‘People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about,’ said François de la Rochefoucauld, which is a good reminder why love stories are an awful lot more than amusing fluff. They may seem like the indulgence of an over-civilized world, able to spend that much time and energy on personal concerns, but they are equally barometers that read the current state of romantic social pressures, the things men and women expect from each other, their motivations for falling in love, what they think it will achieve for them. Love is a serious business, and it has a cultural history, one that is changing and developing all the time.
A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman and The Art of Leaving by Anna Stothard are both literary novels by bright new writers embarking on their second books. The characters are all ‘ordinary’ metropolitan types, young twenty-somethings already stuck in dead end jobs, flawed people but hopeful. In Andrew Blackman’s novel, it’s the internet which (with echoes of James Lasdun) both facilitates and undermines a relationship. Jeff Brennan is an IT consultant living in Milton Keynes whose life is headed nowhere. He spends painfully awkward Sundays with the elderly grandparents who brought him up, and wastes his Saturday nights with his old friend, Jon, playing online shoot ‘em ups, eating takeaways and getting drunk. The friends are in separate places but joined by the miracle of technology in a way that only underscores the essential loneliness of these frantic evenings. Then, at an environmental protest he meets a young Californian woman, Marie, who mistakes him for a prominent political blogger who is also called Jeff Brennan. The blogging Jeff is a recluse, famous in the virtual world but invisible in the real one, and so ordinary Jeff lets the mistake stand. He knows he’s punching above his weight with Marie, but the opportunity is unmissable; the affair lurches off from an unstable footing, too good to last and based on a whopping great lie.
There’s a ghostly opposition hovering over this novel between the real world, as represented by his old-fashioned grandfather, who cares with tender poignancy for his locked-in wife, dressing her, doing her make-up, wiping the dribble from the corners of her mouth, and the virtual one, where everything can be faked, feigned or multiplied as if in a hall of mirrors. The novel insidiously wonders whether, in our modern lives, the virtual world has taken over in significance from the real one? Is it more satisfying to create an identity online than to have to live out the one we’ve been born with in reality? Or are we deluding ourselves, and the real will out no matter what we do? As Jeff struggles to keep his charade in place, and Jeff Brennan the blogger begins to take a virtual interest in Marie, the novel sets itself up for a final showdown that pulls all sorts of surprises. The opposition between real and virtual, with the real being ‘good’ and the virtual ‘bad’ is intriguingly complicated, not least by the fact that overinvesting in a fantasy ends up to be essential to all the relationships – Marie’s belief in the patently unstarry Jeff is matched by the grandfather’s make believe that his wife is still there with him in spirit. Should we find these fantasies heroic or tragic? The novel remains quietly ambiguous.
In The Art of Leaving, Eva is in the middle of a relationship with Luke, a hard-working, energetic, sociable lawyer. She, by contrast, is one of life’s watchers, a quiet and withdrawn young woman, disorganised and undirected. For Eva, the important part of a relationship is not the beginning but the end; leaving holds a special thrill for her, with its potent force of change and renewal, and she is puzzled by the longevity of her affair with Luke. She’s tried to leave him before and yet somehow they’ve ended up back together. However, a chance encounter with a strange and chaotic woman, Grace, whom Luke seems to avoid and dislike, is about to crack open the past unexpectedly and throw her relationship with Luke into an altered light.
Eva’s days are spent at Echo Books, editing dreadful romances and staring out the window at the Soho club opposite, where she comes to believe that young women are being trafficked. Eva’s parents are absent, living in Singapore, and she was brought up by her grandmother in the moth-infested flat in which she now lives. Her grandmother was an inveterate storyteller and Eva was fascinated as a child by the story of the magician’s assistant, Sophia, who genuinely disappeared in a trick, never to be found again. Eva daydreams that the dingy club opposite is Sophia’s prison and her fantasies have a creative energy and zest that sing out in contrast to the passive and lifeless trudge of her normal days. Her interest in the captive ‘Sophia’ in the club is matched by her interest in Regina, a golden eagle who has recently escaped London zoo and is living the high life in Regent’s Park. Between these symbols of freedom and entrapment, Eva will negotiate her own conflict with love and its imperious demands of belonging and find that she has a great deal less control over her life than she imagined.
What’s intriguing about both of these novels is the loneliness at their core. Eva is a dislocated character, defending herself from the messiness of caring for others, whilst Jeff’s isolation seems more intrinsic and monumental. The question of who they are – a question usually resolved by seeing characters in interaction with others – remains wide open by the end of both books. In A Virtual Love, the chapters are all narrated by the people close to Jeff as if they were talking to him, leaving Jeff himself as an empty space, a literal absence at the heart of the story. These are both very well written books, with the ideas of Andrew Blackman’s and the imagery of Anna Stothard’s proving particularly rich. As portraits of modern love, they are both quite unsettling, pointing to ever-growing questions about what remains most real and significant in our transient, illusory world.
Outstandingly summarized, A very good effort
Thank you very much, thats’s very kind!
Both sound interesting in your excellent account, and seem well beyond love stories. Might they also be read from the viewpoint of identity and how people relate to the worlds they perceive around them? Will have to look out for them, thanks.
Bookboxed, they most certain may be read that way – and very productively, too, I’d say. If you do come across either in your travels, I’d love to hear what you think of them.
Thank you, Litlove; these sound interesting books and I enjoyed reading your thought-provoking comments. I wonder, also, if the emptiness/loneliness of the main characters is perhaps a reflection of the cult of individualism and materialism that continues to flourish in our world of ‘global capitalism’. The grandfather’s loving, caring attitude towards his ill wife in the Blackman novel could possibly offer a pointed contrast to the self-centredness and self-obsession that seem to identify aspects of our society today; it is no wonder his attitude seems ‘old-fashioned’ in this respect. The ‘virtual reality’ seems to be the only version that some can cope with, having lost the ability to connect in an ever-fragmenting sense of community. Technology seems to offer us ways of connecting socially, but in accepting this seductive idea we are perhaps deceiving ourselves. If those connections are not built on in the ‘real world’, surely they are basically illusory and can only ever serve to increase the sense of alienation with reality, as the Blackman novel seems to suggest.
Mrs Doyle, how nice to hear from you! I do hope that your move went off okay. I think you’re spot on in seeing these books as having negative implications for the sort of selfish capitalism that we live in nowadays, as well as the post-human world of technology. Both tend to undermine the values of humanism, or at least capitalism certainly does, and the internet risks doing so (it seems to be appearing in literature as a potential threat as much as a benefit). Thank you for your astute comment!
Thank you, Litlove, and it’s so kind of you to remember and ask about my move. It wasn’t exactly a smooth process (!) but we are now in Stockport, very close to the Peak District, and have just spent a large part of last week exploring the many National Trust properties surrounding us. It has been a joy to watch our two sons running around like excited puppies through all those beautiful estates! After our previous life in Wales, it’s a breath of fresh air, and the fact that people here are genuinely friendly and welcoming still catches us by surprise.
I do hope you are feeling better now following your recent difficult experiences with anxiety. It’s a horrible thing to have to deal with but – speaking from experience – it does seem to go in phases and even just knowing that there will be times when the anxiety reduces and life becomes more normal can perhaps help.
Incidentally, regarding the Bloomsbury bloggers’ tea party event, I do think you have every right to feel miffed, but I suspect from what you said that it was probably a lucky escape! The incident was surely down to administrative incompetence rather than anything personal, but even so, if future Bloomsbury titles just happen to find themselves at the bottom of your review pile, that would be entirely understandable!
Oops, my apologies, but in the previous post I lost my ‘MrsDoyle’ title and appear as ‘Lorna’…
I love the way you describe the dilemmas these novels wrestle with. I often think about virtual vs 3d reality, and the interaction of self-told story and experience. I’m intrigued by these novels.
Lilian, I found them really interesting to read as companion pieces. There are certainly all sorts of nebulous fears floating around about the increasing dislocation of young people from the world. It’s a fascinating line of inquiry!
You find the most interesting and intriguing books. I like the idea of updated love stories. Isn’t it funny in a world where we are so much more connected that we seem almost lonelier? But then maybe the connections really are just illusory and we’re not at all connected in a way that’s especially healthy. Will have to add these to my wishlist.
I think you really hit the nail on the head when you say that the extra levels of connection can make us feel even lonelier. Just as beauty can make us more acutely aware of ugliness, so contact can make us more aware of its absence or insufficiency. If you do read either of these, I’d love to know what you make of them!
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Your take on A Virtual Love is excellent. I thought it was excellent too, I couldn’t put it down.
The second novel sounds interesting too.
Seeing the two covers on the same post, I was just wondering, incorrigible feminist as I am, if they would have been the same if the gender of the writers had been reversed. Or said differently, would they have put this silly cover with a jumping woman surrounded by sickening pastel colours on a book written by a man? This cover would have been a put off for me.