Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991)
Review by Ian Sales
There is Rosa and Shirley and you and Mr Johnson and Marie. You are a cyborg; you are also the person consuming the fantasy produced by the cyborg. Marie is your guide. Mr Johnson would sooner the fantasy went the way he wanted. Rosa and Shirley are the fantasy; they have been friends for years.
Right from its opening chapter titled ‘Who Are You?’ Correspondence tells us it is not a novel which is going to follow typical narrative forms.
Now, if you look under your seat you should find a starter pack containing guilt, loneliness and desire. It’s there? Oh good, at least someone has been doing their job properly. Now on this trip we are also fortunate to have been givenm a free sample of wish-fulfilment, although I must warn you to use it in single doses only. (p 3)
So says Marie, introducing the reader to the “fantasy” which will follow. And certainly there is plenty of “guilt, loneliness and desire” in Correspondence. And not just in the fantasy featuring Rosa and Shirley. There is a woman who has had parts of her body replaced with machinery, chiefly so she does not have to engage with the world and the people in it, but which also helps her construct a fantasy by plugging into a computer terminal in her home. Both her transformation and her job are attempts to expunge an incident from her past. Her narrative is written in the second person.
The fantasy on which this woman is working features two women called Rosa and Shirley. They are of an unstated age, live opposite each other, and are close friends. That is until Rosa suddenly decides she belongs in the country, and promptly moves there. The two characters are introduced in “Datablocks” A through E, and it is the last which begins the narrative which is the fantasy. Rosa has travelled to Ireland in the company of a man, Conal, she believes to be the love of her life. She is a serial romantic. And like her other affairs, this one comes to an abrupt end. The magic simply evaporates. And so Shirley comes to fetch her.
At intervals, Marie pops up with a *BREAK* to keep the readers on the straight and narrow – Mr Johnson, the only reader named, has a habit of bending the storyline in directions he wants it to go. His changes are not necessarily bad – but they are not Rosa’s story, they are not Shirley’s story. And while it may be implied there is a degree of freedom in the experiencing of the fantasy, the story-line as such is fixed – or rather, it is the responsibility of the cyborg woman.
Correspondence is also interspersed with “infodumps”, mostly about the parent corporation for which the cyborg woman works, Regis, though one does reproduce lines from Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ (p 79).
Science fiction’s pulp adventure beginnings have left it with a preference for traditional narrative structures. The genre has its share of experimenters, true – Samuel R Delany springs to mind – but typical examples of structural experimentation in sf novel-length fiction include Iain M Banks’ Use of Weapons, with its reverse-chronology narrative, or Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, with its non-linear alternating chapters, and neither are especially unconventional. Correspondence is far more adventurous – there’s that second-person, for a start. And not just addressing you as reader, but also you as creator of what is being read.
Correspondence experiments too in its approach to genre and genre tropes. It is not science fiction qua science fiction. Rosa and Shirley’s story, a fantasy created by the science-fictional narrative of the cyborg woman, is closer to magical realism than it is to any other identifiable mode of fiction. When Shirley visits Rosa in her country cottage she finds her friend has become some sort of Earth Mother. While finding this repellent, Shirley is also drawn to Rosa, a turning-over of their relationship up to that point. When her affairs ended badly, Rosa leant on Shirley; now Rosa is Shirley’s balm.
Rosa had ceased to think. Shirley wished that she could do the same, and she knew that she couldn’t, but she also knew that she wished to remain silent for the rest of her life.
And so it was that Shirley crept out of bed, and entered the garden at the dead of night to find a young bloom of a rose which might live for a while. She placed the flower upon the dewy grass, put Joey in the car, and drove seventy miles through the remaining dark until she came to a dawn-lit beach just as the seagulls awoke. (p 123)
But then the two women, and their histories, are fabrications. Their creator is in need of a balm, as she explains to two door-stepping religious evangelists. She tells them her story – her life, not the fantasy she is creating for Regis – and then reveals the transformations that have been wrought on her body. But there is one last transformation she does not discuss: the presence of seemingly-malign code in her machine mind. This code is a virus, and it calls itself Rosa.
So what exactly is going on in Correspondence? We are explicitly asked to identify with Rosa and Shirley by Marie, but what of their creator, the cyborg woman? She has as much guilt, loneliness and desire as her two creations – if not more, given that their emotional landscapes, and the situations in which they find themselves, are her invention. Yet they are also a way of holding onto her humanity, or re-identifying with a race which she feels will no longer accept her. She was driven to transform herself by an incident in her past – a car accident which killed her husband and child. Her grief has made an automaton of her, and she is busy literalising the numbness which has resulted. Yet she creates the lives of Rosa and Shirley, and in them she finds some small form of redemption… but one which she can never herself partake of.
And why “Correspondence“? It is not a conversation between persons by means of letters, it is not an agreement of situations with an expected outcome. One narrative is the output of another, which is in turn glossed and annotated by yet more narratives. Is a fantasy a natural consequence of insulating yourself from emotional pain? Is it a pre-requisite? It is, after all, the cyborg woman’s transformation which allows her to generate the fantasy, it is a consequence of the transformation.
Some books are not easy reads because they ask a lot of the reader. In Correspondence, there is no compact between reader and writer because the relationship is not implied but baldly stated by Maria – especially to Mr Johnson. There is still the cyborg woman, with whom we are asked to identify by Thomas using the baldest possible technique for doing so: the second person. Correspondence is not immersive, it does not present a world which can be unquestioningly experienced. It does not possess a clear linear plot, in which effect follows cause. The reader must do more than parse the words on the page to follow the story. Correspondence is not an easy read, it is a book that demands thought. How rewarding that makes it depends on how closely you engage with it. But it is at least a novel that requires engagement.