I is somebody else
A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman 2013. Not available in French.
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.
Now, 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,