"As Francesca" by Martha Baer. New York: Broadway Books. 288 pages. $22.50.
"As Francesca" is superficially about cybersex. But the medium is incidental to the story's point: power.
That's not to say that this breathless first novel by Martha Baer, the executive editor of HotWired, always convinces with its depictions of the trade-offs between submission and dominance. But within its claustrophobic, desperate world, it's entirely engrossing.
Baer's protagonist is Elaine, a number cruncher in a corporation of vague purpose, whose only real connection with people seems to be through the computer. And, of course, the reality of that link is tenuous at best. When we're introduced to her, her gender is unclear, as is her name or age - it's as if we, too, are meeting her online, in that world of infinite obfuscation, where turning on lies is as easy as turning on the machine.
Elaine, in fact, is a lie; she signs on in disguise, as "Francesca," to indulge in a passionate affair with another figure masked by the computer, "Inez." Enthralled by words and imagination, Elaine revels in Inez's sexual demands and humiliations, indulging in imaginary slaps and servitude, feeling pangs of guilt but waking up each morning invigorated. It doesn't take her long to connect her days of ebullience and brilliance at work with her nights of submission at home.
While this balance of power may work for Elaine, it seems unlikely that it would hold true for everyone, but that's exactly what Baer proposes. (A more common explanation for a desire to be dominated sexually is that submissives seek escape from responsibility in "real life," not that submission inspires them to 00 achieve, as Baer's novel suggests.) At any rate, it's fascinating to suspend disbelief and explore Elaine's colossal self-absorption.
While Elaine is obsessed with her cyber-lover, particularly when Inez disappears and Elaine becomes desperate to discover his or her identity, she doesn't want Inez for love. Androgynous Elaine wants to use Inez as a tool, a source of confidence so that she can excel at work: "Inez, after all, was someone, someone who knew me, someone nearby, and someone conversely I must know myself. She was also the key to my future. From here on in, I vowed, I would track her down, whomever 'she' was, to draw her back into our deal and retake any ground I'd lost."
Instead, without Inez's virtual bondage sessions, Elaine begins to crumble. She doesn't see her pals as friends but rather as cheerleaders for her hollow ambitions. Her thoughts, reflected in such fetishistic, object-oriented chapter titles as "The Red Satin Cord" and "The Pepper Shaker," read like hypertext - in cyberlanguage, a significant or colorful word that leads to more revealing words or pictures when selected in an interactive computer scenario.
Elaine's entire world consists of such hidden meanings. In that sense, Baer's book describes online interaction rather well: a deep and delirious mystery that can be as meaningless or as rapturous as you desire, but cannot be everything.
Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Maryland Poetry Review, the Miami Herald, Premiere, bOING bOING, Indie File, the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte Poetry Review.
Pub Date: 2/09/97