Sunday, March 02, 2008

You've gotta love these fictional letters

Before the advent of email, the love letter was arguably the most tantalizing creation on paper. In this day and age, however, the love letter has all but disappeared from our collective conscious, so we should be grateful that a collection like this, which imagines this seductive delight in the words of 40 well-known writers, has come along.

This four-letter word: it does make us do strange things, like send words of passion to an email id we think belongs to an acquaintance from the past, when it does not—like in Lionel Shriver's letter. Or, dispatch a paramour pictures of a trip made together to a lovely European city. To be glad of "everything we have done together, and sorry that we will not be here together in forty years…as we stand fabulously old, in a city that understands what spirit it takes to be old, to be beautiful, to be much looked at…to have a past, to be content, to have seen much, to have remained, to have continued…" Jeanette Winterson sure has a way with words.

But love is not just between lovers. Gautam Malkani's letter, from Michael to his mum, is the most poignant piece of writing you would come across in some time, because it tells you that death is not the end. Or Hisham Matar's, in which a precocious Nori regales Mona with details of his wet dreams of her. Mona is his step-mother.

In a collection almost certain to make you feel a little more cynical about this blasted emotion than you already do, there is hope. Chris Bachelder pens a recommendation from Paula Gates, Director of Love Education at Perlis High School for Charlie Valentine, "a prodigy and a genius in the discipline of love." Charlie is, in fact, so good at the subject he understands that sleeping with his teacher will lessen his desirability.

There is variety here, for sure. Margaret Atwood, who dexterously conjoins fantasy with literary merit in her novels, writes about a gender-bending scribe who crisscrosses millennia to enthuse us with changing patterns of love. And who said love letters are meant to be addressed by humans, to humans? Read the pieces by Sam Lipsyte and James Robertson for evidence.

This anthology is a curious mix of serious and playful writing. I am not sure, though, if, timed to come out just before February 14, it will make an ideal Valentine's Day gift. Thing is, it's not about love—well, it is about love, but not just about love found or cherished. It's more about love lost, love tried to be regained and love never truly finding home.

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