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Book Review of Nazlı Koca’s The Applicant photo

At the outset of Nazlı Koca’s debut novel, her protagonist, Leyla, discovers a notebook under her couch and begins to keep the diary that constitutes the novel’s pages. Because this is autofiction, the authorial biographical details double as plot summary: Nazlı Koca grew up in Turkey, spent most of her twenties living in Berlin as a graduate student, and worked for a spell as a cleaner for a bed and breakfast. In the novel, twenty-six-year-old Leyla, has just started work as a cleaner for a hostel in Friedrichshain and is paralyzed employment-wise by her immigration status. The orderly reputation of German bureaucracy notwithstanding, Leyla has fallen into one of its recondite gaps. After failing her graduate school thesis, she is suing her university for a diploma — necessary to obtain a residence permit. While the suit is pending, she lives under a precarious Fiktionsbescheinigung, a “fictional visa.”

By day, Leyla changes linens and cleans toilets, and at night she still goes out on ketamine-and-coke-propelled benders. The language she uses to describe her nights out is simple and straightforward, and sometimes arrestingly understated: “We had sex there for a while, at the center of the labyrinth,” she tells us, recounting an episode at a night club on the far end of the Spree, “until we remembered we were high, and no one would come.” But the structure of the novel is at cross purpose with the immediacy that Koca seems to be aiming for. Leyla, at the end of her rope, is also coming to the end of her time in Berlin. Most of Leyla’s hedonistic party nights are behind her and told, unsatisfyingly, in summary. Of her early days, she says:

“I was doing coke or ketamine or both and more at least two or three times a week. How extraordinary I thought my life was. How many hours I spent dancing to the roughest rhythms of Berlin. How much money I wasted. How many sleepless nights I spent, my heart pounding from all the drugs, regretting every line.”

It’s an affecting passage, but I wonder why we’re here instead of there. The Leyla of the present spends most of her time holed up in her room, watching Turkish soaps, until she’s offered the odd gram of coke or half-vial of ketamine. She wanders a Sisyphean circuit around Berlin: to meetings with immigration lawyers, uninspiring parties, lame poetry readings.

Halfway through the book, she hooks up with a “thirty-three-year-old Swedish right-wing conservative tourist,” which is to say, her opposite in age, nationality, political feelings, and relationship vis-a-vis Berlin, and spends the latter half of the novel ruminating over whether she’s in love with him: “I’m not sure what happiness or love is supposed to feel like.” Nor, thinking of Sylvia Plath’s disastrous marriage, does she feel she can become a writer if she attaches herself too early a man who couldn’t possibly understand her literary aspirations.

The copyright material in the inner pages of my hardback declares that this novel is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance between its characters and any actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. But this is a legal fiction as insubstantive as Leyla’s fictional visa. Extracts from this book were published as long ago as 2018, where they were presented as memoir in the American literary journal they were submitted to, the simple wording barely tweaked between then and the publication of this novel.

I mention the switch from dead-ass memoir to coincidentally resemblant novel-form fiction not because it’s interesting to analyze the contours of the Nazlı/Leyla distinction, but because it underscores how much Leyla/Nazlı's lifestyle is a product of a yearning after a certain kind of literary life. Leyla’s idol is Christiane F., a Berlin author whose 1978 autobiography recounts her adolescence as a teenage prostitute and drug addict. “Ever since fifth grade,” Leyla tells the people she meets in Berlin, “I knew I would one day move to Berlin and become a heroine addict.” In what could have been the novel’s most gripping turn, she follows Christiane’s lead into sex work. But this section, told in flashback, is so undercooked that it barely feel like it’s happened. She gives up sex work after two months, and though she’s had plenty of time to reflect on the experience, she’s barely integrated it.

“What’s so sacramental about sex?” she soliloquizes. “If our bodies are sacred, then why is it okay to use it to clean for others, cook, carry, build for others for money so little it barely pays for our rents.” This sort of “why not?” sex-positive, sexuality-reclaiming feminism reads well-enough on paper, but Leyla admits that the commodification of her own body leaves her feeling psychologically paralyzed, irremediably stained. I don’t put the burden on Koca for untangling the sexual ambivalence of nth-wave feminism, but she has knotted herself into rhetorical and emotional contradictions that she lazily leaves for the reader to resolve.

The feeling I have after reading this book is that Koca has constructed a kind of fan fiction of the autofiction novel. Like a genre enthusiast, she knows all the künstlerroman-ish beats, all the tropes, all the stock characters, but she also hasn’t the patience to knit these episodes and elements into a satisfying arc, or to reflect on them more than superficially. For all the books Leyla’s read, all the great films she’s seen, she hasn’t developed the tools to transform the dross of life into the gold of art. “With every piece of artwork” Leyla consumes, she feels “more nationless, ageless, boundless,” but this process feels less like expansion than a kind of dissolution into a selfless muck — or an imperfectly scribbled copy of the various heroines she aspires to be like: Christiane F. and Sylvia Plath and others. Books should expand us, not reduce us to cliché, but the reading Leyla/Nazlı has done seems to have diminished her horizons into a very narrow view of what it means to be an artist. Leyla demonstrates no pluck, and frankly, no hustle, no ability to imagine a life that could unite her sophomoric notions of artistic purity and authenticity with financial solvency and personal stability. “To turn a profit,” she opines (whines), “one needs to get rid of all the inconveniences like self-regard, hopes, and dreams.” Lady, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we all gotta work.

At the end of the novel, Leyla is still deciding, just like in the Turkish soaps she binges, whether she’ll stay with her lover. Because this is autofiction, real life is the spoiler, and there’s a reason why Koca now lives in Indiana and not Malmö. Has she made the right choice? She doesn’t tell us in the novel, but you’re holding the ending in your hands. As with the other questions in the book, this final question is one she’s left for the reader to answer.