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Metaphysical Missives

[whitespace] The Metaphysical Touch Cyber-Spouse: Susan Brownrigg's odd couple navigate the enticing waters of Web relations.

Susan Brownrigg's debut novel, 'The Metaphysical Touch,' delivers the goods on Internet romance

By Jessica Ylvisaker

In an epistolary novel of the 1990s, must the correspondence be electronic? A query not directly put forth in Sylvia Brownrigg's recent contribution to contemporary fiction--a novel titled The Metaphysical Touch--but one which is well posed in response to the book. Brownrigg lays out the very best of both arguments in her story about a virtual friendship cum romance.

At a most basic level, without the Internet, how would the novel's main characters--a Berkeley grad student taking temporary refuge in Mendocino, and a New York City- bound unemployed tech supporter--have met? The presence and effects of the Internet, especially as they relate to our connections with other humans, give Brownrigg a timely perspective from which to tease out questions about the realm of the knowable, the importance of honesty and the relationship between reason and experience.

In addition to reclusive tendencies, these Internet-crossed lovers also share reasons to shy away from the technological world. The New Yorker, a depressive cynic named JD, has been recently and ignominiously relieved of his computer-help-desk job. Likewise, Pi, the graduate student, is taking her North Bay sabbatical mostly due to the loss of her computer (which melted, along with the rest of Pi's worldly possessions, in the Berkeley fires). With the disappearance of her computer, so disappeared her dissertation. They might be the ideal pair to champion the notion that letters these days need not be transmitted by AOL. All the old ways of communicating are still around, and people do use them, quite effectively, to keep in touch.

It seems needlessly dangerous to subject a story to such potential for techno-triteness; the staunchest Luddite among us has heard, and joined in a collective eye roll at, stories of romantic connections occurring over the Internet. This electronic communication has lost its brand-spanking novelty and certainly cannot be relied upon to bring originality and insight into age-old boy-and-girl interactions.

But it is possible, as Brownrigg deftly demonstrates, to sidestep all of the pitfalls of eye-rolling inanity; she knows where they all are, and she dances around them. With a gentle prescience, she anticipates potential attempts to deflate the importance of this email friendship by playing with the levels at which the characters in her book engage it. Brownrigg shows it's even possible to use the added dimension of the virtual to a good old-fashioned literary end. She enjoys word games and games of semantics, the likes of which find a perfect voice in the tone of friendly email banter.

This is not to suggest that the book's many virtues can be summed up in the subject line of an email. The narrative is self-referential in a way that loops unpredictably and leaves us in a laughing and breathless state, eager to be spun again. Brownrigg commands a firm knowledge of such labyrinthine structures as Kant's categorical imperative, human reaction to love and loss, bisexuality, and the California coastline, and she layers her understanding into her fiction with a grace and forcefulness that is nothing short of inspired .

The Metaphysical Touch by Sylvia Brownrigg (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $24, 390 pages)

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From the August 2, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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