Photo by Ellen WarnerONE OF THE INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT LIVING IN OUR electronic age is the way it has generated a resurgence in the gentle art of correspondence — sort of. E-mail is an ambiguous form of dialogue, equally familiar and remote. “It was quiet,” Sylvia Brownrigg notes in her first novel, The Metaphysical Touch, “it didn't require immediate response, as a voice on the telephone did . . . But it didn't require a physical body of print on paper. Ontologically, e-mail was not in any recognizable category: neither voice nor paper, neither pure mind nor pure matter.” Ultimately, e-mail provides a forum for what Brownrigg calls “a way of connecting,” which, in a society of increasing sprawl and isolation, does represent very real promise.
The Metaphysical Touch is a novel that seeks to explore the nature of this not-yet-categorized form of communication, a love story (of sorts) in which the principal characters come to know and feel for each other through the nameless, faceless interstices of the Net. Moving back and forth between two protagonists — Emily Piper (otherwise known as Pi), a philosophy graduate student who loses everything in the Oakland-Berkeley fire of 1991, and J.D. Levin, a suicidal 30-something who decides to post his “Diery” online — it investigates the curious relationship between technology and intimacy. In many ways, actually, the book, like e-mail itself, has as a subtext the question of identity, for its correspondents come together randomly, after “meeting” on a newsgroup, and exchange an increasingly personal series of revelations without ever sharing so much as each other's real names. Yet while Brownrigg acknowledges a certain interest in the way the Internet alternately enables us to expose and conceal ourselves, her initial inspiration for The Metaphysical Touch was more to recast the form of the epistolary novel with a contemporary edge. “What drew me to the story,” she explains by phone from the Bay Area, “is that I write a lot of letters, which, in some sense, lets me invent people who aren't there. So I had always wanted to write an epistolary novel, and when e-mail came along, I thought, here's my chance.”
When Brownrigg talks about writing letters, she's not just referring to a personal preference, but instead to an essential way of staying rooted in the world. Born in Northern California, she spent much of her childhood and adolescence traveling back and forth between the West Coast and England (her stepfather is a British academic); and after graduating from Yale and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars Program, she moved to London which, after six years, remains her home base. This makes for something of a bifurcated existence, but there's a way, she says, that it allows her to inhabit what are almost parallel landscapes, where she can remain both present and an outsider at the same time: “Writing about California while living in London was quite a powerful thing to do. The distance helped me to see California more clearly, and make it my own. But it was also a way of living there still in my imagination, even though I was thousands of miles away.” It's easy to see the impact of this kind of thinking on The Metaphysical Touch, which relies on these polarities for emotional content; both Pi and J.D. are, to varying extents, in states of withdrawal from what we might call their real lives, Pi in Mendocino, hiding out after the fire, and J.D. drifting in self-conscious exile across the United States.
WERE THE METAPHYSICAL TOUCH CONCERNED EXCLUSIVELY with displacement, there would be little point in bringing Pi and J.D. together in any form. What propels the novel, though, is the idea that, even within a disconnected perspective, communion is attainable. The book addresses the issue from its opening — “But how to stay connected?” — and although Brownrigg is wary of placing too much emphasis on a single question, she acknowledges that this is the subterranean storyline. That's not to suggest her characters are without real-life associations; J.D. has a range of friends and relatives who spend time cooking up plans to keep him from dying, while Pi finds herself oddly drawn to Abbie, the Mendocino woman who takes her in after the fire, and Abbie's 7-year-old daughter, Martha, with whom Pi forms a particularly vivid bond. Yet while these relationships give the book an important quality of life lived in three dimensions, they are complicated by the mundane negotiations of daily existence, a burden Pi and J.D. do not share. Their ties, rather, are metaphorical, even mythological, an idea Brownrigg makes explicit by using Shakespeare's Hamlet as a motif for their interaction, giving J.D. the Danish prince's persona as a screen name, and developing Pi as his online Horatio. It's a nearly metafictional construct, in which reality and illusion overlap so intricately that we lose sight of where either one begins or ends. Still, by sharing the territory of imagination, Pi and J.D. rediscover a context for their own personal histories, connecting not only with each other but with themselves.
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 from The 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