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Ethereal Fiction

[whitespace] Who needs publishers when books can be sent directly to your computer?

By Michael Vaughn

PATRICIA LE ROY'S The Angels of Russia caused quite a stir last year when it was nominated for the Booker Prize, Great Britain's top literary award. Not because the book was controversial, but because the book wasn't really a book. Angels was issued in digital form by Online Originals, an electronic publishing firm founded in 1997 by U.S.-born, London-based author David Gettman.

The idea behind Online Originals (www.onlineoriginals.com) is a simple one. For a $7 charge, a reader can have one of the company's offerings sent directly to his or her email, where it can then be downloaded onto a PC or Palm Pilot via Adobe's free, downloadable Acrobat Reader program.

An email novel is a pretty revolutionary (if inevitable) idea and provides an absolutely necessary alternative to the current major-house, megacorporate environment, in which the best way to get published is to put large numbers of orange balls through hoops or to apply your lips to certain parts of the presidential anatomy.

Because Online Originals has such a low overhead, it can afford to take a chance on literary novels that might never get a hearing anywhere else, and because it actually seems to care about quality, the company can avoid the morass of self-published crap that currently inhabits the web.

Some of the newer releases from Online Originals include The Perennial Apocalypse, a commentary on the idea of "doomsday" in myth and history by American writer John J. Reilly; Sudarshan's Gift, a novel set in modern India by Austrian author Aviott John; and A Fool's Pilgrimage, a travelogue by British humorist David Wray through 15th-century Europe led by Shakespeare's bawdy knight, Sir John Falstaff.

After some waffling, I finally settled on Del Marbrook's Alice Miller's Room, which offered a wonderful premise and, within the sample chapter posted on the website, some delicious prose. The premise is that an installation artist proposes to build an inspiring, magical room (named after a famous child psychologist) to help a battered child named Sacha find security and confidence in a brutal world.

The prose includes Marbrook's description of the artist, Paolo Maio, at his first meeting with Sacha's guardian, psychologist Natalya Yasdarov: "His cerulean eyes haunted his white eyelashes. His gaze seemed not merely direct, rather the cones and rods seemed to work at taking her in." Marbrook's playful style continues with his descriptions of the room's early development. He takes great delight in the fluid lingo of handymen and the picture of the room in Paolo's mind, as in the following exchange:

    Everything has to be wired. Fortunately, the house is already 220 volts. The sashes I'll take out and put in a wall-to-wall bow window with a seat. I haven't discussed this with Natalya, but I'm kind of worried the bow window will alter the facade in some moogy way.

    "Moogy?" Natalya said, "as in Moog synthesiser?"

    "Yeah, muzzy," the rapt Paolo said.

The rest of Paolo's vision includes a domed ceiling for astral projections (including the sky of Sacha's birth night) and cutouts in the walls for viewing dioramas of great international vistas, famous works of art and an antique model train running back and forth through the room.

It's about this time that the novel loses itself. Marbrook dumps poor Sacha in the next room and becomes enchanted instead with the growing ménage à trois involving Paolo, Natalya and Dom Maggiore, a metallurgist and part-time sailor who has joined the project. Not that I have anything against menages, just ones that pass up actual passion for alarming Grand Canyons of self-involvement. The warning shot comes in Chapter 4, a tremendous burst of psychobabble unloosed by--who else?--the psychologist, Natalya.

THE MUD SLIDE of achingly academic bloodline histories, high-culture references and inner diatribes goes on for the next nine chapters (out of 14 in all). Marbrook shows no desire to communicate with the reader or offer any actual action, and by the time we get back to Paolo's magical room we don't really care anymore what happens to anyone, not even the twice-abandoned Sacha.

Alice Miller's Room is, in a phrase, a great vision unfulfilled. You have to admire Online Originals for giving such an ambitious work a chance, but you'd be best off venturing farther down their list for enjoyable reading.

Reading notes: The Acrobat Reader gives a nice onscreen approximation of bookishness (probably even better with the Palm Pilot), providing a novel-sized inner screen and quick page-turning capabilities. It also affords the ability to copy and paste favorite passages for later reference. The format provides a handy option for those wishing to break up lengthy cyberwork sessions.

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From the August 5-11, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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