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Books: A catcher of the wry

Victoria Radin logs on for a witty and ambitious critique of pure reason
The Metaphysical Touch

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.