As a reviewer, I’m supposed to have an air of objectivity and professionalism about the stuff I read and critique. But when it comes to A.E. Osworth’s debut novel, one sentiment comes to mind:
What a cool f*cking book.
We Are Watching Eliza Bright (Grand Central, 2021) tells the story of — you guessed it — Eliza Bright, a woman who works as a developer at one of the most popular gaming startups around. The studio’s CEO is the golden boy of the gaming world; in him, we see Zuckerberg and all the other white, male wunderkinds of the tech bubble, put on a pedestal by investors and players alike. The story unfurls both in “meatspace” (real life) and within the studio’s flagship product: a massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) with a rabidly loyal fanbase.
Things take a turn when Eliza ends up on a new team at work and becomes the target of passive-aggressive sexism from her male colleagues; of course, she is the only woman in the room, most of the time. When her complaints go ignored she takes matters into her own hands. All hell then breaks loose, thanks to the truly toxic online culture we all know, and participate in, every day.
I have never read anything quite like Eliza Bright, and there’s a good chance you haven’t, either. Right away, it’s clear there’s something interesting going on. The novel is narrated in first-person plural: “we.” They are a 21st-century Greek chorus, telling the story but also passing judgment and taking pleasure in our protagonist’s suffering. Why? Because the narrative “we” is the collective voice of a subreddit (online forum) of gamers, who watch Eliza’s every move after she has the audacity to speak up.
In an interview with Refinery29, A.E. Osworth said the idea to write this modern-day thriller came to them while working as Geekery editor at Autostraddle during GamerGate: a yearlong online harassment campaign back in 2014 that was meant to intimidate women gamers into silence. Many who have studied GamerGate have drawn a direct line between this (at times quite dangerous and scary) mass trolling and the resurgence of the Alt Right in America. Eliza Bright is a direct response to, and searing indictment of, that online terrorism and the political nightmare it foreshadowed.
If you know anything about GamerGate, you can imagine where We Are Watching Eliza Bright might travel. But this book is about so much more than Eliza’s personal struggle or the toxicity of gamer culture, because Osworth expertly captures the experience of internet voyeurism with such accuracy and nuance. The chorus of narrators, for example, can’t possibly know the “offstage” events and conversations Eliza has in private. This leads to wild speculation of these scenarios by the narrators—very Run, Lola, Run at times—and haven’t we all gotten caught up in this kind of internet wildfire?
Because of this element of relatability, it’s hard not to recognize ourselves in the collective “we,” even at the worst of times. Osworth seems to say that we are all complicit in what happens in this book and what’s happening in meatspace, whether through direct action or silence, in the larger political sphere. There is so much authentic tension in the choices each character makes once the shit hits the fan. Will they protect themselves, or stand up for what is right? What are the personal costs, in either direction?
One shining example of this inner battle is with Eliza’s male coworker and friend, a Black man. GamerGate wasn’t just about attacking women; it was about stomping out all diversity in gaming in the interest of cishet white males remaining the central culture there. I love the way Osworth painted this character’s struggle. The targeted women in the story only see him as a man, forgetting his Blackness, and grow frustrated at his presumed inaction. But we soon learn why he’s being so quiet, and it’s a poignant example of a need for intersectionality in any social or political discourse.
The good news: in Eliza Bright’s world, it isn’t all about the insatiable rage of cishet male gamer culture (though Osworth masterfully weaves in whispers of this culture’s direct pipeline to white supremacy and the MAGA cult). Osworth also breathes life into a growing force, a very different “we” than the first narrative voice we hear: it’s that of the Sixterhood, a small but mighty collective of people who stand for everything the subreddit seems to despise and fear.
Over the course of the novel, their righteous, healing power slowly reveals itself, in parallel to and in concert with Eliza’s. The collective “we” of the narration makes us part of this restorative community, too. In this way, Osworth reminds us that we can choose the impact we have in cyberspace and the real world, because we each contain the potential for good and evil.
So much more happens in We Are Watching Eliza Bright, but I don’t want to spoil all the fun. This book is unflinching in its observations about fan culture and difficult to put down, thanks to some high-action moments of conflict and violence—both real and pixelated—that really stick with you. It’s all packaged in Osworth’s exceedingly enjoyable prose and their smart, funny, diverse, flawed cast of characters. Don’t be daunted by the page count (over 400); you’re guaranteed to rip right through this one.