Thursday, September 29 2022

Debuting in 2016, Amy Liptrot recounts her return to her native Orkney to recover from her alcohol addiction. Outrun, an award-winning Sunday Times bestseller, has been hailed for its lucid self-awareness and lyrical prose. The book is currently being made into a film, directed by Nora Fingscheidt and starring Saoirse Ronan.

the moment resumes the life of Liptrot where Overtaking leave behind. Craving “restaurants, sex appeal, conversation and art”, she left the isolation of island life to spend a year in Berlin. Like its predecessor, the book blends memoirs and writing about nature, though Liptrot pushes the boundaries of the latter by surveying urban wildlife, traffic islands, and the ecology of the internet. She chases raccoons at night and stalks goshawks, kestrels and hooded crows with binoculars by day. But most of the time, she’s looking for love, although encounters tend to end “either in short, sharp disappointment or prolonged confused disappointment”.

Berlin attracts artists and writers with its counterculture and relatively low cost of living. It has served as the backdrop for a handful of recent novels, including Matthew Sperling’s. Viralby Lauren Oyler Fake accounts and Chris Power Lonely man. Contrary to traditional travelogues, however, the city remains aloof in the moment: as a “lifestyle migrant”, Liptrot could be “anywhere or nowhere”. Working in a warehouse packing tea with other expats and socializing with English speakers, “Germany barely touches me,” she admits. “But when my phone runs out of battery, I’m lost, unable to read the language or find my location.”

The phone permeates the book, which opens with Liptrot downloading an app to track the phases of the moon. With the internet isolating her from experience, “I feel omniscient and scattered,” she writes, “my mind technologically enhanced but fractured.” Even her fantasies are digital: a diary entry in which she discusses “the great love of [her] future” reads “I want a quilt embroidered with your browser history so I can sleep in your data”. The human connection is further kept at a distance by a convention borrowed from Andy Warhol’s diaries, referring to a “shifting rotation” of friends all by the initial “B”.

In the middle of the year, Liptrot falls in love with a man she meets on a dating app. When he suddenly breaks up with her, she embarks on “digital archaeology”: digging through his history on the internet, stalking social media, and digging through the file of their past exchanges for clues. She follows an online guide to winning your ex back, which seems to work until she suggests a visit, after which he blocks her again. Heartbreak is relatable enough, but the story lacks the self-discovery one expects from a memoir. Back in London, Liptrot concludes that “it was a wasted year”.

The style of the moment is more experimental than Overtaking, taking up the trend of books composed of fragments. Liptrot attributes this fragmentation to digital distraction “but also how sophisticated we are as readers to process different pieces of information in parallel,” as she told The Observer. Despite the sophistication, some readers continue to turn to the books in hopes of escaping the feeling of being “extremely online” rather than recreating it. The contemporary master of literary collage is Jenny Offill, whose novels Speculation Department (2014) and Time (2020) reads less like an endless scroll and more like a prose compendium of life.

There are bits of poetry in the moment. Liptrot compares being subsumed on the dance floor of Berghain, Berlin’s giant nightclub, to diving underwater. In Orkney, Tinder’s location-based algorithm had only shown him “unreachable people on oil rigs and fishing boats passing far offshore”. Google Earth allows her to pull the territory towards her “like a parachutist coming to land”. But I found myself wishing the author would put down his phone to look up at the sky. As Liptrot notes in Overtaking“the more time I take to look at things, the more rewards and complexity I find”.

the moment by Amy Liptrot, Canongate £14.99, 192 pages

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