In her 2016 debut, Amy Liptrot recounts returning to her native Orkney to recover from alcohol addiction. The Outrun, a prizewinning Sunday Times bestseller, was lauded for its lucid self-awareness and lyrical prose. The book is now being adapted for film, directed by Nora Fingscheidt and starring Saoirse Ronan.
The Instant picks up Liptrot’s life where The Outrun left off. Craving “restaurants, sexiness, conversation and art”, she leaves the isolation of island life to spend a year in Berlin. Like its predecessor, the book blends memoir with nature writing, although Liptrot pushes the boundaries of the latter by surveying urban wildlife, traffic islands and the ecology of the internet. She pursues raccoons at night and tracks goshawks, kestrels and hooded crows with binoculars by day. But mostly she is on the lookout for love, despite dating tending to end “either in short, sharp disappointment or drawn-out confusing disappointment”.
Berlin attracts artists and writers with its counterculture and relatively low cost of living. It has served as a backdrop to a clutch of recent novels, including Matthew Sperling’s ViralLauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Chris Power’s A Lonely Man. Unlike traditional travelogues, however, the city remains at a remove in The Instant: as a “lifestyle migrant”, Liptrot could be “anywhere or nowhere”. Working in a warehouse packing tea with other expats and socializing with Anglophones, “Germany barely touches me,” she admits. “But when my phone runs out of battery, I’m lost, unable to read the language or locate myself.”
The phone pervades the book, which opens with Liptrot downloading an app to follow the phases of the moon. With the internet insulating her from experience, “I feel omniscient and thinly spread,” she writes, “my mind is technologically enhanced yet fractured”. Even her fantasies are digital: a diary entry in which she addresses “the great love of [her] future ”reads“ I want a quilt embroidered with your browser history so I can sleep in your data ”. Human connection is further kept at arm’s length by a convention borrowed from Andy Warhol’s diaries, referring to a “shifting rota” of friends all by the initial “B”.
Midway through the year, Liptrot falls in love with a man she meets on a dating app. When he breaks up with her suddenly, she embarks on “digital archeology”: excavating his internet history, stalking social media, and digging through the record of their past exchanges for clues. She follows an online guide to winning your ex back, which seems to be working until she suggests a visit, after which he blocks her again. Heartbreak is relatable enough, but the story lacks the self-discovery that one expects from a memoir. Arriving back in London, Liptrot concludes that “it has been a wasted year”.
The style of The Instant is more experimental than The Outrun, taking up the trend of books composed of fragments. Liptrot attributes this fragmentation to digital distraction “but also the way that we are sophisticated enough as readers to process different information in parallel”, as she told The Observer. Sophistication notwithstanding, some readers continue to look to books in the hope of escaping the feeling of being “extremely online” rather than recreating it. The contemporary master of literary collage is Jenny Offill, whose novels Dept of Speculation (2014) and Weather (2020) read less like an infinite scroll than a distillation of life in prose.
There are glimpses of poetry in The Instant. Liptrot likens being subsumed on the dance floor of Berghain, Berlin’s behemoth nightclub, to diving underwater. In Orkney, Tinder’s location-based algorithm had shown her only “inaccessible people on oil rigs and passing fishing boats far out to sea”. Google Earth allows her to pull territory towards herself “like a parachutist coming in to land”. But I found myself wishing the author would put her phone down to look up at the sky. As Liptrot noted in The Outrun“The more I take the time to look at things, the more rewards and complexity I find”.
The Instant by Amy Liptrot, Canongate £ 14.99, 192 pages
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