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Of course, the problem with an electronic relationship is that, ultimately, there can be no closure, no completion, if it doesn't translate somehow to the actual world. "The Net," Brownrigg says, "is just part of the process. Pi and J.D. both need it, and use it, but then they have to move beyond it. It's not enough on its own." That's especially true of J.D., whom we know only through the textures of the "Diery," or his extensive e-mail correspondence with Pi. For Brownrigg, there's a certain postmodern element to all this, a bit of literary game-playing meant to make us question our assumptions about the way friendship works. In essence, though, The Metaphysical Touch remains a work of realism, exploring deep emotions within representative lives. To some extent, the tension this evokes echoes the dichotomy between experiment and tradition that drives the narrative, but while Brownrigg mostly keeps these conflicting impulses in balance, she falters slightly at the end of the novel, when in his final "Diery" posting, J.D. gushes about what Pi means to him.
"It's a risk," Brownrigg admits, "and it could be me overspelling. Any time you write about a writer, it's a risk you take. But since Pi doesn't have that much of a chance to hear what J.D. thinks of her, she needs to know, on a story level -- that's her way of learning how much she's moved him, what part she plays in his life." Nevertheless, to read one character describe another as "the kind of friend [who] . . . gives you slices of the world on a page, and they're slices that feed you, that still your hunger" feels a lot like a writer trying to force an interpretation; more to the point, since everything J.D. tells us is implicit in what we've already read, it's not even necessary.
For all that, The Metaphysical Touch is a fine first novel, by turns moving and thought-provoking, deft in its ability to communicate between the lines. It's a book about voices, about how they engage us. "The truth," Brownrigg says, "is that it's slightly accidental that the Internet brought the story out. What interested me initially was the relation written voices have to each other. I always thought it was a romantic idea to fall in love with someone's voice." This, too, is at the center of our fascination with e-mail, the power of a disembodied voice to distill identity and give us something to latch on to. And in pursuing that idea, Brownrigg has managed to say something significant about our seemingly endless need for connection, the ways that, even within the most dislocated social landscapes, we seek to touch -- and be touched.
Sylvia Brownrigg reads fromThe Metaphysical Touch at Dutton's Brentwood on Tuesday, July 27, at 7 p.m.
THE METAPHYSICAL TOUCH | By SYLVIA BROWNRIGG Farrar, Straus, Giroux | 390 pages | $24 hardcover