Friday, September 16, 2016

Virtual living

When four young adults emigrate from Russia to New York City, their lives remain tied together in Lara Vapnyar's novel Still Here, even when they strive to go their separate ways. Regina marries a successful American businessman, then spends her days eating and watching television, preferably both at the same time. Vidik floats from one job to another, unable to keep any of them for long. Vica is a medical technician but wants something better. She is married to Sergey, formerly Regina's boyfriend, who is obsessed with his idea for an app. If only he can find someone willing to invest money in it.

It is this app that holds the center of the plot. He calls it Virtual Grave. Its purpose is to give people an online presence even after death. They could, for example, continue to "like" things on Facebook that they would have liked while still living. "Our online presence is where the essence of a person is nowadays," Sergey says early in the novel. He views his app as a form of immortality.

Vapnyar's returns to Virtual Grave again and again until it becomes clear her characters, with all their interest in virtual death, are actually living virtual lives. They sometimes long to return to Moscow perhaps because their lives there had seemed more real somehow. Now they float from job to job, from romance to romance, from fad to fad, without anything actually anchoring them to the real world.

Other apps mentioned in the story reenforce this idea. There is one called Eat'n'Watch, which suggests the best food to eat while watching certain TV shows and tells you where to get it in your neighborhood. Virtual Suitcase offers a place on the web to store memorabilia like photos, videos and important e-mail. Online one can have virtual friends and even virtual lovers.

How each of her characters comes to embrace real life, in different ways, is what Still Here is about.

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