Romance novels love mind-reading. The genre is built around the belief that if you know the characters' thoughts from the inside, you will fall in love. In most modern romances, the reader bounces back and forth between the consciousness of one lead and the consciousness of the other, feeling the thoughts and emotions of each in turn as they discover each other. Numerous romance novelists have picked up the metaphor directly; Laura Kinsale's protagonist reads minds in “Uncertain Magic,” and
Not in Connie Willis' near-future romance "Crosstalk," though. Willis — famous for her ability to combine sci-fi and humor — looks around at the modern world, with its phones constantly ringing and social media constantly socializing, and she wants to lock the door, pull up the drawbridge, and hang a do-not-disturb sign on the moat. The result is a true oddity; a romance in which greater intimacy is not a dream but a paranoid nightmare.
If that sounds unlikely to work, yes, "Crosstalk" is a mess. It's a frustrating read that spins futilely through its 512 pages desperately looking for interesting characters or engaging narrative drive. But, as with the medical procedure at the center of the novel, it fails in interesting ways.
The high concept of "Crosstalk" sounds promising. Commspan employee Briddey Flannigan lives in a world much like ours, which is to say she lives in a world of obsessive connection via cellphone, text, Facebook and tweet. Briddey spends the novel in a fugue of distraction, answering and/or dodging an incessant hail of communication, only to be interrupted in her efforts by more communication.
To escape from this deluge of connectivity, Briddey, somewhat counterintuitively, decides to opt for even more connection. She and her boyfriend, Trent Worth, decide to get a minor surgical procedure, EED, which will allow them to sense each other's emotions. Once she and Trent are united in this perfect connection, Briddey hopes that she'll be able to silence the barrage of other incoming pings. In particular, she believes, she will be able to get away from her constantly intrusive, nosy family. "I'll move in with Trent," she fantasizes while talking to her great aunt Oona, "and instruct the doorman to keep you and the rest of the world out and finally get some peace and quiet."
Inevitably, the EED doesn't go quite the way it should; instead of an emotional connection to Trent, Briddey ends up with a mental mind-reading connection with C.B. Schwartz, an eccentric, messy-haired inventor who develops cellphones which prevent people from contacting you. Though C.B. at first seems weird and even stalkerish, he eventually reveals hidden depths, helping Briddey deal with the onslaught of other people's thoughts as her mind-reading power develops. Their relationship unfurls apace — albeit with many, many interruptions.
The interruptions are precisely the problem. Usually in a romance you get to know the characters more closely as you read. You become familiar with Lizzie's playful wit in "Pride and Prejudice," or Bella's surprising, joyful recklessness in "Twilight," or Maddy's serene sense of right in Laura Kinsale's "Flowers From the Storm," because you spend time with them, the way you would spend time with a friend.
But Briddey and C.B. never have time to come into focus. On the contrary, Briddey's most vivid character trait is her beleaguered distraction. Even before she begins to read minds, her consciousness, as the reader experiences it, is one long, desperate longing for privacy. She's anxious about the interference of her family; she's anxious about the gossip of her coworkers. Her entire life seems determined by her panicked fear of intimacy—a fear which, appropriately but unfortunately, prevents the reader from getting close to her. C.B., for his part, is attractive mostly because he keeps swooping in to save Briddey. The romantic lead who makes all the problems go away is a standard trope, but the best heroes have more to them than an overwhelming desire to protect the heroine.
"There's such a thing as too much communication," C.B. tells Briddey testily. That may be true in real life, but a romance novel is a somewhat different proposition. At the very least, Willis' novel suggests that you can't build a love story on fear of contact. In "Crosstalk," romance and paranoia keep interrupting each other, until you're left with a burble of irritating, disconnected voices and a nagging desire to silence them by closing the book.
Berlatsky is the author of "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics."