by Erin Fitzgerald
We often say that one of the reasons we read is to live life through different lens. Limited by our own perspectives, with every new story we willingly plunge into another world to learn—to experience—what it’s like to be someone else. More often than not, such worlds are molded by a distinctive environment which revolves around a well-developed character wielding a sense of individuality. It’s how characters become concrete in our minds.
But, what if there’s a story where that’s not the case?
Erin Fitzgerald’s unconventional novella, Valletta78, reevaluates very intimately—and darkly—what it means to be mutable in an era of social networking. Told through a series of flashbacks, reflections, and virtual conversations in chat rooms, Valletta78 is a story about identity, or the search for one. The narrator, known only to us by the screen name Valletta78, is a bored newlywed living in Valletta, a suburban community populated with housing developments and chain stores. As the narrator is quick to point out, this Valletta borrows its name from the capital city of Malta. Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the real Valletta has buildings painted cream and orange, with the sky and sea “two different shades of brilliant blue” as the view.
“That Valletta has drinking and dancing and vacationers and sunshine,” the narrator remarks dryly upon recollection. “This Valletta had car washing and spin classes and in-law suites and air conditioning.”
The irony is evident. The narrator has everything she could ever possibly want, including a house and a husband, Brandon, who she met while on a cruise. Yet, she feels lonely and vacant. As if smeared by the tip of a perfectly round but rather dry and cheap eraser, the narrator has a vague sense of who she is as a person—or, who she’s supposed to be.
So, she pretends to be other people on online support forums.
In every forum, from agoraphobes to insomniacs, the narrator constructs a new identity with a unique tragedy. In one instance, which is explored more in depth in the story, she becomes Valletta78, or Val, the sister of a cancer survivor. Even when juggling various disguises and creating friendships online, the narrator remains hazy. Ghost-like. This is exemplified beautifully through Fitzgerald’s prose, which is both delicate and pensive, even seductive, capturing the all-too-real experience of what it’s like to feel disoriented in this day and age: “Brandon said the house was a little underwater, and I knew what he was actually trying to say, that we were a little underwater, but I imagined the house underwater anyway. Sometimes it was in a moat. Other times, it was a submarine. Most of the time, Atlantis.”
Even as the narrator attempts to find a voice for much of Valletta78, she draws back as suddenly as she appeared, leaving us with the task of filling in the gaps most of the time. The novella has no beginning or end, but it’s meant to be that way. In just a little over 120 pages, we’re given the opportunity to examine a fragment of the narrator’s life as she transitions into adulthood, trying to make sense of the woman who stares back at her in the window late at night. Valletta78 is by no means a feel-good story, but Fitzgerald does leave us with much to think about, particularly about the human experience online and offline—how, even when trapped between desire and disillusionment, we’re often left wanting more.