Andrew Blackman’s novel A Virtual Love is a rather clever book. When we think of virtual these days it is generally connected to the computer and to be sure, the online world has much to contribute to the book. But most of the story takes place in real life with the repercussions of the virtual one bouncing everywhere.
Jeff Brennan, your average IT help desk geek, lives in a working-class town, driving an old jeep and spending Saturday nights with his friend playing video games, drinking and eating curry each in the comfort of his own apartment thanks to Skype. Jeff is not a genius, not a big up and coming, but just an average, not unlikeable guy mucking his way through life. Every Sunday he goes to visit his Granddad who raised him after Jeff’s parents died. Just when Granddad finally thinks that life will now be easy he gets a curveball in the form of his wife having Alzheimer’s. Daisy never speaks a word, can’t care for herself at all, pretty much just sits with a perpetually blank look on her face. Jeff keeps a worried eye on them, looking for signs that Granddad can’t take care of himself and Daisy any longer.
One day Jeff accompanies his environmental activist friend, Marcus, to a protest. Marcus ends up falling and injuring his arm. A woman, Marie, who was also at the protest and saw the accident happen, goes with the two of them to the hospital.
Marie is an American from California living in London. Environmental activism runs in her family you could say. She is beautiful and gets hit on a lot but she only wants one man: Jeff Brennan. Not Jeff Brennan average Joe, but Jeff Brennan, the recluse and number one political blogger in the UK. She is in love with him and they have never even met. When she finds out she is sitting next to Jeff Brennan at the hospital, neither Jeff nor Marcus correct her assumption that Jeff is that Jeff. Because the blogger is a recluse, no one knows what he looks like.
And so launches an increasingly complicated existence for Jeff who now has to pretend he is the other Jeff in order to keep Marie. And Marie is more than willing to help cover over the glaring inconsistencies between this Jeff who doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned about politics or the environment, and blogger Jeff who she has fallen in love with just from reading his blog posts. Oh what tangled webs.
Virtual Love is a story about love, real, genuine love and love that is totally made up from false beliefs and assumptions and fed with lies. The deep and abiding love between Jeff’s grandparents makes a stark contrast for the virtual love between Jeff and Marie.
It is also a book about identity. Jeff is trying to teach his Granddad how to use the computer and takes him to Facebook and explains creating a profile. Granddad notices Jeff’s profile is rather different than real life Jeff and comments on it which leads to an interesting exchange:
‘And how you choose to portray yourself with me, the dutiful grandson, drinking tea and chatting politely and asking if we’re doing okay, is that your real identity?’ ‘Of course, Granddad.’ ‘So it’s just on the net that you’re not real.’ Your response was a weary sigh. ‘It’s not that, it’s just that I have different identities for different places. I experiment.’ You started to stand up. ‘Look, let’s forget about it. It doesn’t matter.’
Identity on the internet can be rather fluid, but when Jeff wades into identity theft, he discovers that how he portrays himself in real life isn’t as easy to control as it is online and by the end even Jeff doesn’t know anymore who the real Jeff Brennan is.
And then there is time. Granddad and his antique clock that he winds every Sunday and cleans once a month, firmly roots him in the world. The clock’s ticking is a constant reminder of the passing of time. Granddad moves at the pace of the tick, tick, ticking clock. Whereas Jeff and his friends are always online and losing track of the passage of time, looking up from their computer screens a few hours later and wondering what happened. The ticking clock never fails to stir up memories for Granddad. One wonders how losing so much time online will affect our memories later in life; there will be nothing to remember–we risk becoming like Daisy even without having Alzheimer’s.
The book is structured in chapters that alternate voices. We get chapters from Granddad, Marie, Jeff, a friend of Jeff’s, Jeff’s boss and a coworker, as well as the blogger Jeff Brennan. It makes for an interesting story and keeps the pace moving right along. It also provides a nice surprise at the end that I didn’t even guess was coming. And that wasn’t the only surprise. But for those you will have to read the book yourself.