The Metaphysical Touch: A Novel

Brownrigg, Sylvia

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999
ISBN 10: 0374199655 / ISBN 13: 9780374199654
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Synopsis: A moving and original love story about two lost people who find each other on the Internet.

In 1991 Emily Piper, a graduate student at Berkeley, has nearly finished her dissertation on metaphysics when her life is changed by the great Berkeley-Oakland fire that destroyed over 3,000 homes. Pi loses all of her belongings: her books and writings, all the things that reminded her of herself. Though others throw themselves into the task of rebuilding their lives, Pi can't. Instead, she escapes to the small coastal town of Mendocino.

On the other coast is J.D., a man with an ambition to go: permanently, absolutely. But before making his departure, J.D. decides to write a record of his jokes and neuroses; of his reflections on his wandering father, Joe; and of his urban, unemployed despair-and post it on the Internet.

When J.D. and Pi encounter each other's words on the Net, the sparks start to fly. Is J.D. who he says he is? Pi, as a recovering philosopher, ought to be able to tell reality from imagination, but finds herself in doubt. And though her correspondence with J.D. begins to heat up, she finds a sensual, more material temptation closer by, and her dilemma becomes a perilous instance of the "mind/body problem."

With The Metaphysical Touch, Sylvia Brownrigg has written a fabulously rich novel full of humor, tenderness, and truth.

Review: As its title suggests, The Metaphysical Touch is a kind of disembodied romance, in which boy meets girl on an entirely abstract basis. Even a decade ago, Sylvia Brownrigg's debut might have taken the form of an epistolary novel. Nowadays, though, such virtual flirtations take place on the Internet, which is exactly where Brownrigg's lovers meet. One of them, Emily "Pi" Piper, is a philosophy grad student who loses everything--including, alas, her dissertation on Kant--to the great Oakland-Berkeley blaze of 1991. The other, a depressive Oblomovian type named JD, is busily uploading an extended suicide note, which even he recognizes as a melodramatic move: "I do know how self-indulgent this is, by the way. Writing and posting all this, treating the world on the Net like it's my therapist."

The very anonymity of online romance tends to bring out the saucier side of many correspondents (not to mention novelists.) But Brownrigg, a former philosophy student herself, is clearly interested in the epistemological kinks of the relationship. What can we know about another person? How cleanly can mind and body be divided? It's no accident that has Pi fastened onto idealism's heaviest hitter:

Pi's dissertation was to have been on Kant's metaphysics--on his stark, wisdom-starred vision of what was knowable in the world and what lay beyond the knowable. As a graduate student you had to read around, be ready to teach anything from the ethics of euthanasia to Pythagoras' transmigration of souls; but Pi's loyalty was to Kant. Her heart was floating out there with the German idealist, in the pure ether of thought, in the deep space of his noumenal realm.
JD is no professional Kantian, yet his solipsistic explorations surely qualify him as an enlightened amateur. The stage is set, then, for a long-distance love match. But despite Brownrigg's many gifts--including a fine eye for detail and an elegant, agile style--her narrative catches fire only intermittently. The main problem is that neither Pi nor JD ever quite makes it out of the noumenal realm. The lovers remain abstractions, without the sort of flesh-and-blood Dasein that would make us want to follow their adventures for almost 400 pages. There are, as always, the consolations of philosophy--but in this case, they're not quite consoling enough. --William Davies

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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Metaphysical Touch: A Novel
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Fine
Edition: First Edition

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Brownrigg, Sylvia
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1998)
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Brownrigg, Sylvia
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