THE METAPHYSICAL TOUCH

By Sylvia Brownrigg

Farrar Straus Giroux. 390 pp. $24

In Sylvia Brownrigg's first novel, "The Metaphysical Touch," the lead characters--self-named Sylvia Plath and JD--meet over the Internet after he starts posting a "Diery." As the name implies, it's a journal JD writes because he's contemplating suicide and wants to leave something behind if he goes through with it. Sylvia Plath is a tag Emily Piper uses when participating in an online discussion group called Dickinson 536; friends call her Pi. Formed to examine an Emily Dickinson poem about suicide, 536 stumbles upon the Diery and becomes cultishly obsessed with its secretive writer.

Pi became a Webhead after losing almost everything she had, including five years of work on her PhD dissertation about Kant's transcendental idealism, in the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland fire. Overwhelmed by the loss, she moves into a house with the recently estranged Abbie and Abbie's young daughter, Martha. Pi/Plath posts an entry to 536 that moves JD to "reveal" himself to her: Though he thoroughly scrambles his postings so that they can't be traced, he e-mails her directly. Thus begins an impassioned, highly personal and frequently maudlin correspondence. Because the relationship occurs between two people who have never met or even seen each other, it implies Kant's idealism. (Idealism, never clearly defined in the book, denies materialism's premise that physical objects are at the essence of existence. Kant argues for an idealism in which human understanding is the basis for existence.)

This philosophical talk--and the author's Yale philosophy degree--shouldn't scare readers. One needn't have heard of the categorical imperative to comprehend this book. What should scare readers is the Harlequin Romance-style writing, such as the description of Pi's college lover, Marie: Her "body was deep, her hands deeper. Her limbs were strong and wise; her mouth adventurous." Not that this is a typical love story. After a discussion with a friend about "Hamlet," JD decides to search for his Horatio or soul mate--male or female--rather than pull his own plug. He feels he's found this person in Pi. But their relationship, as he understands it, is platonic, though perhaps more meaningful than a sexual one. "She is Charlotte to my Wilbur," he explains.

However, he decides he never wants to meet her. She, on the other hand, wants to develop their relationship beyond e-mail and tries to track him down. JD would be much more likable if his suicidal tendencies were more believable. The guy loses his job, has a slightly alcoholic mom and a deadbeat dad, none of which seems like reason enough for suicide. Nor does his mental state. At the moment of his deepest despair, he talks about feeling "too sad." A suicidal person doesn't feel sad. He doesn't feel much of anything except when he has made up his mind to do it, when he typically feels elated. (Consult Plath's "The Bell Jar" for more about suicidal types.)

Indeed, there's too much in the book that's not believable. Pi, a bibliophile and brilliant philosopher, entirely turns her back on the world of texts after the fire? Abbie, a lifelong heterosexual, has a sexual affair with Pi without thinking twice? JD's self-indulgent Internet postings intrigue the public so much that People magazine does a story on them? And he doesn't want to meet his soul mate? And so on. In telling this tale, Brownrigg employs a unique narrative style, fluctuating between a third-person omniscient narrator, JD's first person "Diery" and e-mails sent between JD/Hamlet and Pi/Sylvia/Horatio. The technique helps propel the story. The plot doesn't.

JD and Pi's "courtship" develops too quickly and lasts too long. Who wants to hear two people e-flirt with each other for more than 100 pages, especially two people who aren't compelling to begin with? The reader also knows, from the book's prologue, that Pi will eventually search JD out, so there's not much suspense about that. Most of the story's machinations are pretty predictable, except for the ending, which is a bit ridiculous.

All of this is unfortunate because Brownrigg is capable of some good writing. Many of the best lines are JD's, such as his description of a guy with "a decent sense of humor, i.e., he finally decided I was funny." What "The Metaphysical Touch" lacks most is honest, vivid prose--J.D. Salinger is known for the former, Plath for the latter. Because Brownrigg calls so boldly on these two writers, her book is all the more disappointing.