Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Virtual Love - Andrew Blackman

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.


Suko said...

This sounds interesting to me in many ways. I of course like the idea of characters who are bloggers. :) Excellent review, Brian!

Ryan said...

Living outside the "North American Bubble, I spend a lot of time thinking about how technology has changed the world I once lived in. Sure, it's changed the world I currently live in, too, but since I'm not "of" this world, I sort of stand to the side of everywhere.

Technology has given us a lot of good, but there has been so much social shift in such a short time, it's hard to quantify exactly what it is doing to us and what it will all mean. At best we can theorize and guess.

This is going on the Must Read list.

Anonymous said...

I think we have a book match for the heavens.

I am going to read a book that you have reviewed and I'm not afraid it is going to fly right over my ol' noggin.

Yay Belle!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - The whole blogger thing was really interesting and entertaining. It really added to the book for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - Indeed things have changed so fast. I also agree, technology and society are moving so fast, it is herd to know what the future holds.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle- As I mentioned I think that you understate the level of commentary and quality of books up on your blog :)

I would love to know what your thoughts are about this book when you read it.

Heidi’sbooks said...

I've often thought that I didn't understand why people would deliberately create alternate personalities, etc. online. But, I think we sometimes do it without really knowing-- when we leave out the everyday kinds of things. I think the boring parts of life are the best. :) Thanks for the review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - I think that folks have always played with thier personas. This was even a favorite subject of Shakespeare. Modern technology and social networking have just raised it to an entirely new level.

I agree that the everyday aspects of life can indeed be the most interesting, at least from the outside looking in.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Brian, I have a copy of this, that I aim to read soon, it does sound like a very interesting book & having read a short story written by Andrew, from this collection of tales which I thoroughly enjoyed makes me very interested in this

Guy Savage said...

Thanks Brian: this sounds as though it's a book I'd really like a lot. The last time I went to Milton Keynes, it was a very blank place. Wonder if the author chose it on purpose?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish -Thanks for the link, the site looks like it contains the work of lots of interesting authors.

I would love to hear what your thoughts are on this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Through the eyes of my American glasses Milton Keynes culturally and socially sounded very much like an American suburb.

I think that you would like this book. I think that it will be particularly appreciated by bloggers.

vb said...

hey brian
sounds like an interesting book , ur commentary has made me to love Marie more than any other character...btw this also reminded me of a person who is an introvert in real life but just the opposite online, in that sense the book has captured the current scenario with a human touch..
gud commentary as always...

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Marie's "love" was based on plain infatuation and probably a desire to be famous. I don't think her feelings for Jeff would have been the same if she really knew the real person that was her boyfriend. Sometimes we believe what we want to believe and that may not necessarily be the truth.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - Marie was really an extraordinary character.

Indeed situations where introverts in real life come out in social media are part of the equation. The digital world has opened up or at least broadened so may avenues.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I think that the relationship between Jeff and maria was just so very complicated. Indeed Marie's feelings were initially based upon infatuation and a hunger for fame. Yet as she began to get to know the real Jeff and he barely talked about his blog she began to appreciate some real attributes in him.

Indeed Marie would never have connected with Jeff had she not believed he was the famous blogger and there is lots of self delusion going on here. I just think that that Marie her relationship with Jeff was complicated and layered and that is why I liked the book so much.

Harvee said...

Sounds like an interesting and entertaining book for bloggers and social media types, for sure. Enjoyed your review, Brian.

Caroline said...

I really liked Andrew's first book a lot, so I got this too. In the last week alone I've seen three reviews, so I have to skim them or I will not read it any day soon.
I'll retunr and read your review properly once I read it.
His first novel moved me a lot, I expect this one to be very good too. It's certainly an interesting topic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Indeed anyone plugged into the digital world would find this interesting though it is critical of that world in many ways.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I am the same way, I try not to read other folks commentary until I have written my own.

I have not read Andrew's first novel but it looks good.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I think this book touches upon a truth about our cyber world. People are in danger of becoming alienated from each other while producing false images of themselves to the rest of the world.
Although I wonder how much the entertainment industry is more responsible for that.

Unknown said...

Interesting story. Thanks for sharing. You know, bloggers might edit out all the mundane parts of life, but FaceBookers don't seem to. I have a surprising number of friends/acquaintances who put INCREDIBLY mundane posts on Facebook. Like "I'm not eating my Kraft Mac & Cheese. Yum!" or "Stuck in traffic. :("

I always thought FB (and probably Twitter) encouraged some people to share mundane things that no one cares about.

But that's just an aside. Thanks for the review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Indeed your point is a major of the book. The alienation is something that seems to be becoming prevalent.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi rachel - This bool also deves a lot into Facebook and Twitter. A few chapters just consist of tweets! I agree about the mundane stuff. In addition, both Facebook and Twitter seem to be magnets for bad, rude and lowest common denominator behavior.

stujallen said...

andrew book sounds very of the moment and how we cope with the modern world ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - The thing is this book is very much about the world as it is, yet mixing and playing with identities is such an age old theme, Shakespeare being the obvious example.

The Bookworm said...

This does sound interesting, especially since the characters are bloggers. I wonder what happens with Jeff and Marie. It's scary how people can just plain out lie about themselves. The internet makes this even more commonplace. On the other hand, it's easy to just kind of believe what people are posting on their blogs or on facebook, can all be fabricated.
Fantastic review as usual.

p.s. you're awesome for purchasing your copy even when you were offered a free review copy

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Thanks for the good word.

I intentionally did not include spoilers here as the fate of the relationship was a major source of suspense. I never really thought that to many people were lying n Facebook...but you never know.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,

I read it too and wrote my billet before reading your review.

I agree with what you say about it and I enjoyed reading this novel.

I found it engaging too and as a blogger, it makes you think, doesn't it? Although I'm under the impression that the book blogging world is more civilized.

Do you follow political blogs? I don't. Why? I don't care what other people I don't know think about politics. If I want analysis, I'd rather read something by a journalist.


Anonymous said...

PS: I recommend On the Holloway Road too. It's Andrew Blackman's debut novel.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I too was thinking of some of the differences that seem inherent in book blogs.

I am into politics and current events but only to a point, I very rarely visit such blogs. Only so much time in life!

I do however regularly read some beer blogs! Those are also very civilized.

I am off to your blog to see your comments!

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Oh, my gosh! How is it that I didn't read this wonderful review sooner? This is definitely a FASCINATING book, and you have hooked me on it with your very detailed and interesting analysis of it!

You know, this is a very original plot. I haven't come across anything like this EVER. The whole idea of "online personas" is a very intriguing one. I think that all of us bloggers hide parts of ourselves when we publish our posts. For instance, I really didn't go into detail about the fact that I've been fighting this weird cold for nearly a month now. This cold has been making the rounds down here in Miami, and everyone who's caught it has it for a VERY long time...I did mention this briefly in my sidebar, but then took it down. I know this is a minor example, but I must confess to feeling some apprehension about revealing myself completely on my blog. Why? I think that revealing too many personal details would probably bore people. Also, I don't think it's really relevant to a book blog. I want to concentrate entirely on the books. Of course, I do unwittingly reveal myself whenever I write a book review, or do an author interview, or any post in which I express my opinion on anything. However, I think I'm revealing "the real me", the part of me that is passionate about books, that wants to share that passion, that gets excited about great books (although I do love to read YA, lol).

Anyway, I MUST read this book! I love the fact that it's a book of ideas, and profound ones at that, as well as a love story! Sounds absolutely riveting!!

Thanks for another terrific review!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maia - Thanks again.

I also thought that this was truly an original idea. It is extremely thought provoking especially for bloggers. I too struggle with how much to show in the blog and I too think a lot about what issues to present.

If you read this I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks for an interesting review. As a fellow blogger I read the book with great interest and, although I didn't mention this in my own review, found a lot of the issues faced by the real Jeff Brennan pretty unsettling. I'm not someone who's overly comfortable with putting personal self out there and I could relate to some of the underlying anxieties easily.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mathew - thanks for stopping by.

I myself have gotten somewhat uncomfortable with Facebook and the amount of personal information that people put out there.