The Best Possible Version of Yourself
The Hypothetical Girl: Stories
by Elizabeth Cohen
Other Press, 2012
A woman begins vanishing. When she goes to a therapist, the therapist suggests that her disappearance is based on a man she met online. “‘You are not an actual girl,’ he wrote. ‘You are hypothetical.’” And to this, the woman has to agree. Somewhere along the way, her search for love consumed her and she began to disappear inside the virtual world. The lines between real and imaginary, concrete and hypothetical, love and lust, connecting and disconnecting are all explored in Elizabeth Cohen’s masterful collection of stories, The Hypothetical Girl. Her characters seek love online and check dating sites “like a hunter checking for traps” and “want to believe in a future with a man. But the future is cloudy, like the lake that extends from your head now when you sleep is cloudy.” It is the strange and alluring character of the virtual world that makes these lines blurry, and yet, I cannot help but accept that it is within this splitting that finding love is possible for anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Cohen uses a sophisticated and quirky style to illustrate the challenges of finding love online, but she does not resort to the usual clichés, such as meeting someone who has largely falsified his online persona in regards to attractiveness, height, weight, career, etc. Nor does she use the cliché in which two people do fall in love on the screen, but never venture to meet in the “real,” non-virtual world due to fears of disappointment.
Instead, Cohen’s world shows the empowerment that arrives through exploration of the self from having multiple online connections (multiple dates a week, someone to write to during any hour of the day, something “hypothetical” and less messy than dealing with a “real” person) and many of the struggles (not being attracted to each other in the “real world,” feeling desperate and lonely, miscommunication, lack of honesty) that come with this territory. This environment offers a constant connection with someone—though that someone is not always the same person—and this constant connection provides a sense of relationship and connection, which many of her characters crave. It provides an end to the stark aloneness found in the “real” world with its constant disappointments, awkward interludes, and let downs. Because connection is constant, there is a sense of power and invincibility. This is similar to what Facebook regularly points out—someone may have 650 “friends” online, but only have 3 in the “real” world.
Cohen’s “hypothetical” world of looking for love invites us to question the online environment and its growing role in assisting the formation of relationships, especially for those who are past the age of twenty-five. But, just like looking for work online, the dating world is tricky and competitive. Having multiple memberships to dating sites can be an expense that not all can afford and there is always the risk of meeting someone whose profile does not “truly” represent him or her. And yet, as Cohen’s characters show us, this is becoming the only way to meet one another—an all access pass for anyone no matter the circumstance—and that there is still greater growth in terms of self identity that can come from these interactions. Interestingly enough, the act of writing also provides a connection that is different than what one may experience in the “real” world. Online there is time to edit, to ruminate, to show the best possible version of yourself.
While the writing relationship, theoretically, offers more insight into someone’s thinking than any other form of communication, it can still pose problems. A woman exchanges limericks online with a man and ends up writing a free verse entitled, “Yes, Dude, A Love Poem,” which ends their relationship. Once she leaves the formulaic expression of communication structured by exchanging limericks, the relationship fails because the communication suddenly becomes more unscripted, and therefore, dangerously “real.” There is also the problem of tone. Can writing accurately capture someone’s attitude? Perhaps, but there is still the issue of communication mishaps and misunderstood context and often people choose to read what they want—a constant dilemma with text messaging.
Despite these struggles, Cohen’s characters still pursue love online with a particular tenacity. Cohen’s writing calls into question the pursuit of happiness and how, online, that pursuit can seem more possible because of how quickly a conversation can offer potential. Even the mistakes made in online communication and dating can provide a place for insight into the self. Because of this, Cohen often pairs elation with despair, showing the complexities of the online experience. In her story “The Opposite of Love,” she writes,
“What did it even mean to be happy? Rita thought. She knew she was lucky, certainly, to be hired at such a time. And she, without even a PhD to her name. It was some sort of rare academic coup. She was like the Urania moth of professors. The Urania was so rare everyone thought it had become extinct until it was photographed by an unknowing tourist on a hike in the Peruvian rain forest. She’d read about it in National Geographic at her doctor’s office. But, as so often happens, her good news came with bad. While getting the job had constituted a stroke of good luck, her being at the doctor’s office was a stroke of bad luck.”
Here, Rita gets the dream of her life—the best job—but she also finds out that she has breast cancer. To cope with this news, she joins an online forum and becomes romantically interested in a man, Henrik, who also has cancer. Even though she is able to call him, in addition to chatting online, the relationship does not go as planned and Rita is again stuck with the conundrum of finding happiness in her situation. But communicating online provides a more “real” form of communication for Rita to express her fears, for she decides not to disclose her news to her mother or anyone else in her family. It is in the online environment that she is able to find a more intimate space.
Despite their difficulties, Cohen makes online relationships seem hopeful. Her characters are riddled with their own complexities—insecurities, narcissism, limerence, generosity, humor, courage—and it is through these complexities that the value of connecting online is shown. Because communication is not face-to-face, people fear a greater courage to be honest with who they are—showing a large range of emotions, attributes, and contradictions. In this way, the online environment becomes almost like a diary—a place for true disclosure—yet with the deep hope that someone will open the pages and read. But it is not just about developing a relationship with a silent spectator. The online environment Cohen brings to life is one in which a reader cannot help but respond.
Kate Kimball is a PhD candidate in Fiction at Florida State University and is the Online Editor for the Southeast Review. She received an MFA from Virginia Tech. Her work has appeared in Arcadia, Weber: The Contemporary West, Ellipsis, The Midwest Review, The Chaffey Review, and The Hawaii Review, among others.