These two books focus on two very different sides of virtual relationships. Love Virtually bravely confines itself to the purely virtual side of an online romance, while Virtually Love is more concerned with the effects of virtual interactions on a full-bodied “real-life” romance.
Love Virtually is the tale of Emmi Rother and Leo Leike, two individuals in their mid-thirties. Emmi is married to an older man, while Leo is (mostly) single. A chance encounter online quickly blossoms into a full-blown virtual romance.
Virtually Love chronicles the love affair of “Janis Carlson” and “Ambrose Lawrence” from their meeting on a dating site as “Ambrose 2007″ and “Grammar Girl” through their first in-person meeting and three-year long-distance relationship. (Incidentally, Daniel Glattauer’s novel originally published as Gut gegen Nordwind in German in 2006, had no influence on my choice of title, which I selected, with the help of Janis, in 2008. Interestingly, I considered and rejected Love, Virtually for being more awkward to my ears.)
If ever a novel could be described as having “pitch-perfect dialogue,” Love Virtually would be it. Not only did Leo and Emmi’s email exchanges strike me as utterly realistic, they almost seemed archetypal, as though the author had tapped into some primal blueprint of virtual communication (perhaps my impression was aided by the eerie resemblance of Emmi, both in appearance and verbal expression, to my Janis).
This seems unlikely on the surface, since Leo and Emmi are better-educated and more articulate than most, but I think the pattern of coquetry and confabulation, along with the inevitable miscommunications, are very typical of this kind of interaction. For a certain category of individuals, which I would describe as reasonably intelligent and educated and comfortable with words while not necessarily being overly cerebral, this dialogue may seem hauntingly familiar. I know it was for me. I suspect I could remove great gobs of email and chat dialogue from my talks with Janis and paste it into Leo and Emmi’s conversations without most readers noticing a difference.
But Daniel Glattauer, in what I regard as an almost heroic fidelity to his minimalist vision, tells his story entirely through emails in an updated digital version of epistolary novels. Yet even Glattauer’s couple cannot escape the imperative which lurks within every virtual romantic exchange: eventually, for the online affair to have meaning, the couple must meet in the flesh.
A virtual romantic relationship is a lot like raising a child. Together, the couple creates a cute relationship “baby” which they raise and nurture, but as their child grows it will need at some point to take its first steps outside the virtual womb.
Of course, those first steps into the outside world are almost always scary, and couples often resist exposing their pretty baby to such potentially harsh elements. I know of couples who postponed their first in-flesh meetings for months and even years (sometimes, even after years, they never meet). Emmi and Leo are also extremely protective of their non-corporeal relationship, and never do meet in person in the novel (readers will need to read Every Seventh Wave for that epic event).
Because almost everyone experiences a powerful urge to meet in person at some point, and they tend to judge the ultimate validity of their relationship in terms of “real life,” people in general seem to believe that a virtual romantic relationship is not real in itself.
I think this is false. I believe that a virtual romantic relationship, when judged by its emotional content, can be as real as any other form of relationship. What it can’t be, sadly, is an absolute guarantor of a successful non-virtual relationship. Some people – I won’t venture a guess about the percentages – might get along fantastically via email or phone conversation, but couldn’t stand each other in person. Some couples may even excel at email communication but suck over the phone or on Skype. Jan and I related poorly through emails but could happily talk to each other on the phone until the cows came home (and learned calculus).
This shouldn’t be too surprising. Just as we function better as individuals under certain circumstances, so do couples. Couples who fall in love during some great adventure or on The Bachelorette won’t necessarily do well in mundane life. On the other hand, couples who do well in mundane life may crumble under adversity. Some couples may endure because they spend so little time around each other, while others may fall apart because they spent too much time together.
For this reason I think it’s a mistake to see a relationship as being absolutely separable from its circumstances. My sense, however, is that people tend to underestimate the power of circumstances, believing instead that their love for each other exists as a thing in itself that’s independent of their lifestyles. They don’t want to believe that their love might not flourish because they live in different countries or are still attached to former loves or have different sleeping preferences.
But the sad truth is that circumstances do matter. It follows that sometimes it’s better to love or care about someone where it works. Jan and I might still be friends if we were confined to the blissful simplicity of phone lines.
Which is why I don’t particularly want to see Emmi and Leo get together in “real life.” In virtual reality they are poetry; in the real world they could very well just be clunky prose.