Andrew Blackman is a fellow blogger who is known to comment here and on whose blog I occasionally comment. Though I was offered a free review copy of his book, I chose to purchase a copy instead as I was not sure if I could read the book and post my commentary within the requested time. I also wished to support the sale of the book.
A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman is a thoughtful, artistic, entertaining and ultimately sad meditation upon the state of the world in the digital age.
The plot centers upon Jeff Brennan, a young man who resides in Milton Keynes, U.K. Jeff is employed in a job that bores him to death and spends most of his free time plugged into various online pursuits. He spends inordinate stretches of time playing online computer games with his best friend Jon. The novel consists of a series of first person narratives told by Jeff’s friends, family, and acquaintances, all directed at Jeff.
Early on we are introduced to Marie, a young American woman living in London. Marie has deep familial and intellectual roots within a liberal, environmental and anti-materialistic lifestyle as well as other related causes. She too is very engaged in the digital world and is a blogger. She becomes fascinated and infatuated with the extremely popular blog and persona of another person, who happens to be none other than Jeff Brennan. When Marie meets Jeff, the book’s protagonist, she mistakes him for Jeff Brennan, the political blogger who shares the same name. Jeff, realizing his opportunity with the beautiful Marie, plays along. Since the blogger Jeff Brennan keeps his personal life absolutely secret, our Jeff is able to perpetuate the deception and dates Marie, who eventually falls in love with him. As time goes by, our Jeff manages to further capitalize on the other Jeff Brennan’s blog’s fame. As a result, he slides further and further into emotional and moral vacuity.
Arthur Standhope is Jeff’s grandfather who lives his life based upon experience and reality and is adverse to the online world. His attempts at saving Jeff from himself often result in frustration. Arthur is thematically the key to the story and seems to represent the novel’s moral center.
This novel is immensely engaging and readable, yet it is also filled with ideas. It is an insightful critique of modern society and the digital age. There are many interwoven threads here. The concept of identity, how we project it, edit it, fake it and react to that of others is explored in great depth. We are reminded that identity issues are not exclusive to the digital universe. Even in the real world Marie analyzes and crafts her persona,
“Maybe I like being the centre of attention for once, and maybe I play it up just a little. Maybe I become what people want me to be: an outgoing, glamorous, party-loving American chick. Maybe that’s why I only meet guys who want the fantasy, and probably scare off the ones who might want the real me.”
Yet there is something new going on in the world. Internet institutions like Facebook, twitter, blogs, etc., have revved up the identity game into overdrive. Aside from the main plot thread of Jeff taking on the identity of a famous blogger, he, Marie and their friends are constantly tweaking, editing and misrepresenting their online personas, some of which are completely made up. The novel explores many fascinating variations of this subject.
At one point Marie ponders some ideas concerning blogging,
“Everybody’s life was edited mercilessly. The boredom and humiliation were cropped out, leaving only glamour and excitement. Popularity, after all, was the currency. Housing estates in Bletchley and slow commuter trains on rainy afternoons were the guilty secrets, the shameful inadequacy. They’d bring down a blog’s value just as surely as a leaky sewer would erode property values.”
A plot feature that illustrates the complexity of the issue involves Marie’s entire process of falling in love with Jeff. She seems to fall for a combination of the real person as well as an online persona that she only thinks is his and is in no way connected with him.
I find that like a composer who writes a musical piece centered on a particular key and/or theme, a great book will take an idea or concept, in this case the idea of projected and perceived identities, and explore many of its permutations. Blackman succeeds in doing this here brilliantly.
There is much more to this book then I can explore in this post. There are ruminations on human perception of time, people’s tendency to jump on bandwagons, work ethic, etc. In addition, though the degeneration of Jeff was ultimately very dark and depressing, this book often provides sharp, witty and hilarious commentary upon the state of the world. One aspect of this work that I cannot help to mention is the extremely complex characterizations of all of the major, and some of the minor, characters. In particular Marie and Arthur are nuanced, vividly drawn and really steal the show here.
This is simply a great choice for anyone who wants to read an engaging and often funny story with emphasis on the digital world. It will be particularly interesting to anyone who writes a blog (Just in case anyone who comes here to read does that :)) as many of the characters are bloggers and the narrative is filled with insightful and amusing commentary on the subject. It is also a great choice if one likes deep characterization and rumination upon serious issues concerning the human condition.