Last week, I read Erin Fitzgerald‘s excellent new book, valletta78. It is a book filled with humor and sadness. It is also a book that made me think and consider my own life.
When I started working as a content producer for an onilne portal in 1997, I didn’t understand the people who hung out in our chatrooms and on our discussion boards. What were they looking for?
It wasn’t until 2002 when I joined an online writing workshop that I understood. They were looking for people like themselves who felt out of place in the non-virtual world. They were looking for a connection. They were hoping to finally join the conversation.
When I joined that writing workshop, I joined the conversation. I made friends all over the world. Most of the people were great, but there were a few interlopers that we all became wary of. Those who were adversarial for the sake of being adversarial. Those who faked their identities. And, worst of all, the plagiarists (who usually also faked their identities and were adversarial).
There was a level of trust we had in sharing our work online. We trusted that the person on the other end of the screen would treat us fairly, would not steal from us, would not lie. Usually this worked out but sometimes we got burned.
Still, most of us kept coming back. Now, I interact with most of those same writers on social media instead of in that writing workshop. We mostly all migrated to social media and picked up our conversations there. And our conversations broadened and included other people, many other writers.
Social media is, in my mind, an excellent resource for writers. It is there that we can hold conversations in the way the rest of the world does. It’s where we use our skills with the written word to debate, to communicate, to make people laugh, cry, whatever. It makes sense.
And yet, it is an imperfect world. There are the people who take on the identities of others. There are people who portray themselves as happy when they are dying inside, or as dying inside, when they are happy.
It can become difficult to know what is real.
In part, valletta78 is about living one’s life in such a fractured way. The real life is one in which the protagonists marriage is hollow, her desires unspoken. She is bored, distracted, numb:
“Distraction is the blanket that goes on top. When I brush my teeth, I look out the bathroom window. When I drive, I listen to the radio. When I scratch at mosquito bite, I chew the inside of my lip. When I talk on the phone, I press the letters of the alphabet into my palm.”
And then there is the virtual life in which she takes on false ailments out of a sense of boredom and to garner sympathy. She even goes so far as to create a sick brother, because she,
“…just wanted to make sure a voice was heard.”
So, in part, her motivation is to be heard, even if that means lying to do so. She wants, I believe, to feel something. To peel away the layer of numbness and experience true emotions and yet she is incapable of showing her true self.
However, there is one person to whom she shows her inner self and tells the truth (at least partially). She even goes so far as to show an actual photo of herself instead of a photo of how she would like to be seen. What she does, finally, is trust this person. So much so that she sets out to meet him.
What we learn in the end is not something that is exclusive to the virtual world. What we learn is that opening ourselves up to others can be scary and we might end up broken by it. But even if we do there is an opportunity to come back to ourselves and the world we create can be as wonderful or horrible as we choose it to be because,
“One of the currencies of the world below the clouds is the truth.”
While this book does, unflinchingly, hold a mirror up to our online lives and force us to look at them; it neither judges us nor does it provide us with an answer for how to live better. It is not, then, moralistic. This is no cautionary tale. Instead it is a beautifully, tautly, written tale of modern life and how the cycle of despair leads us both closer to and farther away from our happiest selves.
Reader, I hope you seek out this book, read it, and spend some time thinking about what it means to you. I believe you will be better for having done so.