‘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.