A spate of steamy E-mail sagas try to make conventional fiction look stodgy, but are they just the same old stories?

By Alexandra Jacobs
Updated September 04, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

As Francesca

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What makes those spanking-new novels about cyberlife different from the old-fashioned kind, of which many of us remain so hopelessly fond? Both are made of paper and ink. But might the so-called cybernovels beep? Demand a response? Rewrite ever better ”versions” of themselves?

Disappointingly, no. In fact, if Nan McCarthy’s widely hyped trilogy, Chat, Connect, and the just-released Crash (Pocket Books, $6 each), is any evidence, Net fiction books may be even more retro than the norm.

Composed almost entirely of the E-mail of two fictional, romantically frustrated thirtysomethings, Chat and its follow-ups purport to be ”a very modern love story.” Actually, they’re just timid 18th-century epistolary novels tricked out with emoticons and impromptu netiquette tutorials. We meet and grow ever more irritated with Bev, a married, slightly officious book editor who scolds, flirts, dithers, and finally succumbs — after a fashion — to the cheesy wheedles of Max, an ad copywriter three years her junior with a penchant for martinis and bonsai trees. ”We’re playing with fire here,” she warns him. Yeah, excuse me while I tamp the sweat from my brow.

Bev’s coyness is no crime, of course, but it courts incredulity when you consider how boldly sex — not to mention a dazzling wardrobe of typefaces — has tended to figure in recent cyberfiction. Most behind-the-screens protagonists, empowered by their anonymity, get positively woozy with lust. Witness the ambitious titular masochist of Martha Baer’s As Francesca (Broadway, $13). A buttoned-down budget manager by day, Elaine Botsch spends her evenings ”[l]ogging on, feeding the machine the letters of my secret name and passing through the litany of verifications and commands … I would enter my password and preferences, the knowledge of which was so ingrained you’d think it lived in my fingertips, and I’d get ready to let her have me … ‘Inez,’ I moaned at her, and then typed it.” Whew … she typed it! A moment, please, while I collect myself.

However steamy things get in Francesca, it’s really just a standard erotic thriller about a double life. There are more ”transgressive” exercises in E-voyeurism out there, which doesn’t necessarily mean high art, but at least — unlike McCarthy’s dainty potboilers — they’re doing something new with the medium. Check out, for example, the gender-bending, identity-manipulating, language-reconfiguring antics of Scratch and Winc, the gleeful hero(in)es of Kate Bornstein and Caitlin Sullivan’s 1996 Nearly Roadkill. Or the rather fearsome, keenly verbose How to Mutate and Take Over the World, by Mondo 2000 editors R.U. Sirius and St. Jude, which heralds itself as an ”exploded post-novel” (warning: This may be a cunning euphemism for ”unedited”). Or even that modest White House cadeau, Nicholson Baker’s 1992 Vox.

Hang on — that was about phone sex. Talk about old-fashioned. Chat series: C As Francesca: B+ Nearly Roadkill and How to Mutate: Oh, grades are just part of the patriarchal hegemony …

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