Connection Fatigue and the Modern Girl: Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Briddey Flanagan does one thing really well. She lies. She lies to her Aunt Oona, to her co-workers, to her one sister who’s an extra-anxious helicopter mom, and to her other sister, the one with a penchant for dating truly wretched men. She lies because she’s bad with boundaries and thinks the Internet has made it impossible for her to avoid all of these people, each one of whom has some claim on her. Between their texts, posts, emails, phone calls, their unannounced visits, and their demands for gossip about her love life, she can barely focus properly on the fact that she is in a serious relationship and has agreed—along with her engaged to be engaged boyfriend Trent—to have a minor form of brain surgery, an EED. The EED will allow the two of them to experience each other’s feelings.

Sounds great, right?

Well… maybe not.

Trent is the result of a workplace romance, and has been wooing Briddey assiduously between various top-secret thrusts at attempting to develop a new cell phone, one that he hopes will blow Apple’s latest out of the water. Briddey wants to keep things low-key and private between them, yet everyone at the office knows about their impending surgery within minutes of her and Trent having decided to take the leap. Thanks to Facebook, her family finds out a minute later. The former are thrilled; the latter are horrified.

Thus begins Crosstalk, the new Connie Willis science-fiction romantic comedy about communication, social media, and the question of how much connectivity is too damn much.

Willis is a dedicated fan of the screwball comedy, movies like My Girl Friday, Bringing up Baby, and the Philadelphia Story. She has used this particular story structure to great effect throughout her career, with stories like “Blued Moon,” and “Spice Pogrom,” in longer works like Bellwether and Remake, and—to a lesser extent, because its architecture makes it a more complicated novel—To Say Nothing About the Dog. These are often stories where a single woman is committed to one man and then tempted by another.

In screwball comedies, miscommunication abounds, and many of the minor characters are pathologically single-minded as they pursue a host of weird goals. Crosstalk fits this mold. For example, Briddey’s sister is obsessed with what her daughter might be seeing on the internet… and she doesn’t much care whether it is zombie movies, Disney princesses, or actual terrorists. It’s a normal enough concern, perhaps, something any parent might relate to… until you consider the spy software she has installed on her daughter’s computer, or the fact that she absolutely expects Briddey to happily interrogate her own niece.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d lie and avoid these people, too.

The surgery goes forward, of course. The EED goes wrong almost immediately, of course. Instead of sharing her feels with Trent, Briddey ends up connected to the one guy from work who wasn’t convinced that having the procedure was the most romantic idea ever. This connection between Briddey and the office pariah, C.B., manifests incorrectly to boot, giving her much more insight into all the humans in her life than anyone would ever want or need.

Soon Briddey is actively hiding from Trent and her family, while working with C.B. to try and sort out the problem and trying to keep anyone from work seeing them together and Getting the Wrong Idea. Hijinks ensue. The dialogue crackles, with lots of laugh-out-loud lines.

Crosstalk is an incredibly suspenseful novel. On one level, this seems rather strange, because it doesn’t veer very far from the patterns of those old movies I mentioned, or the template set out in the earlier Willis works they inspired. I have seen a significant number of those films—in part because Willis talks about them so passionately, in Remake and elsewhere. This is cut from that cloth. But even though the story in its broadest outlines holds no great surprises, I read this book fast. I had to see how it all played out.

The novel is idiosyncratic in other ways, too. It is very much the thing in adult fiction, especially lately, to have wisecracking protagonists who are in someway covering childhood damage. There are terrible things in their past; they are broken. Willis has always resisted this trend. Her characters rarely come with any past at all, and it is the events of her story, I would argue, that bring on any trauma they might eventually have to work through. (The processing is also hypothetical. The psychological strings are left to be tied up, or not, well after the characters have left the author’s stage.)

Take the Doomsday Book, for example: Kivrin goes into her research project feeling eminently capable and ready for anything. She comes home having witnessed one slaughter… and when the book ends she’s about to find out about another. In her brief appearance in “Fire Watch” (which was written earlier, I should note) she carries with her this more fashionable present-day sensibility I refer to, that of a person with a past that is almost too heavy to bear. But in “Fire Watch” Kivrin’s a minor character, far from the main thrust of thrust of the story. We never see her fighting with her many ghosts.

Even if we go back to Lincoln’s Dreams—a book that might arguably be viewed as a story in which the ghost of a horribly damaged individual shatters a pair of young people, in a well-meaning attempt to help one of them—we reach Jeff’s final epiphany and leave the fall-out to the reader’s imagination.

I’m taking a long way to get to the point, I know, but what I’m saying is that a Willis protagonist, when she is on stage, tends to be capable, no-nonsense, intolerant of whining, unwilling to follow the herd, and profoundly mature. Her characters are not fending off nightmares from days gone by. Instead, they are surrounded by a different form of zombie—ditzy, anxious people who worry about their kids, or online dating trends, to the exclusion of common sense. Briddey is the voice of reason, failing to be heard amid a babble of irrationality.

This is a book built around a profound critique of Internet culture and present-day society’s desire for constant connectivity, and yet the three characters in the Crosstalk love triangle barely engage via the Internet. They are not the zombies… and this is a bit of a shame. Outsider arguments can be hard to make effectively, and this one does not convince. Briddey sees what she dislikes about the world she lives in, but fails to find any benefit in it. There’s nothing about online life that she truly values, or—when the EED rocks her world to its foundations—struggles to give up. At the same time, this book lacks Willis’s usual wide ranging research approach. She has looked exhaustively into psychic phenomena, but passes up the opportunity to turn her attention to the many studies abounding about how smartphones and social media are changing the way we interact, think, sleep, remember, and behave.

As someone who has already had enough of the Internet before the book begins, what Briddey learns in Crosstalk is next-level lying—a skill at which C.B. is, fortunately, a master—and a fair amount of human psychology. She also has some good, and sometimes hilarious, realizations about the people closest to her.

The pace of this novel is so compelling—galloping, really—that Briddey also spends most of the book reacting to the ongoing whirl of her various loved ones, friends, Facebook friends and work buddies She is in perpetual motion, fleeing to and from various characters’ locations, trying to evade or satisfy their wants by turns, and deceiving them about her whereabouts, situation, and intentions. With the exception of one great act of desperation when she is finally run to ground, she does very little in this book but run away from and fend off the people she loves, in a desperate search for silence, privacy, and safety. The latter portion of the novel is dominated by a sequence where she is essentially cast as audience, watching two other characters throw together a permanent solution to the massive problems that have erupted as a result of her surgery.

She observes much, she has opinions about things, and she even tries to tell people some of these opinions. But when she isn’t running, hiding or just plain coping with the onslaught, poor Briddey doesn’t actually get to do much. And so, as a result, I found myself wondering what would have happened, in Crosstalk, if its author had decided to start with someone less savvy, less grown up… someone vulnerable enough to spill some secrets because she didn’t know better from the outset. I imagine this book featuring someone truly unlikely and unwise, like Flip from Bellwether, a character who has initially bought in, hook, line and brightly-coloured sinker, to the culture of social media this story ultimately rejects.

Crosstalk is undeniably a romp, but I wanted more, and I find myself feeling curious: what might this novel have been if Briddey Flanagan was the kind of human who gets out of surgery, snatches up her phone, and starts posting scar selfies on Instagram before the drugs have worn off?

Crosstalk is available now from Del Rey.

A.M. Dellamonica‘s newest book is the Prix-Aurora Award winning A Daughter of No Nation, and you can read the first chapter here! She has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also, “The Glass Galago,” the third of a series of stories called The Gales. This story and its predecessors, “Among the Silvering Herd,” and “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” are prequels to this newest novel and its predecessor, Child of a Hidden Sea. If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

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