The epistolary story is foundational to the tradition of Western literature, tracing its history back at least as far as the 18th century novels of Samuel Richardson, most notably Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747). Those novels unfold entirely through correspondence to and from the various characters; they were, of course, composed at a time when letter writing was an art form in itself. But regardless of the relative fall from favour posted missives have suffered in the digital age, it is still common to read fiction in which a hidden cache of letters reveals hitherto unknown details (frequently of the scandalous sort) about characters and their situations.
Which makes it passing strange that in an era besotted with the instantaneous communication opportunities offered by email, few writers seem eager to embrace this form as a viable one for fiction. One person who does recognize the potential of email as a fictional conveyance is Nova Scotia born writer and filmmaker Alex Pugsley. His story “Ordinary Love Song” plays with the conventions of email, from punctuation to more technical concerns such as domain names and metadata, with fascinating results. Significantly, his story proves that the digital mode of communication, while frequently castigated as impersonal and dehumanizing, can, in the right hands, carry with it strong emotional resonance.
Pugsley understands that this is effected as much by what is left out of his story as by what gets put in. Because “Ordinary Love Song” offers readers an online correspondence between two people who also meet up and engage with each other IRL (as the kids say), there is inevitably a certain amount of soap operaesque recapitulation – “how weird was that when we walked past Pizza Pizza at 4 a.m. some pimped-out Honda Civic drives by with the new Blue Wonder track bumping?” – but this is by and large seamlessly integrated into the flow of the broader narrative.
More interesting are the lacunae Pugsley inserts into the back and forth between Byron and Jessica, two people who meet online in a forum for music geeks discussing guitar tablatures and embark on a brief affair. What is significant in the arc of the story is that the granular details of their coming together (pun very definitely intended) are withheld from the reader, who is required to piece things together by the often sketchy nature of their online dialogue.
This is done in part by the date stamps on the various posts. Byron’s first salvo, dated April 2, 2003, is a request for the guitar tabs to the new song by indie band Blue Wonder (the same group blasting from the Honda Civic outside Pizza Pizza at 4 a.m.). The song shares a title with the story in which it features. Jessica responds to this request on April 8, with a profession of love for the “fuzzy dreampop” ditty and surmises about the key and chord progressions that open the tune. This is all cast in the friendly but not overly familiar tone of someone engaging online with a stranger who shares similar interests.
Byron responds the following day, April 9, with some personal details about where he lives and the occupation of a friend. There follows a gap of several weeks, before Jessica replies, on April 23. Byron’s follow-up comes a day later, April 24. His enthusiasm – responding within twenty-four hours to each of Jessica’s notes – is indicative of someone who spends much time online; his April 24 message is posted at 6:11 a.m., a ridiculously early hour to be sending emails. As the two become more closely enmeshed, the lag between responses diminishes; at one point the pair exchange three emails on the same day.
The exchange in question occurs after the pair meet in person at a party hosted by a mutual friend; here Jessica offers some elliptical personal notes: “it was just a strange day for me personally – just normal human stuff – i’ve been basically trying to quit all intoxicants not to mention i have to take a break from all things Peterborough.” The conjunction of “normal human stuff” with the admission that she is “trying to quit all intoxicants” is more than one might divulge to a complete stranger but also vague enough as to allow her some privacy and space (while also hinting at possible addiction or dependency issues).
Her next email, which goes into detail about a “rant” she had threatened to launch into, provides the reader with further information about her character, but this is couched in commentary about her hatred for “all the indie feel-the-painers” who attend certain parties she is invited to. This extended complaint is illustrative of a particular type of (typically younger male) poseur:
Basically there’s sort of this archetype for people from Trent – the indie-rock dude at the back of the party in the plaid shirt drinking PBR who sees the truth in all the blood and spit and despair as he bumblefucks his way through a philosophy degree but drops out fourth year and moves to Kensington Market and plays in five different bands and always decries the new big thing as the next big shit because how can anything popular possibly be good?
The kind of precious music snob Jessica is describing should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has gone to university; the repeated references to Peterborough and Trent also help locate Jessica geographically and, at least partially, in an upper-middle-class milieu (i.e. she can either afford to attend university herself, or she surrounds herself with people who can). The syntax Pugsley provides her is also evocative: how exact and alive is the verb “bumblefucks”?
Of course the relationship sours and does so in one of the most 21st century ways possible: with one member of the couple ghosting the other. Without giving too much away, the pair has sex, requests for photos are made, and emotional boundaries get crossed. No one is especially to blame in any of what transpires, which is part of what makes Pugsley’s story so emotionally devastating. There is a genuine misunderstanding about how much honesty is acceptable so early in a relationship and the blowback is fierce and immediate, leading to hurt and confusion on both sides.
What is most apparent in the final stages of the story is the precise weight and nature of Pugsley’s title. Not only is it the name of one of Byron and Jessica’s favourite new songs, it also describes the trajectory of their relationship. Their stumbling, bumbling efforts at carving out a romantic connection, and the ultimate failure of those efforts, is heartbreaking, and also heartbreakingly ordinary. When Byron responds, months later, to another poster on the guitar tabs site, he includes some of the lyrics from “Ordinary Love Song,” which are trenchant and plaintive in context: “When I think of all the time I spent / Writing songs that never went anywhere / When all I ever really meant to mean / was everything to you.”