It's almost a quaint, even nostalgic detail to appear in a romance story nowadays: they email each other! Amidst the improbable and effortless successes and so chilled out as to be content-less discussions of class in Sally Rooney's Normal People, the emotional involvement of sending emails, while only briefly mentioned, was one of the few things that struck me as “real” in the book. Fortunately, I didn't have to just stew in my disappointment, because I also got my hands on Elif Batuman's The Idiot, which turns on the axis of a painful, fraught, electrically horny series of agonized emails. While getting through Sally Rooney's work almost feels “compulsive” (a term many of her biggest boosters would agree on) but in an unpleasant way, like picking a hangnail or binging a Netflix original series, ill-advised pursuits that always culminate in an empty, gut-sinking sort of achievement, The Idiot was consistently a bit perverse, delightful, and seriously erotic... Maybe my position is, increasingly, if you're not doing that with the Novel, what's the point?
Set in 1995-6, the story has a bit of an advantage by placing itself in a period where email was kind of new and not mostly a stream of junk and work obligations, but, despite that, the experience of having a really good, baroque, wide reaching and almost naughty conversation over email is still pretty much the same when it does manage to happen now. Selin is a freshman at Harvard who uses her newfound affordance of connecting to the internet and sending email to send a spontaneous joke message to Ivan, a classmate in her Russian language class with whom she had to act out many of the awkward language learning scenarios in their textbook. That she decides to do this is lightly foreshadowed in the way the early, subconscious moments of a developing crush are often just paying slightly more attention, taking a remark or even an absence just a little more personally than you know you should. Ivan is a senior considering going to graduate school, so the majority of their initial conversation takes place in unexpected chunks as Ivan moves up and down the west coast touring mathematics departments.
“At three in the morning, I logged on and typed finger varga. I had never before been able to bring myself to use the Unix command “finger,” because it sounded so disgusting, and also the thing it did was shameful-- it showed you when and where another user had last logged in. A couple of seconds passed, and then the computer said: On since 02:43:10. It made me feel peaceful to see that he was online. I went to sleep and dreamed about a tremendously urbane guy call Phil Lang who had lustrous hair and didn't like me. It turned out he was the philosophy of language.”
There's an element of imposed coyness and playing with and/or feeling out boundaries; they speak to each other using the Russian names they took on acting out the language exercises. Yet what is said, pondered, agonized over, spat back at the author under every reply, is increasingly cryptic, emotional, intimate. It's also essentially unspeakable in person. Selin is such a great protagonist because she's fundamentally suspicious of and let down by language, and yet she is constantly having to make sense through it, it's her primary tether to others, no matter how problematic. Selin and Ivan agonize over how to reply to each other in the appropriately measured periods between emails, and any disruption to this process, taking too long or sending a follow up too soon, talking in person, or the horrible temptation to “finger” that Selin gives in to fails to clarify the situation, and only makes it more mysterious.
Selin staring down her feelings about Ivan, trying to process and respond to them, especially through the dizzying medium of asynchronous text starts to give you the same sensation Don Quixote must feel running at windmills. I've been there myself, at the absolutely sick, cold-sweat highs and lows. Twitter and similar social media don't quite feel the same way, they're too public and combative; everyone's expected to confidently present their best self which is usually totally at odds with the desiring self. Real-time chat demands, and becomes ephemeral, you can't read, and re-read, and adore and pull your hair out over paragraphs and plot out the time you should wait to reply in days. Emailing is tech-instantaneous, but the mail metaphor gives us permission to treat it as the maddening, heated exchange of letters over land and sea by post.
I think Hito Steyerl is getting at something similar when she writes about how the most effective romance scams still use email as their medium, even as more and more methods of communication over distance become available to us, and our inboxes become more and more crowded. I quoted this essay in a scrappy birth chart zine I did for the Love Letter virus, about the potential for erotic and emotional communication that is, by now, basically exclusive to more “old web” formats unless you want to go back so far as hand-writing letters:
“The combination of (almost) realtime communication and physical absence creates something one could call absense, so to speak. The sensual aspect of an absence, which presences itself in (almost) real time. A live and lively absence, to which the lack of a physical body is not an unfortunate coincidence, but necessary.”
Selin and Ivan's story doesn't end with any sort of resolution, nor do they even reach the point of having an awkward kiss or disappointing sex. Selin only really contemplates her physical desire for Ivan briefly, despite how the overwhelming physicality of her emotional state is described. There's a wrenching scene around halfway through where Selin crosses paths with Ivan on campus, and he casually introduces the woman he's with as his girlfriend. Their fraught email communication obviously falters past that point, but Selin is determined to stick with an English language teaching trip Ivan recommended her for that would mean she spends the summer in his home country of Hungary. In the remote village where she's expected to teach English, there is no Internet, and Selin and Ivan trip over more unreliable forms of communication, missed messages and indirect conversations in person. Ivan presumably goes to graduate school after they part and Selin returns to Harvard in the fall to change her major from linguistics. The whole book can come across as a sort of tease in this sense, but any sort of resolution, imo, would be an unreal and unhappy one.
DISCLAIMER: Content of this blog post may not be applicable to all readers because the author actually ended up marrying (one of) the people she had a highly intense emailing routine with.