A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman book cover
A Virtual Love (2013) is the second novel by award-winning novelist Andrew Blackman and a meditation on identity and relationships in the digital age. Marie, an American raised on a hippy commune but now living in London, spends her days helping the homeless and needy. When she attends a protest rally, Marie is astonished to meet Jeff Brennan – Britain’s No. 1 Political Blogger, of whom Marie is an avid fan. Swapping numbers, she immediately fills her head with fantasies of ensnaring this sensitive, intelligent man. Unfortunately, this Jeff Brennan isn’t the Jeff Brennan. He is in fact a bored office worker, living in Milton Keynes and spending his free time machine-gunning terrorists on his games console and eating curries with his best mate. As Marie wriggles her way into Jeff’s life, she moves into his small flat and spends time with his granddad who cares for Jeff’s locked-in grandmother, Daisy. Marie and Jeff’s is far from a perfect relationship but it’s sweet and it works, just. Jeff knows his lie can’t hold, however, and the question is, how long can he hang on to this American woman he barely knows and hardly deserves?

The author clearly understands the world of online communication and the lengths to which people will go to manage and manipulate their online identities and the implications this can have in the real world. The central lie, however, doesn’t result from the manipulation of the online world, but rather a simple misinterpretation in the physical world, allowed to snowball by a desperate need for something more from life on Jeff’s part. Indeed, if anything the Internet is the primary means by which Jeff’s lie threatens to be exposed. Strange then, to find a central dilemma which does not require the Internet, and which could have easily taken place in any of the ages that preceded the digital.

On a more intimate note, Marie’s choice to live with a partner who is by some way less compelling or likable than his online persona, accepting this disparity and enjoying a side of Jeff that she only sees online, speaks volumes. Also covered well is the modern world’s ambivalence to deceits and distortions, accepting them as part of the landscape and not as something worthy of aggressive purging.

In a wider sense Blackman looks at time, the relative quickening of pace that the modern world represents. Arthur, Jeff’s granddad - methodical, patient, and principled – exists at a slower pace, where a minute or an hour can ease gently by without any frenetic activity. Jeff, inevitably, lives at a different pace, where activity is concentrated, time condensed. This consideration of relativity is subtle and satisfying.

Jeff’s story is told from the point of view of different people in his life, but never from his own mouth. This unusual second person narrative style is a little unsettling to the rhythm of the writing but it represents well the shifting identity of an individual and the lack of a definitive voice. Of course, the projecting of multiple identities is not something new for the information age; for as long as people have been socially conscious they have chosen to tailor the side of themselves that they show in any particular situation. Jeff’s world, though, and the world of those around him is acutely observed and is a good representation of life as it is for many people.

Jeff’s granddad, who starts the novel as little more than the voice of dissent against the technological revolution, grows into a stronger, more rounded model of the case against. The relationship between Jeff and his granddad - the gap in their conception of the world - works well as a way of highlighting the changes that split the generations. There is a melancholy throughout, which finds its root in the loss of intimacy in all forms of communication. Jeff’s granddad is, perhaps, the only character to fully appreciate this shift in lifestyle and from this point of view is an absolutely crucial voice in the story.

To keep the plot moving forwards, however, there are a number of contrivances and unnatural behaviours, which quite severely inhibit the plausibility and smooth-flowing of the story, and one can’t quite forgive these, particularly in instances where alternatives were, seemingly, available. Marie is the biggest loser to the cause, some of the contrivances making an idiot or thin character of her.

A Virtual Love is an interesting read, although it fails to deliver any startling insights into identity in the modern age and some of the lamentations about the changing forms of interpersonal communication are a little regressive. The contrivances too mean that the story lacks a level of credibility, but what is left is still a decent read. The crux of Jeff and Marie’s relationship is timeless, and at its heart the novel is about this intimacy, which doesn’t change over the generations, but just evolves.

I quite enjoyed this, although I didn't think it dealt with the issue of identity in the digital age particularly strongly or creatively. This was more a problem of expectation than anything else, and I still found this an enjoyable read even if I felt more could have been done with it.

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