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Author: Arne Tangherlini
Publisher: Wellfleet, MA: Leapfrog Press, 1999
Review Published: May 2003

 REVIEW 1: Michael Filas

leo@fergusrules.com takes us into a virtual reality domain, Apeiron, and its underworld Dløn, where 14 year-old protagonist, Leo, searches for her lost friend Bri. This book is not really about plot as much as it is an exploration of teenage identity, a critique of schooling norms, and a grand assembly of literary allusions. Multiculturalism functions here as a thematic glue that transcends action in both the material world and the virtual domain. Leo, short for Leonora Caccianemica, is a gender-ambiguous Filipino-Italian-American who dresses like a boy, wears her hair short, and maintains her closest friendships through email and virtual platforms. The most important relationship in her life is with her grandmother, Lola Flor, who lives according to "medieval notions of order" and superstitions about ethnic Filipino folklore, ghosts, and monsters. As it turns out, even when Leo is in the virtual world of Apeiron and living through her avatar, Fergus, she still finds herself faced with situations particular to her ethnic identity and culture in the material world.

Leo dons her virtual reality gear, including a catheter (she plans on being in for awhile), with the specific intention of rooting out her friend Bri, who has disappeared from the material world. Like Leo, Bri too is an embodiment of multicultural cross-pollination, "part Danish, part Korean, part Brazilian." Ultimately, Bri turns out to be simply a motivating device through which author Arne Tangherlini can draw his protagonist into the deepest and most dangerous levels of the virtual world, Dløn. In Dløn, the normal rules of orientation and logic do not apply. As in Dante’s Inferno in which Virgil serves as the informed guide of the underworld, Leo is shown the way by Fra Umberto, neither a player nor a character in Apeiron, but rather a construct of an intelligence that was once a man. Without his help Leo stands no chance of entering Dløn, of finding Bri, of ever transcending the recreational applications in Apeiron. As in the mythology surrounding any promised land, no one can enter Dløn except as themselves, completely free of virtual identities, special powers, or abilities. Leo feels her way through Dløn, discovering as she goes that each situation brings her to a better understanding of her own real place in the real world.

Stripping away constructed trappings of identity can be a daunting task, but Tangherlini’s protagonist is especially susceptible to identity issues - she’s a young teenager displaced from her family, her ethnicity, her school, her gender, and even her own body. Once Leo enters the hell of Dløn, she can only survive by becoming her true self, step-by-step, until at last she no longer needs the virtual world as an escape from the horrifying material world. The real power, she learns, comes in knowing herself. Leo exits the obsessive nightmare of the virtual hell with a new appetite for the wonder and richness of the material world.

If this sort of happy ending sounds corny or too neat, the fault is in my summary, not Tangherlini’s craftsmanship. He takes us through Leo’s self-discovery with so much wonderful imagery, sensual detail, and provocative contexts that the final revelations reframe the material world as a dream rich with meaning and opportunity. Initially, the strange combination of the virtual dimension and ethnic rootedness threw me off. I’m used to tales of cyberspace in which the history, family, or details of embodiment in the material world are far less important than the magical new possibilities of moving through the virtual domain. This book reclaims the cyberspace novel as a means to affirm embodiment, as a means of discovering and coming to terms with heritage and transcending the temptation to live as someone else through simulated worlds and identities.

Compared to cyberpunk novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), leo@fergusrules.com uses cyberspace as a means to discover knowledge about life in the material world, not as an alternative universe in which the flesh becomes an unfortunate anchor to disenfranchised helplessness. In Tangherlini’s novel, cyberpunk contempt for flesh comes across as teenage awkwardness with the body. Not entirely satisfied with her figure, Leo has cultivated a boyish appearance to the degree that her grandmother mistakes her for a boy, which works in Leo’s favor. "I learned a long time ago that you can use people’s confusion to your advantage. If you keep them guessing, they’re never sure how to treat you. If you’re smart, you make them treat you the way you want to be treated" (2). In Dløn, Leo discovers a twist to her gender masquerade. In one virtual episode she is made to clean a filthy bathroom largely because she is a girl and supposedly cannot do the other more manly tasks. Her avatar is ironically tethered to damnation because of her gender, but in the material world, Leo actually benefits from her grandmother’s gender misperception.

It’s helpful to remember that confusion can often be instructive. As a reader, I found myself confronted in this novel with an initial sense of disorientation. Leo is a great protagonist and we learn her motivations and relationships throughout the book, but her desire and thus the basis for plot tension are based on her quest to discover the whereabouts of Bri in the virtual world. At least this is the ostensible plot but it gets somewhat buried beneath details of the state of Manila’s development, folklore about legendary Filipino ghosts and supernatural beings, and overt attempts to align Leo’s experience in the virtual world with Dante’s depiction of the circles of hell. While the writing is rich with provocative images and erudite integration of philosophical and literary ideas, in places I wanted more plot tension. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to expect immersion in a virtual world to be a linear experience - a rich experience, yes, but not necessarily sequentially neat. In the absence of plot tension, then, I needed something else to ground me in the reading, to keep me engaged. Tangherlini provides that cohering element through the central theme of self-discovery. By the book’s finish, I found myself delighted by a purposeful and wonderfully integrated tour de force.

Leo’s passage through the virtual world is a mix of the fantastic and the familiar. It does not take too long to realize that her experiences there are indecipherable from her memories, family, and experiences in the material world. However, making sense of this dream-like pattern - as it relates to plot or character development - really came together for me just about halfway through the book. As Leo works her way through Dløn, she finds herself caught up in a bramble made up of an ever-spreading plant. The tricky part is that the plant is the latest incarnation of a 7th grader Leo once knew, Emily. Emily had committed suicide because she was so disgusted with over population, pollution, and over consumption. Now, in an ironic virtual hell, she has been reincarnated as a flowerless scentless plant with leaves in a paisley pattern like cheap upholstery in a constant state of self-propagation. Leo recognizes her voice and has a conversation with her. Like Leo, Emily was a smart child and by age twelve she had read Gandhi and Simone Weil - she had the world figured out. However, her suicide is an embarrassment and a regretful act for her now. She tells Leo "Sometimes that’s a dangerous thing, seeing through the bullshit. Now, I wish I could see my way back into it. You have to be there if you’re going to make it better" (101). After this conversation, Leo’s trials and tribulations within the virtual world begin to fall into place as an extended allegorical commentary on her life as a teenager in twentieth-century Manila.

In the material world, Leo makes a profession out of getting expelled from whatever school she happens to be enrolled in at the moment - at fourteen years old she has already been thrown out of seventeen schools. Inside Dløn, she enters a school in which the children wear clown makeup and learn rules as absurd as anything Gulliver might have encountered in Laputa. Not surprisingly, Leo is eventually isolated from this inanity, and as a parallel to her experiences in the material world, she is sent to the principal’s office. In the nuances of this sequence, Tangherlini, who was a teacher himself, launches a brutal attack on the forced uniformity of thought and action imposed by education. But he also goes further, challenging the supremacy of education over other forms of knowledge such as ethnic folklore and intuition, elements of Leo’s identity that cannot be replicated very well in Dløn, Apeiron, or any virtual world.

Importantly, neither the reader nor Leo loses track of where she is. She is always aware of her gear, always prepared to strip off her hood and unplug the virtual world if need be. She endures incredible thirst and exhaustion as she undertakes a number of intense "physical" endeavors in the virtual world. Yet, her personality and identity seem to be firmly established as the same, especially when she transcends the boundaries of Apeiron, the recreational virtual space, and enters Dløn, the zone where virtual travelers experience a true awakening or damnation of their souls. In Dløn, each person finds a virtual Hell or a virtual odyssey based on her personal life and consciousness in the material world. Some, like Bri, choose to stay and envelop themselves in power for the sake of power. But this virtual world, much like Dorothy’s time in Oz, is a far more personal space than the matrices of Neuromancer (1984) or films such as eXistenZ or The Matrix (both 1999). In these texts, the virtual world is a shared universe in which multiple forms of intelligence exist but the environment does not adapt itself to the individual in the same way that Dløn reflects and mutates Leo’s consciousness.

The ultimate lesson in leo@fergusrules.com is that people, especially teenage people, are far better off in the material world with flawed families, physical awkwardness, and impossible schools than they are in the virtual world where things are not only represented with absurdity and nonsense, but are also incomplete. In the virtual world, a person loses too much identity. Halfway into her journey, Leo has a lesson from her guide, Fra Umberto:
    "Who do you think you are now?"

    "Leonora Caccianemica, known in Aperion as Fergus, verde to my relatives, brat, Filipino-Italian-American—"

    "You are nothing outside of Dløn: neither fantasy nor Filipino. Not American or mongoose, you are unnamed. You entered Dløn and lost yourself." (111, italics in original)
Leo ultimately chooses to unplug, to leave the virtual world, to embrace the material world and revel in her identity, imperfections and all. It’s a hopeful message delivered without sentimentality or apology, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an alternative to the absolute nihilism of cyberpunk. Tangherlini shows us how cyberspace can be rendered to affirm our place in the flawed but beautiful world of family relations, bodies, ethnicities, and memories.

Michael Filas:
Michael Filas received his Ph.D. in American Literature and Cultural Studies from University of Washington in 2001. He is assistant professor of English at Westfield State College, in Massachusetts, where he teaches creative writing, literature and film. His current research focuses on cyborg subjectivity.  <mfilas@wisdom.wsc.ma.edu>

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