Books: A catcher of the wry
Victoria Radin logs on for a witty and ambitious critique of pure reason
Saturday 21 November 1998
by Sylvia Brownrigg
Gollancz, pounds 15.99, 444pp
THERE IS a whole family of American fictions born of a rib of JD Salinger, and this novel is one of them. But here we're talking Salinger in very mutated form - gone west, aged up, doppelgangered into male and female, technologically agile. That voice of adolescence, prolonged to thirtysomething, remains: smart, indecently perceptive.
And also very sorry for the human self to which this dandified brain box is attached. Both protagonists of this audacious, imperfect first novel are survivors of what they see as major personal disasters. Pi (short for Emily Piper, as well as a reference to ) is a philosophy post-grad who has nearly finished her dissertation on Kant's metaphysics. Unfortunately, the Berkeley fire of 1991 has cremated all her work. The male JD, a failed novelist, has been fired from an unworthy job.
Can-do American spirit fails them. Pi turns her back on Berkeley's eucalyptus groves, with their siren lure of sexy epistemological, bisexual banter. She is now to be found lodging with a fortyish New Ageist who is busy with "grief energy" and her small, cute daughter. (Esmee? Lots of squalor, some love). JD has gone public about despair on the Internet with his "Diery", and its irregular progress reports from a spirit that asks itself whether to be or not to be.
Brownrigg takes a risk with the Diery, which for much of the novel is interwoven with her third-person narrative about Pi. For a start, JD has a voice that is so compellingly sardonic, a mix of Holden Caulfield and Woody Allen, so keenly observant and with such feeling for his fellow man (and, usually, woman) that when his Net interpolations stop and we return to Pi, it's a bit as if a particularly gorgeous screen has shut down. His stories of wackily hip friends and terse description or reported dialogue are so well-written that he often puts the more verbose creator of the self-pitying Pi in the shade.
Brownrigg, who herself is a philosophy graduate, is in her element away from home. Her first volume was an accomplished collection of short stories which took ideas and spun them into the realm of unforced surreality. When she is odd here, she is wonderful. The Diery, which naturally turns out to have a cult following, is an outgrowth of ED 536, a Net site which sprang from a discussion of Emily Dickinson's famous poem about the desire to call a halt to life. Members sport names like Young Werther or Hemingway. Pi signs on as Sylvia Plath (curiously, there is a vacancy) and through the e-mail meets, mingles lots of thought-fluid and thus (speaking virtually in every sense) mates with JD.
It becomes increasingly clear that this is an investigation by way of Cyberspace into Kantian ideas of perceived reality versus the unknowable - or, as Pi sees it, magic. Humankind cannot know everything, nor should it want to.
This is also a love story. Hiply contemporary as it is, its refusal to make the love more than platonic is not a million miles from Romance, or the Romantics, or Anita Brookner. But, unlike Brookner, Brownrigg endows her characters with the gift of the Word to keep them going when the rest fails. Coming at our formlessness and apparent meaninglessness from a philosophical angle, Brownrigg offers a consoling and singular perspective for the reassessment of our tangled lives.
TVJamie's Sugar Rush reveal's campaigning chef's new foe
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What marriage would look like if we actually followed the Bible
- 2 President Obama leaves touching comment on Humans of New York photo from Iran
- 3 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 4 The Chinese city where men have 'three girlfriends because there are so many women'
- 5 'Heartbreaking' Syria orphan photo wasn't taken in Syria and not of orphan
The Gamechangers trailer: Daniel Radcliffe stars in GTA movie
Star Wars: New action dolls launched on Force Friday ahead of The Force Awakens release
Ricki And The Flash, film review: Meryl Streep's rock'n'roll creation steals the show
Joan Aiken: Today's Google Doodle celebrates life of British fantasy novelist
Photographer captures the beauty and intensity of his girlfriend giving birth at home
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 250,000 back our campaign
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Refugees welcome: More than 250,000 sign Independent petition calling for Britain to 'take its fair share'