Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Andrew Blackman: "A Virtual Love"

Andrew's second novel is a book which explores the complexities of creating and sustaining multiple (online) identities, and justifying the choices which are made by the main protagonist: Jeff Brennan.
Jeff Brennan, is to be quite frank, a bit of a dick, and I like the fact that Andrew has written him as a conflicted character with no qualms about deceiving himself and those around him as to his own true weaknesses. The premise of the novel follows Jeff's unravelling as a character fraud, whose lies and deception begin to get the better of him. The relationship with his grandfather is the most interesting to read and I empathised with his grandfather, whose disappointment in his treasured grandson makes him reflect on whether he could have done more for Jeff who came to him after the death of his parents. His grandfather is certainly canny, a former Fleet Street journalist, whose investigative mind helps him to understand Jeff's actions through social media. His grandfather notes with sadness: "Human beings are like houses, all with elaborate security measures to keep out intruders, but all with a weakness somewhere. Find the weakness and you've found the key." Prescient words. 

The characters Andrew has developed in the book are pretty hard to like, and it's hard to understand why Jeff does what he does, he not only tricks a woman who believes she is being courted by a famous online blogger, but he also creates this pseudo-infamy around the character of an eco-protestor. The woman Jeff dates (Marie) is cloyingly irritating. She's starstruck and believes that she is in love with the real political blogger whose online identity Jeff has stolen: "You were probably ashamed of me, this unemployed American girl who hadn't achieved a damn thing in all the years you'd been running Britain's most popular political blog." She sounds exactly like the type of person who would call her kids Paprika and Hestor, and breastfeed them until they are seven. She goes on to comfort herself with her own self-important deluded existential crisis: "I really should have been happy, shouldn't I? You were Jeff Brennan, the famous blogger. So kind, thoughtful, eager to make me happy." Andrew's got the balance of Marie just right, she's annoying and desperate enough to annoy a reader like me who generally appreciates strong female characters, but also I felt genuinely conflicted when Jeff's stories begin to unravel and I wondered just to what lengths Marie would go to in order to keep up with the pretence of her being with a "famous political blogger." 

There is also a passive-aggressive bromance between Jeff and his "mate" Jon. Jon's fears of 'losing' Jeff as the relationship between him and Marie develop are handled really nicely by Andrew. It's a little uncomfortable watching the slow burning resentment towards Jeff's relationship which is built on deception and lies with Marie. Jon pretty much wants Jeff all to himself, play videogames and get trashed.  He's also privy to Jeff's deceptions and rather than strongly condemn Jeff, he just warns him to not get caught out. 

Fundamentally, it's the interactions between the characters which binds this story together, it's a story that explores the lengths some people will go to in projecting a pretence of "success" (whatever and however success is defined), and the uncomfortableness some of us may feel when we know a loved one is acting like a huge dick. Jeff's grandfather is a well crafted moral compass of the book, he struggles to accept that his beloved grandson is a huckster, but at the same time, wants to help him to confront his deceptions.  The book also really nicely captures the way in which we all live out our lives on social media. This is virtually anathema to Jeff's grandfather who struggles at first with Facebook, but then begins to understand how the cynical use of social media allows his grandson to live out these plural fantasy lives to feed his own ego. 

I strongly recommend A Virtual Love to readers interested in narratives examining how our constant over exposure on social media feeds the very best and worst of our characteristics. The very worst reveals vulnerability and tendencies to feed our egos with very public proclamations of "doing good" (as we see in Marcus' character: the eco-warrior). The best shows a canniness to weave and sustain multiple identities and frames of reference which at the very least, demonstrates a sort of resilience and pragmatism. Of course I could be too generous with that! This is a well crafted book; characters half of whom are detestable, half who are likeable, and at the very centre, a divisive and deeply conflicted young man whose selfishness knows no bounds. 

Published by Legend Press: 

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