A humanist on the information superhighway

The Metaphysical Touch by Sylvia Brownrigg Gollancz pounds 16.99

Afew years ago a story circulated claiming that Daniel Day Lewis had ditched his then pregnant girlfriend Isabelle Adjani, by fax. Accusations of caddish behaviour were levelled at the actor, not just for the message but for the method of delivery. His use of a fax for such a personal matter was received with a national shake of the head. It is this presumptive bubble - the notion that emotions should be restricted to certain media - that short-story writer Susan Brownrigg bursts with her first novel.

In the autumn of 1991, fire whips through the affluent San Francisco suburb of Berkeley, destroying everything philosophy lecturer Emily Piper (Pi) owns. Bereft of all her books and writings, she decamps along the coast to stay with a friend's aunt amongst the dreadlocked new-agers and cappuccino-guzzlers of the Mendocino Cape. Across the country on the east coast, J D Levin, newly unemployed and swamped by black clouds of depression, begins to post his "Diery" on the Internet. Slowly the pair are drawn together by the intangible agency of e-mail. What transpires is the "metaphysical touch" where "our hearts and minds are now moved by beings unseen".

Whether the J D with which Pi is communicating really is the same one who chronicles his life on the Internet is just part of the millennial puzzle. Set in an age where HIV and MTV lie top-to-tail on CNN, Pi and JD are just two more abbreviations. Whilst, unfortunately, the reasons for J D's suicidal tendencies remain opaque, his Diery, his way of coping with the ills of metropolitan life, proves to be a funny and sardonic "Tales of the City" re-worked for the Nineties.

In a single extract there are references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Charlie's Angels and The Twilight Zone, all tripping over themselves in what J D's sister's gay lover calls "just one more crazy melting pot story from this great nation of ours". It's that kind of book; unafraid to pooh- pooh pretentious limitations, choosing instead to embrace the mix and match possibilities of a postmodern lifestyle.

The Internet is a sore point with many, making those of us who live in world-wide-web ignorance feel wary, nervous, but most of all stupid that we're not connected. Brownrigg understands this trepidation, and in Pi has created a fledgling technophile who voices the reader's reservations with startling accuracy. As Pi makes her first steps in this strange territory, guided by the virtual hands of JD, the physical world of black olive salads, whale-watching and hiking wonderfully combines with their online conversations.

Brownrigg is a humanist on the information superhighway who has created a story which translates as "Love in the time of Microsoft". For all its contemporary relevance the book is at heart a rather traditional story of love maintained through correspondence, akin to Helen Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road. Only with Brownrigg's fresh, original voice a modern reader empathises with her protagonists as they declare, "You take your friends where you find them". Whether it be in a coffee shop or online.

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