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The Boston Phoenix Dead Letters

One woman's tragic search for love online

By Michael Joseph Gross

MAY 17, 1999: 

E-MAIL TROUBLE: LOVE & ADDICTION @ THE MATRIX, by S. Paige Baty. University of Texas Press, 160 pages, $14.95.

"I am a dead author, writing dead letters," is a statement resonant with meanings unintended by its author, S. Paige Baty. I knew Baty when I was a student at Williams College, where she was a vivacious assistant professor of political science so popular among students that many colleagues ostracized her. Baty died in July 1997 of a heroin overdose, leaving behind this posthumous memoir of her search for love and connection on the Internet. It's a book of bone-crushing loneliness and pathological insincerity, and its greatest literary strengths stem directly from its author's personal weaknesses.

Despite Baty's extreme popularity at Williams (which E-mail Trouble calls by its Internet domain name, "williams.edu"), her memoir avers that she felt completely alone. Having spent most of her life in a tight-knit Catholic family in California, Baty moved to Williamstown after earning her PhD at Santa Cruz. There, she hoped to find a "face-to-face New England village" where personal connections would come easy and run deep.

Instead, she discovered a small, closed community in whose dark winters "people drew into themselves, or often spoke about subjects not related to themselves. We played 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Conversations were often made up of games. Rarely did we talk about our feelings, our work, and our lives. Maybe everyone was afraid. Everyone was cold."

This from a woman whom I witnessed, on numerous occasions, as the ringleader of late-night bar conversations that she would begin with gambits such as the following: "Henry Ford, Madonna, FDR. Who would you most like to sleep with?"

You don't need to have known Baty, however, to have the sickening sense that E-mail Trouble plays exactly the kind of game whose emotionally asphyxiating consequences it continually decries. The style is a hybrid of Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick -- by turns maddeningly obscure and boringly obtuse, yet so faithful to its own inexorably tragic trajectory that it's impossible to stop reading, the way it's impossible not to look at a train wreck. In particular, the book's ostentatiously academic and self-conscious feminism -- early chapters are interrupted by disorienting quotations from OED definitions of matrix (" . . . the uterus or womb. Also occas. used for ovary, esp. with reference to oviparous animals"; "a place or medium [in this case, the Internet] in which something is 'bred', produced or developed") -- ensures the alienation of all readers save the cultural-theory-savvy, which in turn assures that the only conversations E-mail Trouble will nourish are those whose Albee-esque nature Baty claims to deplore.

So when Baty announces that insular Williams drove her to seek warmth on the Internet ("Maybe it would be easier, I thought, if the crowd were invisible or nameless"), it becomes difficult to take seriously either her loneliness or her strategies for dealing with it.

Despite the disingenuous heart of E-mail Trouble, this book is a riveting read for anyone who's been seduced by the promise of personal connection with strangers online. Baty was blessed with an aphoristic wisdom that often flashes forth from these pages, articulating the temptations and pitfalls of electronic communication more brilliantly than anything else I've read. On sexually suggestive screen names, she writes: "The pseudonym is the externalized id." On the possibility of love online: "This is not real love. . . . It is not about being present. It is not about being there. It is not about a shared history, or a shared meal, or a shared story, or any kind of mutuality. . . . There is no exchange of bodily fluids on the Internet." On the habit of checking e-mail: "You find yourself checking your e-mail compulsively, as if some great message is waiting for you. The medium becomes the message. You no longer know why you are doing it, but it becomes a force of habit." Quotes such as these will make E-mail Trouble a boon for Bartlett's in the 21st century.

But the considerable wisdom of this book is often eclipsed by the narrator's almost unbearably self-important comparisons of her own alienation to that of Job, Bartleby, and homeless people, among others, and by her habit of referring to the dramatic climax of her memoir (a road trip to New Orleans, undertaken to meet a cyber-crush) as "the apocalypse." Comparing her own narrative to that of Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr's Dispatches, she writes: "I am writing this dispatch to you from another jungle. Here the blood is not so easily seen, and the body count isn't as high. But there is a war going on, and I am a correspondent although I sometimes feel like a foot soldier."

The reader feels sorry for Baty, but only to an extent. She is a tragic hero insofar as her desires destine her for destruction, yet her desires -- unlike, say, Phaedra's -- aren't doomed by social taboo, and her woes -- unlike, say, Job's -- aren't divinely ordained. She claims she's just looking for "a good man." This is the kind of struggle that a person as smart, charming, and privileged as our narrator ought to be able to handle.

Yet this narrator's desire to be loved is always overshadowed by her talent for articulate disaffection, which lands her in a more or less permanent state of desperate emotional frustration. It's not that she should have been more careful about what she wished for -- she just should have been more careful about how she wished.

"This is a story about the wrong kind of wishing," Baty tells us. "The first rule is: don't wish for everything. You might end up with the tin man, clicking your shoes together, trying to get home."

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