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Arne Tangherlini received his A.B. in History and Literature from Harvard and his M.A. from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He was a teacher for many years both in the Philippines and the United States and the co-author of Smart Kids: How Academic Talents are Nurtured and Developed in America.
"Leo @ fergusrulesrules.com is a fantastical coming of age story about a brainy, racially mixed teenage girl…who spends much of her spare time in her bedroom, jacked into a cyber wonderland called Apeiron. This computer-generated 3-D world is a timeless landscape, home to a historical line-up of digitally re-created dignitaries, such as Confucius, Julius Caesar and Napoleon… She also encounters relatives and ancestors, including her great aunt, who as a young woman survives being shot by American soldiers in the Philippine American War. Other dangers include pterodactyls with giant Barbie-doll bodies that dump guano and screech, 'Nike, Guess, Benetton, Levi's! Tommy, Tommy, Tommy-boy!" and a child-steamrollering Zamboni that is operated by gnomelike people and has a control room guarded by a three-headed dog. Needless to say, Leo is a trip…a 21st century homage to the works of Argentine poet and author Jorge Luis Borges
SOURCE: VOYA, October 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 4)
Leo exchanges e-mail with Bri, a boy she likes at school. When he disappears, Leo believes Apeiron (Greek for “infinity”) holds clues to his whereabouts. Over an Easter weekend, she plugs into the game, discovers a secret environment called Dløn within Apeiron, and spends most of the novel exploring Dløn. Her accidental and episodic “adventures” recall both Huck’s and Alice’s, for Leo often travels by water and confronts realistic enemies (such as leaders of school cliques and mall rats), logical paradoxes (Zeno’s and the Lying Cretan’s) and nightmare beasts. Leo also meets doubles of herself and comes to understand European imperialism in the Philippines, her grandmother’s folk tales, her American grandfather’s rough pragmatism, her father’s ineffectuality and—finally, crucially—her mother’s vulnerability as a child. At journey’s end, Leo disconnects from Dløn, puts on a dress and walks out into the real Philippines.
This coming-of-age story I didn’t believe for more than thirty pages. Although narrator Leo uses teenage slang, she knows too much history to be fourteen, and Tangherlini reveals too many literary influences to be a new J.D. Salinger. The outside doll is a shell, one part of a larger shell game.
Leo’s journey down the river and down the rabbit hole comes to repeat earlier trips to the underworld. Like figures in Greek and Roman myth, Leo crosses to her Hades in a boat. Like Dante, she has an older Italian guide and finds suffering souls beseeching and attacking her. Tangherlini’s “pit” sometimes resembles a fused casino and hypermall, sometimes a spatially impossible M.C. Escher print, but at the bottom is the Inferno’s ice, a skating rink where a Zamboni machine runs over trapped children. And like Dante, Tangherlini uses his hell to mock historical figures (Socrates, contemporary celebrities) and to satirize cultural delusions such as permissive, no-content schools and Harpy-like Barbie dolls shrieking brand names.
But email@example.com is not just a hell game. Dløn is a literary construct, a fiction within a fiction inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ story about an imagined land and invented language, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Borges says that in Tlon, “Works of fiction contain a single plot, with all its imaginable permutations.” Who better to guide Leo through such a world than a librarian named Umberto, modeled on Umberto Eco, collector of ancient lore and author of Travels in Hyperreality? In Dløn, things are becoming signs, people morphing into words and the real turning virtual. Investigating Dløn, going forwards and backwards, experiencing both recognition and cognitive dissonance, Leo is the reader exploring firstname.lastname@example.org. She dislikes mirrors, but Tangherlini makes his book a mirror so we can see how we process both fiction and the external world into fictions.
Does the author imply that the reader doll is larger than the doll book the reader opens? It’s a question we’ll never have answered, as unsolvable as the “metaphysical puzzle” of Dløn, because Tangherlini died three weeks before his novel was accepted for publication. email@example.com will probably be compared to another first—and, purportedly, last—novel, John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, the posthumous publication of which preceded that of Toole’s other posthumously published work, The Neon Bible. But firstname.lastname@example.org is more fun, more like chess.
Because Tangherlini’s protagonist tumbles into her computer, the novel will also be compared to cyberfictions. But the book is not as electronic as its title or surface qualities suggest.
Like the Grail quest for medieval writers or the unconscious for modernists, the virtual landscape here is mostly a device that lets the author mix materials from his own travels through different cultures and English-language libraries.
email@example.com probably needed to be longer to meet the Borgesian test of exhaustive permutations, and to satisfy readers who want emotional involvement with characters. Leo is so busy describing the pop-up figures of Dløn that her responses are frequently perfunctory.
Tangherlini’s take on reader response seems expressed when Leo asks an artist if he’s drawing a fish or a whale. “A decoration,” the artist says. Characters are really only black marks on white pages; dolls are colored paints on wooden shapes. If you don’t mind remembering those truths when you read, firstname.lastname@example.org should be a pleasure—and a decoration you can reopen for yourself and friends.