A few months ago I read a short work of fiction, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. The story, which begins with a neighbor’s dog who’s been murdered, is told from the first-person perspective of an autistic teenage boy. The author, Mark Haddon, does a marvelous job of (apparently) capturing something of the inner world of an autistic person, while still keeping the story interesting. The boy’s awkwardness and inability to navigate the normal social cues and expectations highlights all that we “normals” take for granted as we make our way through the world. At the same time, and especially once the account moves beyond the murdered dog and becomes a story of the boy’s dysfunctional family and his parents’ struggles to relate to him and to each other (and perhaps his own struggle, in his own way, to relate to them), we feel, curiously, a growing closeness to this always-distant boy.
I probably would not have written here about The Curious Incident if I hadn’t subsequently read another book that, while apparently about a quite different subject, turned out to be surprisingly relevant. When I attended a conference in Vienna recently, I told my hostess, an old friend from Heidelberg days, about some of my experiences with internet dating. She immediately bought me a book that’s been all the rage in Austria and will, I hope, someday be translated into English: Gut gegen Nordwind (Good Against North Wind) by Daniel Glattauer. It’s the story of a man and woman who, while not engaged in internet dating per se, encounter each other by chance online – and subsequently fall in love through dozens, even hundreds, of emails back and forth, without meeting. The novel consists of the collection of their emails, nothing more – no authorial descriptions or commentary. It brilliantly captures, I think, the allure – and ultimately the danger – of romance by words alone. In the novel, each person projects on to the other all sorts of hopes that run much less risk of being dashed as long as the couple never meets; each person “is there” electronically for the other, at much less cost than a real presence would demand. The romance feeds on itself, as real romance does, too – but here without almost any of the usual checks. In the dramatic ending, the fantasy dissolves – without the two ever having met.
So, an autistic boy, lost among the turbulence of human interaction, just barely registering his parents’ need to connect with him, and two internet-lovers kissing with words, only words, building their mirage of intimacy. From opposite directions, surprisingly, the two novels show us some of the obstacles to bridging the divide from “I” to “I.”