THE METAPHYSICAL TOUCH; by Sylvia Brownrigg; (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 390 pp., $24)
It's tempting to think of Sylvia Brownrigg's debut as an art-house "You've Got Mail" between two covers. But while the popular film about Internet romance assured us that e-mail didn't really change things much after all (the ways of the heart being, essentially, immutable), one gets a much scarier vibe from "The Metaphysical Touch": Brownrigg's brainy epistolary duo--a grad student named Pi and a suicidal Web celebrity named JD--mull over the new medium until it really does seem like a seismic event leading us all into unexplored emotional realms. Pi's full name is Emily Piper; she's a budding philosopher who has lost everything in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. Rather than reassemble her dissertation on Kant from memory, Pi opts to exile herself in Mendocino. From this idyllic remove, she goes online and encounters JD's postings from the edge, known as "The Diery." The two begin a cyber flirtation that encompasses Kant, Kafka, bisexuality, bicoastalism, deceased pets, the Beatles and suicide, and which eventually brings them into another real California disaster: the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Brownrigg is dead on about email's ability to seduce us ijto soliloquy, and her novel is a convincing meditation on the thorny neither / nor-ness of the Web: "neither voice nor paper," as Pi muses, "neither pure mind nor pure matter."
INTERPRETER OF MALADIES; By Jhumpa Lahiri; (Mariner: 208 pp., $12)
In "The Third and Final Continent," the closing story in this stunning debut collection, a Bengali man, after spending the last 30 years in the impossibly strange land of America, finds himself "bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept." A similar sense of bewilderment pervades these pages, as Jhumpa Lahiri's displaced Indian men and women are continually challenged to cope with new forms of everyday life and with each other, which they do, with comical pragmatism, hard-headedness and bitter honesty. The newlyweds in "This Blessed House" find themselves at loggerheads over what to do with the unlikely trove of Christian paraphernalia they uncover in their new Connecticut home; in "Mrs. Sen's," a recently emigrated wife is determined to buy fresh fish with their heads on, even if it means tackling her crippling fear of American roads; in "A Temporary Matter," a young couple take the opportunity of nightly power outages to tell each other horrible secrets in the dark; and in "Interpreter of Maladies," an attractive American-Indian tourist blithely confesses her marital infidelity to an astonished tour guide at the Sun Temple at Konarak. Lahiri's touch is delicate yet assured, leaving no room for flubbed notes or forced epiphanies.
SYRUP; By Maxx Barry; (Viking: 294 pp., $22.95)
For twentysomething Michael George Halloway, the gleefully shallow hero of this vicious send-up of corporate back-stabbing inside the soft-drink industry, marketing is like a "gorgeous, brainless model on cocaine having sex drinking Perrier in L.A." In sum, it represents everything that Michael, who re-christens himself Scat, desperately believes in. Armed with his nom du marketing, Scat sets out to make his millions, and he does have an undeniably million-dollar idea: a new cola drink called Fukk. He manages to get through the doors of Coke to pitch Fukk to a foxy new products marketing manager named 6 (it's actually her given name) and accomplishes two things: 1) falling desperately in love and 2) getting his million-dollar idea ripped off. Maxx Barry, an ex-marketer himself, knows how to make a smooth, snappy presentation, and he expertly orchestrates the ever-expanding ways that Scat and 6 end up getting screwed over by the business, usually at the hands of a Japanese marketing ace named Sneaky Pete. The frequently homeless Scat and the impossibly shrewd 6 always come back for more, making Barry's comic novel satisfyingly revenge-driven, full of scary marketing tips and fizzy as Fukk.
CHUMP CHANGE; By David Eddie; (Riverhead: 230 pp., $13)
David Henry, the out-sized 28-year-old narrator of this picaresque story about thwarted literary and libidinous ambitions, tells us up front: "I am a failure." But David is no moper; even when he's down to sardines, his tale bobs along like a relentless cocktail-party monologue. He has recently ditched New York, where his job in the letters department of Newsweek turned out to be a bit short on glamor. On top of that, he'd managed to publish only one essay in a second-rate Toronto literary magazine, prompting him to assess his literary output so far: "more an hors d'oeuvre than an oeuvre, really." So he moves back home to Toronto and settles into a pattern of avoiding his parents except to bilk them out of cash, lusting after his gorgeous roommate Leslie, putting off a commissioned article about Toronto, and when the chips are really down, turning to semi-honest employment: cranking out copy for the prestigious, high-strung Cosmodemonic Broadcast Corp. In the end, David puts his uncontrollable urge to make a mess of everything to good use, allowing David Eddie to make a very funny case for the importance of being juvenile.
MIRACLE MAN; By Ben Schrank; (Quill: 290 pp., $13)
Ben Schrank's impressive first novel is about a guy named Martin Kelly Minter, who decides that stealing from rich people is the only way to save "our brothers who had been near irretrievably lost in the nasty thicket that is unearned wealth." Raised on a steady diet of NPR in the Pennsylvania countryside by New York escapee parents, Kelly is bitterly determined to do the right thing: He drops out of Vassar, gets dumped by his big-city girlfriend, takes a sweaty job as a mover in New York, and falls hard for Luz, a Puerto Rican girl who lives in his Spanish Harlem tenement. But Kelly has always been a bit of a klepto, and now he wants to put his talent to good use by redistributing the wealth--and the priceless art work--of the Upper East Side to those who really need it: his Fresh Air Fund brother Felix; Luz's family; the methadone patients who hang out at the Hollywood Chicken restaurant, and, inevitably, himself. With Kelly, Schrank has created an appealingly reticent rogue who--for all his good intentions and distaste for phoniness--cannot escape the contradictions of desire, class, altruism and blowing money on shoes at Barneys.