Elizabeth Cohen’s HYPOTHETICAL GIRL is a humorous, often sad and at times dark, exploration of the world of online dating. In each of Cohen’s fifteen stories exists a truth about the human experience. How we search for love and why, how we perceive others and ourselves, and whether or not we’re worthy of love, are just to name a few. There is a repetitiveness to Cohen’s work that some might see as uninspired, but it is this cohesiveness that creates a platform for her characters to expand and contract, it is the starting ground for all the ways love can expose itself, how it can lift you up… or destroy you.
The pervasiveness of online dating speaks to a need in our society to connect with people more than ever, and the promise of doing so anonymously is undeniably appealing. However, at some point, to really pursue love, online daters must break the barrier between technology and the real world. The innumerable results are the product of Cohen’s imagination, which is poignant and honest, and which serves as the heartbeat for this wonderful collection.
Interview with Elizabeth Cohen, author of The Hypothetical Girl
First, a little fun. There is quite a lot of humor in these stories. I found myself laughing out loud at the names of some the online dating sites in your book. In a way these sites are characters themselves. How did you come up with them and how do they contribute to the stories?
The humorous names of dating websites I came up with (I had more: cutiepants.com, ZINGKISS.com, marrymerightnow.com) were extremely fun to hatch. And I had to. Originally I invented sites that, it turned out, already existed. That is right. There are so many dating sites that my first tries, like www.lookingforlove.com, already existed. I had to be whimsical.
Online dating has been around for a few years, and is becoming more and more common. Why did you choose to examine this way of connecting?
I chose to focus on love stories about online dating because I was doing it and it was all around me. It is rampant. Every person I knew that was single was trying it, many later in life. It seemed omnipresent. Even Martha Stewart is doing it! It occurred to me that for many, many people, this has become how to meet now. It is technology’s gift to the single. And the more I thought about it, the more I became interested in what it means for us, all of us, the whole world, that love is becoming increasingly mediated by technology. It is a fertile vein of stories and topics I just tapped into.
The difference between perception and reality is evident in these stories. What were you trying to expose by investigating the way your characters navigate that difference?
In exploring the gap between perception and reality in my stories I wanted to expose and explore the ways that technology is changing flirtation. We cannot see actual people we “flirt” with – they are, as the title of my book describes, hypothetical people. Yet the heart skips a beat anyway, it leaps forward, as if they were real. I have come to believe that we are evolutionarily programmed to love. But in online dating this human quality is a flaw. Because we love too soon, too fast, too hungrily, because we do not realize that people can be whomever they want to be, they can seek out our interests and match them. They can invent themselves to be suit our fantasies, and we ourselves can do this too. There is incredible opportunity to just plain lie in this world.
Often I felt a character was trying to find a way to love themselves, rather than trying to find love in another person. Particularly in “The Hardness Test.” Do you think people seek love as a way to reconcile a flaw they see in themselves?
“The Hardness Test” is definitely about a woman who has a deep vein of self-loathing and is trying to reconcile it by finding love. Estelle, the protagonist, has carried a burden of guilt all her life, relating to a horrifying incident with her sister when she was a child. Everything about this narrator is about redemption and reinvention. Finding the right mirror to see herself in, the right man to love. Other stories have this element as well, especially “Love Quiz”, in which the narrator, Ona, is trying to figure out who to love and how to love in the aftermath of an argument with her best friend about dating her ex-boyfriend. What Ona is really looking for is a way to quell loneliness. Which is, by the way, what all these stories are about. Quenching the thirst of the heart – and how technology throws a strange wrench in that pursuit.
When something seems too good to be true, is it? I wanted to warn some of your characters about this more than once, which got me to thinking about how you use this as a plot construction. How is the sense that “this isn’t going to end well” effective in a short story?
I love dramatic foreshadowing. I love it in movies. I love it in fiction. I love the sense that the reader/viewer/audience knows something the narrator does not know. This gives the reader a feeling of investment and even privilege in the story. So, in a story like “Life Underground”, I want the reader to be thinking, “What? You are going over to a total stranger’s house? Are you nuts?” But at the same time recognizing the instinct to do so, that sense of adventure and attraction that makes us behave sometimes in ways that we know are not wise.
I wanted to touch briefly on the story “Limerence” where a man attends an addiction support group to help temper his urges to stalk a woman he met online. What are your thoughts regarding technology and addiction?
I think technology actually is a drug. In fact I know it is. I watch my teenage daughter and her friends checking for new texts, instagrams, snapchats and such several times an hour. I see how she freaks out if I take away her cell phone for a day. I see my students sneaking to check phones during class even though I forbid it and the penalty is severe. I see friends of mine who are dating online checking for new messages several times a day. I created Larry, the protagonist of the story “Limerence”, to highlight the plight of a person completely addicted to an imagined connection. He hardly knows this woman Louise, and what he knows is mostly through online interaction. Yet he goes over and over and over the small messages she sent him, adding on layers of meaning that are clearly not there. Again, the reader knows this, the reader sees through Larry’s addiction. Larry is like so many of us of us, trying desperately to communicate using technology and for the most part, failing.
Language is crucial to your characters. It’s how they portray themselves online. In what ways does language fail your characters and in what ways does it help them?
It isn’t language that fails my characters, it is mediated language. Language that is funneled through screen and keyboard before it hits another person. My characters fall prey to the ease of dishonesty via internet communication and they fall prey to the ease of being lied to, in this realm. Language fails my characters because it is taken out of the context of actual communication. There is no body language, facial expression, real time conversation. They are typing. And in this way, tone and nuance and emotions that our voices carry are lost, and that stuff matters.
Would you recommend online dating?
I recommend SMART online dating. I recommend meeting people online with a solid and grounded understanding that these are hypothetical people until you actually meet them (always first in a public place). Understand that tone can be lost in texts and messages and emails. And I am for making that real time connection as soon as possible and taking it off the internet. And even then, keeping a healthy skepticism about one, at all times.
There is a lot of love out there in the world and people do find it this way. But I think the ratio is tilted rather heavily against it, as online dating sites are filled with sexual players and the truly lost. You have to be willing to do it a lot and get good at it. Graze. Which is not really all that fun. And it takes time. You might be better off going to a bar or a matchmaker!
Interview and Book Review by Kim Winternheimer