I is somebody else

A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman 2013. Not available in French.

Dear Andrew,

Right now, I’m very happy that you and all the regular readers of this blog are familiar with the word billet. After turning the last page of A Virtual Love and putting down the paper book on the table, the last thing I want to do is write a blog post. And I’m glad the word billet covers the good old-fashioned letter I’m going to write. I hope you don’t mind. It seems more intimate than a usual blog entry but I don’t feel like slipping into the blogger’s shoes. I’m also glad I had a paper copy of your book and not a kindle version, A Virtual Love made me want to distance myself from virtual things.

Blackman_Virtual_LoveNow, hopefully, readers who don’t know your book are curious. Allow me to tell them a bit about the plot. Jeff Brennan is a nobody who works as an IT consultant, not the space-age ones who implement complicated systems but the ones you call in the office when the report you’ve been typing since three hours without hitting the save button, suddenly goes AWOL. As a total geek he spends his Saturday nights with his equally geek friend Jon playing video games, drinking. His score with the ladies is approximately of zero. So when he accidentally meets Marie and she mistakes him for his homonym, the famous political blogger Jeff Brennan, it seems easier not to correct her. This is how a relationship starts on a lie, a lie that stays, grows larger, invades the smallest corners of his life and turns it into a living hell. How will he get out of it?

I shied away from the reviews I came across and started it with a fresh mind. I was hooked from the first chapter; I really enjoyed your novel, Andrew. I had a hard time putting it down, my mind drifted to it when I was driving to work, pondering the different possibilities for an ending. Of course, the identity quest made me think, and think twice since I’m also a blogger. I felt a bit self-conscious as I was reading these pages while tweeting to people I’ve never met. It made me pause and think about the web of lies created out there. I liked the description of Jeff’s identity jungle. It’s so simple to recreate yourself on the internet, be the one you want to be but also say out loud all the things you’d never dare to say in so called “real life”. It’s easy to criticize this side of the Internet and social networks, so let me be the devil’s advocate. Thinking of real life vs virtual life is a reflex from people who weren’t born with the internet. For younger people, it is life. There’s no dichotomy. Their internet identity is another side of their personality. Other people always see a side of you, the one you show them in the function they know you into and the one conjured up with the assumptions they make about you. Think about it. As a child, would you have imagined that your schoolmaster could play in a rock band during his free time? Probably not. You had him pigeonholed in the role of a schoolmaster and he couldn’t have any other activities, other functions than this one. Well, for me it’s the same on the Internet, people see one side of you and make their assumptions according to what you show. The difference is that you can cheat on an exponential scale and if you do it right, nobody can recoup the lies. But even the lies are yours and tell about who you are. The lies differ from a person to another.

Then there’s Marie. Marie loves someone who is not who she thinks he is but doesn’t she deserve the deception? After all, she loves the idea of dating the famous blogger more than the idea of loving a man. She’s living with someone she would have looked down on if she hadn’t assumed he was a celebrity. You show us a whole love relationship based on a wrong assumption. But I don’t think it is new, you know. Only the means differ. Swann’s love for Odette is kindled by an assumption: she looks like a painting he loves. The Odette he loves is not the real one but the one he created in his imagination. Marie finds all kinds of ways to eliminate all doubts that creep into her mind. She rationalizes and her brain finds consistent explanations for everything. Anything not to admit that this man isn’t as wonderful as she wants him to be. Loneliness is too frightening. I’ll spare you the quote by Romain Gary that came to my mind when I mulled over this.

Have you read or seen Cyrano de Bergerac? I think Jeff genuinely loved Marie. Your novel is a bit like a modern Cyrano, with Jeff borrowing someone else’s identity to have Marie fall in love with him. The difference is that technology speeds things up, widens everything and there’s this underlying thirst for fame which is a trademark of our Western societies. I think it always existed because it’s a human trait. Now, cheap technology allows everyone to act upon it.

On the form side, I thought your style flowed more freely, less constrained than in your debut novel, On the Holloway Road. I felt you more confident in your writing and it sounded effortless. Either this book poured out of your head or you sweated on this novel but managed to make it sound effortless to the reader. Describing the events from different points of view except Jeff’s was a good idea. I loved the grandfather’s voice, he’s my favourite character, the one who keeps in touch with his values. The imposter never has a chance to explain himself and he was a multiple personality through his friends, family or lover’s eyes. He remains elusive. What do they know of his real motives, his insecurities? What do I know? What’s my picture of Jeff?

The title of this billet, I is somebody else is simply the translation of a phrase by Arthur Rimbaud, “Je est un autre”. I want to add something about what you read on this blog: I’m the real thing just a lot less shy than in flesh-and-blood life; I can’t invent a personality far away from mine, lying is too much work. Moreover, when you click on a “like” button or leave a comment, what worth would it have if I knew you were actually talking to a mirage?

I hope your book will be a success and invite other readers to discover more conventional reviews on A Virtual Love here.

All the best,

Emma

  1. April 11, 2013 at 1:35 am

    “For younger people, it is life. There’s no dichotomy.” Good point.

    I’ve known couples who’ve split over internet use and internet romances. I have this one on my kindle and have yet to read it, but I have a feeling that I’ll like it a lot.

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    • April 11, 2013 at 6:53 pm

      You’ll probably like it.
      Internet is just a facilitator, you know. These couples would have split up if another opportunity had happened for the partner in question. Internet multiplies the possibilities and of course, there’s the safety of being anonymous and in a way, a freedom of speech that you don’t always have in flesh-and-blood relationships.

      Like

  2. April 11, 2013 at 3:56 am

    Great commentary Emma.

    Though it was certainly highlighted the negative side of social networking and blogging it really did not make me want to separate myself from such. I thought of the story as one side of a coin, or perhaps one side of a multi sided die! The one side is admittedly a very important side to contemplate.

    True about young people, but I also know a couple of folks in their 70s who seem to be obsessed with Facebook.

    I really must try On Holloway Road.

    Like

    • April 11, 2013 at 6:57 pm

      It insists on the negative side, sure. That’s not the way I live the blogging world.
      However, it felt strange to respond to such a book with a blog review. It didn’t fit.

      There’s a review of On the Holloway Road on my blog.

      Like

  3. April 11, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    I didn’t think the relationships were as polarised as that. I felt the grandfather was investing in a fantasy that the grandmother was still the person she used to be, despite all appearances, just as Marie was pretending Jeff was the blogger she hoped he’d be. In both cases love was supported by a lot of mental and emotional energy on the part of the other person. I love your idea of Jeff as, well not Cyrano, but whatever-his-name-was who borrowed his voice. That’s a great idea.

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    • April 11, 2013 at 7:17 pm

      You’re right, the grand-father also lives in a fantasy relationship. But it’s less disturbing because he’s known Daisy for decades and this way of preserving their relationship is just love based on shared years. He knows her and his imagined Daisy is the real one, just not the present one.

      Here’s the quote by Gary I was mentioning. It’s in Clair de Femme

      Il y a des mauvaises rencontres, c’est tout. A moi aussi, ça m’est arrivé. A toi aussi. Comment veux-tu distinguer le faux du vrai, quand on crève de solitude? On rencontre un type, on essaie de le rendre intéressant, on l’invente complètement, on l’habille de qualités des pieds à la tête, on ferme les yeux pour mieux le voir, il essaie de donner le change, vous aussi, s’il est beau et con, on le trouve intelligent, s’il vous trouve conne, il se sent intelligent, s’il remarque que vous avez les seins qui tombent, il vous trouve de la personnalité, si vous commencez à sentir que c’est un plouc, vous vous dites qu’il faut l’aider, s’il est inculte, vous en avez assez pour deux, s’il veut faire ça tout le temps, vous vous dites qu’il vous aime, s’il n’est pas très porté là-dessus, vous vous dites que ce n’est pas ça qui compte, s’il est radin, c’est parce qu’il a eu une enfance pauvre, s’il est mufle, vous vous dites qu’il est nature, et vous continuez ainsi à faire des pieds et des mains pour nier l’évidence, alors que ça crève les yeux, et c’est ce qu’on appelle les problèmes du couple, le problème du couple, quand il n’est plus possible de s’inventer l’un l’autre.

      (If someone wants a translation, just let me know)

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      • April 11, 2013 at 7:19 pm

        Wonderful Gary! That’s a fabulous quote, Emma.

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        • April 11, 2013 at 7:37 pm

          OK, according to your response to it, it deserves a translation…

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          • April 11, 2013 at 7:39 pm

            I didn’t mean to give you more work! The French isn’t too complex…. but then I expect that translating Gary could be a labour of love, too!

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            • April 11, 2013 at 8:37 pm

              Done! Lucky me, it wasn’t Gary at his most playful moments with the French language…

              Like

      • April 11, 2013 at 8:36 pm

        So, the translation of the quote by Gary.

        There are bad relationships, that’s all. It happened to me too. And to you. How do you want to sort the truth from the lies when you’re dying of loneliness? You meet a bloke, you try to make him interesting, you invent him totally, you clothe him with qualities from head to toe, you close your eyes to better see him, he tries to play along, you too, if he’s handsome but stupid, you find him intelligent, if he thinks you’re stupid, he thinks he’s intelligent, if he notices that your breasts fall, he thinks you have character, if you start realizing he’s a redneck, you think he needs help, if he’s a philistine, you think you’re cultured enough for too, if he wants to do it all the time, you think he loves you, if he’s not very into it, you think it’s not the most important, if he’s tight, it’s because he was poor as a child, if he’s a Neanderthal, you think he’s natural, and you’re moving heaven and earth to deny the evidence, even if it’s obvious and that’s what they call “couple problems”, the problem in a couple is when you can’t invent each other any more.

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  4. April 18, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    I did press save, it’s just still bloody corrupted!

    Ahem, sorry.

    It sounds good. You’re right that it’s an old problem, Swann and Odette as you note, but old problems manifest in new ways and that gives new routes to exploring them.

    I try to be me online. It’s less work than being somebody else. But then, I would say that even if I weren’t me (as it were).

    Do you know the old(ish) saying, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog? The point was online you can avoid being judged on traits that are irrelevant to what you’re saying. Nobody need know you’re 14 years old, a grandmother, African-American, whatever, you can comment and post and people must respond to what you write and not their assumptions based on surface characteristics.

    Of course it can be misused. A blogger writing from the perspective of an African-American struggling with sickle-cell may turn out to be a white suburban housewife, which would likely upset all the real sickle-cell afflicted African-Americans who’d been sharing experiences on that blog. Recently there’ve been a couple of examples very close to that, bloggers that people invested in and thought they had relationships with but who weren’t who they said they were at all.

    Interesting stuff. Great Gary quote by the way.

    Like

    • April 18, 2013 at 9:32 pm

      I agree with you, the anonyma of the internet allows you to be read without your physical appearance coming in the way. That’s why I thought about Cyrano de Bergerac. Do you know that play (or the film with Depardieu)? In this play, Christian is in love with Roxane. He’s handsome but can’t put two intelligent words together, let alone poems. And Roxane wants poetry, she’s cultured and the way to her heard is through words. So Cyrano steps in. He’s not handsome but he can write poetry. He will write verses for Christian to tell to Roxane.
      This novel reminded me of this play. Here, Jeff uses the words of the other Jeff Brennan to win Marie. Both are shallow, Jeff because he pretends to be someone else and steals someone else’s words (at least Cyrano willingly helps Christian) and Marie because she’s so blinded by fame and stupidly proud to be with someone famous.

      Still, after a while, you have a mental image of the blogger, not about their colour of hair but about who they are, what they like. However, you have to be prudent while blogging, you never know. (I do think that the book bloggosphere is a civilized place)

      I’ve been thinking about this book a lot since I read it. (Good sign for the writer) There are interesting thoughts about journalism too and its place in a world where everone can have an audience and write whatever they want.

      Another thought.
      I’ve also read On the Holloway Road, whose theme was “what happens if you want to do a trip à la Jack Kerouac in contemporary Britain”. Both characters are attracted by freedom and get burnt. They try to break free and travel recklessly but can’t. Freedom is a dream they want to catch but can’t because their liberty of movement is impaired by regulations and society (CCTV, report littering signs…)

      Here, fame replaces freedom. It’s a goal in life, a sort of ideal too. The characters are ready to break many rules to reach their goal. Jeff, Marie, Marcus the activist, they all find fame attractive. This is really something of the 21st century with people telling their lives on TV, participating to degrading shows just to be in the spotlights. I’ll never understand that. I’d be mortified to go to work and meet my colleegues after telling private thoughts on TV. How do they do that?

      PS: I should self-publish a perpetual calendar : “One Gary quote per day” 🙂 Not sure Alexandre-Diego Gary would agree with the idea, though.

      Like

      • April 20, 2013 at 5:03 pm

        I know Cyrano, I’ve seen the Depardieu film (great until the final half hour, when he takes so long dying, collapsing then returning to make yet another speech, that it moves from tragedy to unintended comedy) and the Steve Martin movie Roxanne. He’s a famous figure, first SF author after all among many other achievements.

        Here of course Marie is less innocent than was the object of Cyrano’s affections.

        The lure of fame is curious. I don’t assume I’m immune to it, but equally the desire to expose oneself nationally (perhaps globally) for the mere “reward” of appearing on television suggests to me some underlying damage. Something missing which the promised televiusal reward will not replace.

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        • April 21, 2013 at 8:32 pm

          I don’t remember that last scene. I’m going to watch the play at the theatre in a few weeks. It’s a modern production, I was wondering what it could be like but after reading A Virtual Love, I realise that the job of ventriloquist can take new dimensions on the web.

          Like

  1. June 2, 2013 at 3:12 pm
  2. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am
  3. March 15, 2016 at 8:17 am

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