In "Through the Looking Glass," the White Queen tells Alice that she has sometimes believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Sylvia Brownrigg is a kindred spirit. In this ambitious and delicate first novel, which features an imaginary realm somewhat similar to Alice's Wonderland, Brownrigg tries to do several seemingly impossible things at once. She wants to hook her readers with a love story that is not, in the conventional sense, a romance; she wants to capture the recent past, too far behind us to seem like yesterday but not far enough to be distorted by the claims of history or nostalgia; and she wants to treat difficult philosophical ideas seriously in the context of a novel for general readers. A graceful storyteller who writes beautifully about the somber hues of human emotion, Brownrigg keeps all these balls in the air with remarkable aplomb -- I devoured this story about two stranded intellectuals who cling to each other in the ocean of cyberspace in one sitting. If "The Metaphysical Touch" has serious flaws that ultimately pull it off balance and drain its conclusion of power, it remains a winsome and at times magical novel.
"The Metaphysical Touch" is very much a book about California in the early '90s, and I suppose outsiders may be baffled by some of its preoccupations. (Like Brownrigg, I am a native of the Golden State; like me, she is a frequent contributor to Salon, although we don't know each other.) It is framed by two key events of that time and place -- the 1991 fire that destroyed thousands of homes in the Berkeley-Oakland hills, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King.
In these days of long-boom prosperity, it's difficult to remember how thick the Pacific Coast air was with apocalyptic paranoia early in the decade, but Brownrigg captures the atmosphere with offhanded ease. Emily Piper, or Pi, as she has been known since college, is a Berkeley graduate student who has lost everything in the fire -- her cat, her library and every note and draft of her dissertation on Kantian metaphysics -- and, unable to face the prospect of stoically rebuilding her life, has fled up the coast to the picturesque town of Mendocino.
You might find Pi exasperating as a friend or a roommate, but as a literary creation she is inspired and, eventually, irresistible. At first she seems like the classic beach-town damaged drifter, a hunched, professionally miserable young woman in a self-constructed cocoon of bulky clothing and solipsism. Gradually we come to understand Pi as a brilliant, hard-headed thinker who has crawled into a cave like a scorched cat and is now trying to shape a new conceptual framework for her life the only way she knows how. Pi "wanted a philosophy of loss," she explains to her Mendocino landlady, a blowsy, sexy Earth-Mother type called Abbie, "a view of what it meant, why it existed." With words and deeds, Pi begins to rebuild herself -- she tells Martha, Abbie's 7-year-old, delightful stories of "the Other World," where the ghosts of lost pets live in trees and shape the weather -- and eagerly embarks on an ambiguous intimate relationship with the divorcing Abbie herself.
Most important (at least, according to the author), Pi discovers JD, a man living in an Eastern city who is planning to commit suicide and who regularly posts the entries of his "Diery," as he calls it, on an Internet bulletin board. While Brownrigg captures the aura of mystery surrounding the dawn of the Internet age, she is ill at ease with the technological underpinnings of her story and still more so with JD himself. Certainly she is after something more, well, metaphysical than the plot of "Sleepless in Seattle"; JD insists he is looking not for a lover but for a fraternal spirit, a Horatio to his Hamlet.
Unfortunately, I didn't find him convincing on any level -- neither as a hetero male, a potential suicide nor a diarist who becomes an online phenomenon. Indeed, I became increasingly suspicious of Pi's e-mail communication with JD, which Brownrigg intends as the novel's emotional center but which mostly comes off as hyperactive, sophomoric chatter. More than anything else, JD reads like Pi's half-formed projection of what her soul mate might be like, a man virtually devoid of male tastes or predilections. In fact, the women who appear here and there in the "Diery" -- especially JD's lesbian sister Cindy (who argues, with tremendous plausibility, that JD should come out of the closet) -- are far more vividly realized characters than he is.
Brownrigg describes Pi as someone whose body's ample sexual appetite often leads her mind places it didn't know it wanted to go. Similarly, if the Internet, understood as an overblown symbol of Kant's noumenal realm, clouds the author's head, her heart is clearly on the fog-shrouded Mendocino coast where Pi, Abbie and Martha cobble together emotional shelter out of the wreckage of their earlier lives. I have no doubt that Pi will eventually go back to school, buy a new copy of the "Metaphysics of Ethics" and rewrite her whole damn dissertation so that it's tougher and better than it was the first time. But I don't believe her "imaginary friend," as Abbie half-jokingly calls JD, will have had anything to do with it.