But can the internet also offer an unfettered version of the self who walks around in a weighed-down body? Can email be a new space for shared intimacies, a vehicle for feelings and confessions that can’t be expressed elsewhere? Perhaps being bodiless leaves us unencumbered by sweating palms or any of the other visceral, discomfiting sensations that having a body brings, leaving us to deliver ourselves whole as it were, as if our consciousness, our very essence, were freed into air.
I began researching the culture of email but my gut instinct was that it can be a portal to our emotions. It can cut to the chase: we dash things off, sometimes in one long, unedited stream of consciousness, and occasionally the immediacy of the form reveals truths of which we might not be aware.
We can respond to emails in the heat of the moment and immediately regret pressing send. I will forever feel chastened by an email I sent to my beloved long-time Australian publisher, rudely questioning why she was taking so long to read a newly delivered manuscript, which revealed more about my neediness than her reading habits.
Surprisingly, there’s little academic research into email culture. There are lots of business books — how to use appropriate language and how not to make cross-cultural mistakes. But it wasn’t till I read the work of Swinburne University of Technology’s Associate Professor Esther Milne that my hunch was confirmed about email providing a space for intimacy and — much like the pen pals of pre-digital days — that friendships devoid of bodies can be extraordinarily close.
In Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence (Routledge, 2010), Milne argues physical absence doesn’t necessarily inhibit affective communication. In some instances, it provides an even more intense intimacy, in that unseen correspondents can develop an almost spiritual or telepathic sense of the other’s presence.
Milne writes that some correspondents who never physically meet construe “an imaginary, incorporeal body” for their unseen friend which, in turn, reworks their own self-presentation. In other words, I begin by imagining you but end by examining my fleshly self.
This was an intriguing concept, but one fraught with difficulties in terms of translating such an idea into fiction. The pleasures and perils of the online world have been explored in novels before, most recently in the American poet Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This. Lockwood (a celebrated Twitter user) is interested in how fractured our attentions have become, and how the internet (which she calls The Portal) has altered language. Lockwood speaks about how The Portal has become like a second beating heart, a place where we live. The critical question for her is whether we can live our “real lives” there.
My accidental pal and I still talk about meeting in “real life”, but the pandemic makes a meeting anytime soon unlikely. We have disclosed intimacies over the years which we might not necessarily have disclosed face to face (I possibly know more about his marriage than his wife realises) but I notice we make regular jokes about the potential for disappointment if we ever do meet.
If we don’t meet, he’ll never know I talk too fast when I’m nervous, or that I rarely finish my sentences. He won’t discover I’m sometimes cripplingly self-conscious and much less articulate in the flesh than on the page.
I still recall meeting a London literary agent whose steely but graceful emails led me to assume she would physically personify a steely grace. She looked like I imagined she would, but when she opened her mouth, a Minnie Mouse squeak came out. She was steely and graceful on the inside.
But isn’t that what fiction’s about, the inside? By the time I developed two characters — excitable Pamela, whose name was pinched from Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel-in-letters Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, and laconic Chris — I was hopeful that the conceit of an email dialogue between them might provide a glimpse of what it’s like to inhabit a consciousness, a way of showing how it feels on the inside. It’s what my email exchange with my invisible friend has shown me, too: a second beating heart, full of the same old human joys and woes, made evident.
I’ll send a copy of the new novel to Mexico: an actual, physical book, destined to be held in imagined hands.
From Where I Fell, Allen and Unwin, $32.99, is out now.