“For some time now, Emily has been vanishing.”
Elizabeth Cohen’s collection of fifteen short stories revolve around the culture of online dating, starting with a familiar narrative and slowly circling away from it. In the beginning, we meet Chloe who asks, “night after night… ‘Do you like hiking? Sushi? Do you follow closely the stages of the moon?’” Chloe, like so many of the characters in The Hypothetical Girl, is seeking love through internet dating websites and e-mails. The stories evolve, though slowly, and become more interesting as they move from the “traditional” narrative. Over and over again we see women searching for love, and often let down.
About halfway through the collection, we’re introduced to our first male protagonist in the story “Limerence.” Though it was refreshing to be reminded that not only women use internet dating websites, I was disappointed to learn that Larry, in the opening scene of the story, is seeing a therapist, who tells him to blame his “feelings of rejection and loss” on the Internet. I felt a sense of imbalance: why would a male voice need psychological help for dating online when it was perceived as natural for our fourteen female voices? I was hoping this book would break down the stereotypes instead of taking the easy narrative.
These stories, however, are well-written. I especially loved the extended metaphor of trash that runs through “Limerence.” Take this passage from the end of the story:
Limerence erased the very small sentence that had grown so large. It had pushed the four dates [with an Internet lover] into a corner and swept them into a dustbin...
There was a glowing and nuclear power in the word, a very ancient thing that is written on our bones. That was what Larry realized. There is power in a story made of words and language.
The author would like you to know that you can use just such a word, such a story as this one, to survive.
I admire Cohen’s writing most in these small, poetic moments. Our narrator shows herself here and there throughout the collection, usually to let us know something new or remind us of something form the past. We are granted permission to make these stories our own, She returns at the end of “Love Quiz,” one of the most experimental stories in The Hypothetical Girl, to tell us that
The author, who survived this experience and has gone on to become a reasonably stable mother of two in Westchester, understands if you are not comfortable reading this particularly chapter of her life. The author understands that this might not be what you thought you were heading for in a story so innocently titled.
The author apologizes.
Through these little insertions of “the author,” Cohen pushes genre boundaries. Does this short story become nonfiction? Does it matter? I think what matters is that as readers, we feel closer to the story. We meet not only the protagonist but the story-teller herself. As the protagonist Emily of the title story disappears, we disappear with her. We too “dream dream dream of pain, of objects, of cold, of heat, of Jell-O, of potato latkes, of really really nice shoes.” We know.
And so do the animals. The final story, aptly titled “Stupid Humans” is extraordinary. We meet two characters, polar bear and deer, who meet on “thosestupidhumans.com.” Their romance “had begun in a chat room about climate change, a concern all around these days, but then everyone else had left, one by one, shrimp, black squirrel, and finally millipede, and the two found themselves chatting solo.” The story follows their long-distance relationship, and it’s gorgeous and heartbreaking. Definitely worth the read.