Barbara Browning’s The Gift is Auto-Fiction That Falls Flat

Guest author Evan Bryson studied painting and writing in Indiana. He lives in Chicago and works in higher ed. Here he reflects on Barbara Browning's The Gift published by Coffee House Press Barbara Browning, the giftBarbara Browning’s latest novel The Gift follows after examples set by other auto-fiction authors of recent renown: Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station—novels, incidentally, name checked several times throughout her book. This insistence on formal precedence is one way Browning educates her readers as to the aesthetic and emotional trajectory of her narrative, but it’s also something of a nervous tic. I am writing about my very interesting life, too! she seems to say. Therein we find a nearly-documentary account of her artistic experiments in a very particular era: post-Occupy, pre-Obamacare, with Pussy Riot on trial somewhere in the middle. The faded hopes of these responses to oppression and attempts at reform structure a book whose center doesn’t quite hold. Maybe the center doesn’t hold because Browning’s novel feels—belated. In a post-truth, post-democracy republic, the novel’s endless interest in representation, facticity, event and identity seems at best precious and at worst naïve. The internet, with its usual suspects (email, YouTube), is deployed to an unusually candid degree in scene-setting and plot machinations. The narrator, like all of us, is living her best life on screens. If you’ve ever flirted with someone on Instagram, or fired off an embarrassing email to the wrong recipient, or made a friend through blogging, the nexus of relationships described in this novel will neither surprise nor delight you: they’ll feel like the tedious accounts of friends trying to explain how much they like and admire someone based off that person’s Facebook posts. That encapsulates one dimension of the book’s thematic success: how our surface encounters with strangers’ disclosures occupy more and more of our deep feelings about the world, and then, magically, produce meaningful engagements. But that description also signals the book’s failure. The puzzling overstatement that The Gift is in large part “true”—a chronicle of a burgeoning online relationship with an autistic musician in Germany; a parallel summation of the performance art and choreography of a trans dancer; a timeline of the injury and recovery of the narrator’s octogenarian mother—confuses the issue of the novel’s complexity, reducing its events to a spongy relative value on a scale of “happened verbatim” to “happened with name changed” to “happened with composite character” to “made up.” Browning’s avatar, Barbara Andersen, carefully flags events in the novel along those coordinates according to her interest in “ethics.” There’s even a detailed email exchange with University of Chicago theory star Lauren Berlant (happened verbatim) describing the narrator’s compulsion to ask permission from those she uses in her novels. Her lover, a guitarist, respectfully declines full representation, and appears only in a blurry cameo. (David Graeber, celebrated anthropologist and anarchist activist, gets a charming walk-on role, as does Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, and artist Karen Finley, among others.) I’ve maintained a blog for nearly a decade; because there’s a library of my likes and dislikes out there, a record of my breakups, preferred sex acts, thoughts on suicide, and many pictures of cats I’ve known, people mistake me for a confidant and friend. That’s the gift of any textual encounter that goes on long enough: we feel we’ve come to know someone, we care for someone, even if the person we’ve come to know is a composite or outright fraud. Browning plumbs this truism by underlining our stakes in the collaboration of this generous misunderstanding. The dynamic isn’t that we’re duped, it’s that we’re okay being duped. We fell in love—with a story. We suspend disbelief even especially when we’re told we’re being lied to. When Browning’s narrator attempts to visit the mysterious musician in Cologne, who she’s been intimately and erotically corresponding with for the better part of a year (trading ukulele covers, sexts, the like), she’s warned by her friend Abner (happened with name changed) that it could all be a ruse. She muses on the cruel fate of Manti Te’o, Notre Dame quarterback who got catfished so hard, and takes from that an object lesson in managing expectations. The Gift orchestrates its own kind of catfishing. “I to write a novel,” the narrator explains, “about technique and art and love and surrogacy and gift economies and feminism and communism and the erotics of collaboration.” The novel dutifully checks those items off its list. But in its anxiety to do so, the author unwittingly stalks after a bumbling meta-prize, the genre of “auto-fiction” itself. And by exposing the banality of its artifice, really kills it, dead. An undergraduate emails, “I’m interested in digitally mediated intimacies, especially as they slide between the virtual and the physical (or completely disrupt these boundaries as we think of them).” By virtue of this correspondence, one assumes, reproduced from an actual thread, exhumed from Browning’s inbox and interred into her avatar’s, the author has instantiated the disruption of an intimate boundary. It’s a neat trick but has a slight effect. Two hundred or so pages of slight effects—it’s tough. Buy The Gift from Coffee House Press for $16 if you wish.
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