx’) is met with all sorts of mental flourishings:
it’s a closed response with an icy tone, although in a split-second brimming with a thousand fleeting daydreams I read “sx” as in sex in the same way I fill in the gaps on license plates but NO: my soaring heart SINks but I need to keep that momentum going, this rush is too much a crutch, so I’ll write and write and write…
The voyeuristic pleasure in overlove is an addictive one: you read it with thirst, you want to know how far this will go. Overlove might mean the jouissance of overflow, sure, but it’s also this sense of distance, insouciance, to be over love. Or, to languish over love. These conditions as (im)possible states at the ‘end’ of writing. The joy in reading overlove is found in watching Snell make these over-intellectualised leaps. I think of Lorde in ‘The Louvre’, singing ‘I am your sweetheart psychopathic crush / Drink up your movements, still I can’t get enough / I overthink your punctuation use / Not my fault, just a thing that my mind do’. We’re in a cultural moment where it’s okay to admit that the mind reels sometimes, and the body wants what it wants, and maybe these wants rupture what patriarchy expects from female desire. Lorde owning her status as sweetheart psychopathic crush is pretty similar here to Snell’s self-professed angel craziness over Curt. We’re encouraged, as readers, to think of overlove as an intellectual exercise as much as a slice of salacious fantasy in the age of social media immediacy. Handily, Snell even provides a list of references at the back, which include The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory and The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other. I guess I’m far more convinced by this articulation of analytic lust than any ‘campus novel’ that I binged on alongside my undergrad reading list.
> Like Chris Kraus’ infamous I Love Dick (1997), the book’s most obvious intertext, overlove comprises a sequence of charged and obsessive letters, here written over a specific period in time (November – June) and taking place mostly between Snell’s native West Yorkshire and London, where Curt himself resides. Snell produced a series of mini-episodes to accompany the book’s publication, which extend the book’s visual universe: offering endearing and incisive meta-commentary on the project’s ethics and aesthetics, and also highlighting Snell’s compositional practice (bashing her heart out on the piano, composing a song for Curt). In short, this is a book that feels like a sensual archive as much as a nonfiction novella.
> I can think of many previous examples where a book has included digital media: Jennifer Egan’s twitter-posted serial short story, ‘Black Box’, or Ewan Morrison’s structurally ambiguous book of fiction and amateur ethnography, Tales from the Mall, which included a series of accompanying YouTube clips— to take two somewhat ‘dated’ examples from 2012. What I love about overlove is that the supplementary YouTube playlist is not so much about gimmick, extending the medium, working with productive constraints or advertising the print edition: it’s an art project in itself, an exercise in self-documentation, another place in which desire is disseminated. It’s clearly not just regular YouTuber confessionalism, but with all its impressionistic rendering, overlove borrows heartily from that genre. Moreover, with many of the shots filmed through a pinhole camera, the question of focalisation and detail is brought to the fore. We watch as Snell watches; the gaze proliferates. We enter the ‘text’ deeper, there’s a reaching out.
> But of course, in a state of desire, what we want is to skim, to pass freely, to reach across to the Other. To entertain the possibility of touch, to withhold just so, to think in the interval. I think of Derrida writing his ‘Envois’ in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud, a collection of supposedly lost love letters in which philosophy and the question of utterance and language itself is explored through this medium of intimate address: ‘I would like to write you so simply, so simply, so simply’. What is it to create the fold of a secret, to tell something true? In Without Mastery: Reading and Other Forces, Sarah Wood’s description of reading Derrida’s ‘Envois’ matches in some ways my experience of reading overlove:
I’m dying of reader’s pique. I’m lorn. There’s a small but exaggerated wound to my vanity. From the French I’m piqué: pricked, pierced, stung, irritated, stimulated, excited. I read, and the more I read this tremendous love, the more I read it’s not for me. I want it. I want a piece of that. Was there ever such a thing? How good it would be to be sure, to have it there in writing, the ultimate experience of anticipation that actually arrives, in person. And he’s not writing to me. How very irritating.
Devouring someone’s endless missives makes you think about your own positionality. Where am I situated; have I ever served, unwittingly, as someone else’s limerent obsession; who have I felt this way for before. Snell’s lively, chatty tone precludes us from thinking we’ve discovered her diaries: overlove feels too generous, too directive towards the Other, to fit in a simple journal category. It’s like she wants us to catch this lust. In its extremity, it’s as exhilarating as it is relatably exhausting. This is a study in self-expression and the possibility of communication, of what it might take to bridge that gap towards the Other, and then not care if it lands or not. Since we are forced, as readers, to occupy the position of the addressee, we have to confront the fact that we exist in lack. We are not Curt. Snell seems to anticipate this herself, oscillating between third and second person when referring to her crush. Such slippages reveal a self-consciousness around authorship and empowerment, alongside uncertainty about who is being addressed: is this an epistolary fiction or more like a journal? How much are we speaking to the Other when we write? How much is fantasy and how much reality? Snell encourages us to realise how much of our lives, sliding so easily between IRL and online, are experienced across such slippages.
> What I want, reading overlove, is the stimulant that would make writing juicy again. Something to write towards, the promise of arrival that channels the flow. Writing as endless hormonal matrix. Is it possible to find yourself addicted to someone else’s crush? You fly through overlove and it’s over too soon, so maybe you switch to video. You’re doing exactly as she does! Even writing this, I feel pretty flush. Maybe this is feminist almost-plenitude?
> Returning to Derrida’s ‘Envois’, the difference of course is that Wood is talking of ‘tremendous love’, whereas Snell pursues a crush, a lust, a limerent open-secret. Where Derrida’s postcards hone in on the question of secrecy, the act of slipping one’s thoughts on a card, a very slim and concealable card, Snell is open to all her friends, even her boyfriend, about her crush on Curt. While Kraus stages a triangulation of desire with her then-husband and their shared crush on Dick, Snell’s partner Mack more or less ‘puts up’ with Snell’s obsession. The resultant dynamic casts the novella’s thematising of ‘millennial malaise’ in a positive light: through revealed conversations over IM or otherwise, we get to see how dynamics of care or respect are worked out under the condition of hypothetical polyamory. There’s a kind of banality in the crush’s IRL existence, compared with the lushly excessive, mystical reveries Snell documents in writing.
> This state of affairs is increasingly relatable, and plays into growing concerns about how social media accelerates the kaleidoscopic erotics of surveillance. You have Netflix shows like You or Gypsy which stage (to varying degrees of overkill) the ethical entanglements of desires that elide the boundaries between online/IRL, personal/professional, self/other. While these shows trade in stalking and sensationalism, overlove is less dramatic, though no less concerned with the ambivalence of sexual and limerent experience. It feels truly progressive and feminist by dint of its attention to failure, bathos, dreams, the body and almost Woolfian moments of being, dressed up in ~new sincerity:
I had a revelation whilst lying awake facing my dear dear sleeping Macky. It was a most tender moment, our foreheads and knees touching, warmth and whatever else lifting my heart as I held his slim furry thigh. I’d seen a very tender post and caption about you on Leela’s Instagram, and had this overwhelming feeling of happiness and expansiveness; that you are to her what Mack is to me. That is so precious.
Beyond #wholesome, I want to say of this passage that it does something radical in making us rethink what intimacy could actually look like when considered as genuinely disseminated, enmeshed. For all our talk of networked relationships, how often do we actually probe the way social media refracts and transmits our affective intimacies? Those that blur the bounds of friendship, acquaintance, sex and love? Much has been written on how the internet recalibrates lust and ideas of commitment, but what about simple acts of tenderness itself? Snell’s wired (in all ways!) imagination generates a surprising spiritual and physical ethic of intimate and direct, as well as pluralised and vicarious care and empathy. If Lorde’s lyric about being a psychopathic sweetheart sounds oxymoronic, maybe there’s a way of working this out in prose, the elaborated space of address.
> While there are many uncomfortable moments in overlove, where Snell ‘goes too far’ in her occasionally salacious communication with Curt, we are always drawn back to the meta-analysis, the self-awareness, the intellectual reflection. The book, then, is an exciting thought experiment which closely explores the desiring, self-aware subject, the female gaze, with varying degrees of immediacy and distance, affect and intellect.
> What I enjoy most about overlove is its status as hypomnemata: a recording — journal, sequential love letter or otherwise — of the embodied arts of selfhood, the aesthetics of existence as such, framed in a shamelessly one-sided, energised and epistolary way. The final letter/entry concludes:
So happy Valentine’s Day again Curt ❤ I hope you find it to be “an interesting read” but I also don’t care whether you read it or not because I know now that it truly was never about you xx
In a way, then, you could actually read this as a Künstlerroman: an artist’s novel(la) whose narrative documents a ~creative’s~ growth to maturity. Framed as a Valentine’s gift, however, it’s an ironic emoji wink to the self in writing, who is never quite the self as such, just as the Other is not really the desired object in writing so much as the generative ‘I’ itself. When Snell explains her project to Curt IRL, he summarises this with typical brevity: ‘yeah, of course, all literature is about the person who writes it’. In a way, overlove is all about the (self) plenitude we seek in the everyday gestures or actions of others. How many times does Snell play, hungrily, clips of Curt sipping water or playing the drums? The true gift (and here I am badly paraphrasing Derrida) is impossible, because it must be unconditional. To indulge in this kind of writing is to make art out of that impossibility, which is a form of self-care — you could say attempted gift, gesture, presentation — moving towards the idea of connection and plenitude. Calling this narcissism feels like missing a point.
> The seeking of plenitude is, as the novella assures us several times, not always about sex; it is a desire to be comforted as much as touched. In a dream, Snell recounts to Curt:
You came to me and lifted me like a child, fondling my soapy flesh with the spring’s magical water, swirled with softening oils and the scent of lemongrass and balmy pine. I felt warm and cocooned, as if mum had just lifted me out of the bath and into a warm towel: you attended to me, not in a sexual way, but sensuously, carefully, erotically; you somehow held me in your arms […].
Is this radical tenderness? Is radical tenderness something we can ‘do’ in dreams? The expressive immediacy of Snell’s text asks us to question the very nature of what we call performance when it comes to relationality. I’m brought back to the practically ancient question of modernism and ‘stream of consciousness’ writing, which here could apply just as much to the long-suffering heroines of Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century epistolary novels as to Molly in her monologue at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses. As with Molly’s repetition of ‘yes’, there’s an affirmational quality to Snell’s writing. She might refer to herself as ‘vile’ in one instance, but as the text progresses, she learns to be kind to her desires, to contextualise them and appreciate their value and possible charge. Limerence as creative plasma.
> As with the Yves Tumor track, there’s a sense that you could pass in and out of this limerent phase, just as Snell notes the shift and swell of her mood swings. While the novel certainly has agency and pace, even a climax when Snell approaches Curt at the ‘inner u’ club night (an event gorgeously documented in gin-soaked, fleein prose), ultimately this is a crush spread over several months: its longing is slowcore, woven around the drifts of daily life — work, assignments and ambient current affairs. IRL events come and go — ‘Trumpgate’, the death of Mark Fisher — and are all assimilated into the zigzagging, trembling ‘arc’ of desire. Amidst the chaos and upheaval of 21st century life, the crush provides some sort of spiritual directive, a glowing thread that I picture in Facebook’s luminous, Active Now green.
> For all overlove feels like a keyed-up flight in time, its resistant vitality as a creative and critical text shines through in Snell’s engagement with mental health, mood swings, suicidal thoughts, Fisher’s term depressive hedonia (‘an inability to do anything but pursue pleasure’), female desire, cyberspace relationality and the night club as conflicted heterotopia. Staged in this playful epistolary context, the difficult work of being a desiring human being in the precarious, maddening state of late-capitalism is shown up as something that is gendered, sure, but in ways you might not expect. Maybe limerence is a kind of wishful ambience ramped up to pink noise, and maybe it’s the generative stuff of the future. The more Snell writes, the more she frees herself from shame; limerence, properly studied, provides the condition for an unhinged form of open expression. In its strange, tender, digressive way, it feels like a ‘real sharing’.
Derrida, Jacques, 1987. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Fisher, Mark, 2009. Capitalist Realism (Ropley: Zero Books).
Kraus, Chris, 1997. I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotexte).
Molotkow, Alexandra, 2018. ‘New Feelings: Crush Fatigue’, Real Life [online] August 1st 2018. Available at: <https://reallifemag.com/new-feelings-crush-fatigue/> [Accessed 11.2.19].
Snell, Geraldine, 2018. overlove (Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe).
Wood, Sarah, 2014. Without Mastery: Reading and Other Forces (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
Text: Maria Sledmere
Images: Geraldine Snell
The self-proclaimed nonfiction novella comes with the caveat that ‘All of this is true […] Except the names, I changed the names’ (Snell 2018).