Identifying a cultural turning point is difficult even with the hindsight of years. In the 1990s, as it transpired, writer Sylvia Brownrigg quietly captured the dramatic social shift wrought by the Internet. Through the story of its two central correspondents, The Metaphysical Touch, published in 1999 and set in 1992, depicts the technological and social impact created by email and bulletin boards. This underappreciated book isn't widely recognized for its role as an early chronicler of the Internet's social influence, but Brownrigg continues to publish smart, evocative fiction that digs into society's conflicts with women's desire and technology (including this summer's Pages for Her).
With her debut novel, however, she strikes a prescient and personal chord. At the time, literary fiction was dominated by the likes of men such as Jonathan Lethem and David Foster Wallace, while the women lived through a heyday of chick lit with Confessions of a Shopaholic, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, and The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing crowding the best-seller list. Contemporary women's fiction skewed toward fantasy, historical romance, or late-twentieth-century material fantasy. This subtle novel, shaped by recent historical events, gained recognition by critics but slipped under the radar of a wide readership. I'd learned about it through a good friend, another recent college grad, who had discovered it in paperback while working her third-shift job at a Border's in Philadelphia. Emailing me about it during our first year in the real world, Katy wrote, "The reaching out of souls through fingers and eyes and dimensions appeals to me. maybe it's because i can talk more openly through this medium than others. maybe it's because i see others doing the same." This world-weary book struck me as an empathetic, long-distance friend, not unlike Katy, my dear friend and e-correspondent.
The Metaphysical Touch focuses on two damaged characters: JD and Pi. Living on separate coasts, each finds comfort in the anonymous, judgment-free space of a bulletin board on suicide.
In that time, we had to sit with our own thoughts and feel the weight of what it meant to be lost.
After a lifetime of depression and recent personal and professional disappointments, JD uses the board as a space to post installments of a "Diery" that stands on its own in a sea of commenters, chiming in about literary deaths. His dark wit drives a narrative conveyed through lengthy journal entries — a series of proto–blog posts? — that spread like wildfire across the Internet. Reaching out with the Internet, JD finds an audience who hangs on his every word. In the wake of the Diery's success, the bulletin board loses its general interest in suicide and becomes a space to respond to and comment on JD's latest missives. While his writing began as just another participant's thoughts about suicide, his narrative quickly became the only one worth following. Unknowingly, he created a blog whose reach exceeded that of the original audience. While it may fill one void, does it create another? The addictive relationship between strangers on the Internet continues to complicate his life.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Pi, a graduate student in philosophy, has suddenly lost her apartment, and with it her cat, as well as all of her belongings — including her dissertation — owing to the 1992 fires that devastated the Berkeley area. Shaken by outliving her livelihood and the stuff that made up her life, Pi retreats to the home of a close friend's relative in Sausalito. Living with a newly separated woman and her young daughter, Pi ignores friends and family and refuses to set foot in bookstores, now haunting reminders of all she's lost. While she knows that her withdrawal from society makes no sense, Pi can't bear to return to the world of possessions and expectations again. During this time, Pi accepts the gift of a modem, and, despite her hesitation, she begins to reconnect with the world outside her head. She stumbles upon JD's Diery after a night of exploration. Not content to remain a passive reader, she finds a way to cajole JD into corresponding directly with her. Each writes cautiously, revealing just enough to entice the other into wanting more. It's a seductive dance that becomes an art.
Brownrigg exposes two people searching to escape themselves who ultimately find empathy and true companionship online. Despite the decades of vicious behavior, catfishing, online dating, and social media that have followed, the Internet remains the perfect place for people in search of a new beginning. Its democratic roots allow anyone the ability to find their voice and be heard. Or, you know, lurk and listen then comment anonymously. It's a relatively safe place to speak out, find yourself, or, at the very least, gain a sense of community.
Looking back, 1999 can be seen as the turning point of technology-related hype and hysteria: Y2K loomed over the new century, Internet access was in full swing, amazon.com was four years old, and Time Warner was about to merge with America Online. At this point, almost everyone was familiar with email, but we were still years away from the extensive digital archives and social networking we have today. While the fabric of our social interactions was beginning to change, the majority of us couldn't predict exactly how connectivity would spread invasively. Brownrigg's novel straddles the time between our current streaming moment and a pre-Internet world, when we weren't hopelessly connected all the time. Like JD, we could disappear. Like Pi, we could lose our libraries and our homes. In that time, we had to sit with our own thoughts and feel the weight of what it meant to be lost.
While Brownrigg doesn't speculate about the extent of the Internet's influence, she illuminates how the Internet helped us better understand ourselves through both its benefits as well as its limitations. In the wake of her correspondence with JD, prepared to join the world again, Pi reflects, "It is so strange when you shatter your own mythologies." It can take the act of writing a stranger, then forging a bond based on faith, to restore one's sense of self and place in the world. Through knowing others, we come to truly know ourselves.
Lauren LeBlanc is an independent book editor and writer, as well as a senior editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @lequincampe.