By Barbara Browning
Reviewed by M. K. Rainey
Barbara Browning's The Gift does not fall easily into a genre or category—fiction or non-fiction, queer or feminist literature—and to put it into one would limit the possibilities of what both novels and humans can be. As good books go, it is a smart and engaging work that slips across the barriers of our immediate existence and allows us to explore the timeless ambiguity of what it means to be a human.
Narrated by Barbara Anderson—the author's use of the eponymous "Barbara" being the first clue that we're not in fictive Kansas any longer—the story opens on the digital canvas of spam email. Barbara, a writer, performance artist, dancer, and ukulele player, meets "Dr. Mel" via a choice piece of spam concerning weight loss. She decides to respond to Dr. Mel after he oddly signs the initial correspondence, "Love Mel." These first emails plant in Barbara the idea of love spam, which sends her on a digital journey of forwarding 'uke' covers that she records to various people. This idea of spamming people with melodious love, and other forms of performance art, serves as the main thread of the novel. Eventually, she toys with the idea of "inappropriate intimacy," which becomes the foundation of her interactions with the majority of the book's characters.
Through her spamming, Barbara A. discovers the website of a young musician, Sami, who lives in Cologne, Germany. She becomes engrossed in his work, one ukulele cover in particular. Upon listening to his oeuvre, she gets the idea to create a dance to his music. She reaches out to Sami and asks if he would like to receive a dance of hers. He is delighted, and thus their correspondence begins. They become quick friends and confidants. We discover that Sami creates art—really great art—at a rate most people can't. Sami also leaves twenty minute long voicemails and falls asleep when he's stressed; he gets overwhelmed by human interaction and confused by human emotions; he has a son he adores; he is missing one leg; he is autistic.
Barbara A. and Sami continue swapping art. Barbara A. sends Sami a series of dances, including "hand dances," whose video thumbnails we get to see stills of on the novel's physical pages, but which the narrator tells us she cannot show to us as they are private, hinting at a blossoming sexual relationship. The dances mirror Browning's language—minimal, distilled. Browning's sentences are often short, poignant, and concentrated to their most essential meaning. Barbara A. says of her own work, "My dances are pretty minimalist, like my music, and they seem to look best in small format . . . I usually save them in the smallest file size possible, as I don't want to overwhelm anybody's inbox with a large file." This minimalism and desire to take up as little space as possible informs the very human paradox we face, especially when creating art about people we may love: do you tell the truth or do you protect your loved ones? But more importantly, the minimalism mirrored by Barbara Anderson and Barbara Browning begin to blur those boundaries of genre.
Three other main characters (and a number of 'minor' ones) run parallel to Barbara A.'s relationship with Sami. Barbara A.'s son Leon is fully-grown and lives next door to his mother. Their interactions are often limited to the time it takes to share a cigarette on the balcony between their apartments, but the connection is no less meaningful in spite of their brevity. Leon acts as an existential dictionary for Barbara A., sharing her passion for art and solitude, yet serving to define the ambiguous ties around her.
Then there's Olivia, who, apart from Sami, is probably the book's biggest question mark in its case of fiction vs. non-fiction. Olivia is Barbara A.'s lover, a passionate poet and partner who often acts as the antithesis to Barbara A.'s capricious tendencies, an articulate and thoughtful voice moderating Barbara A.'s more excitable moments. Olivia is aware of the nature of Sami and Barbara A.'s relationship. While she's seemingly understanding, an underlying jealously seethes between the novel's tense moments. Midway through the novel, we come across the following haiku, out of a series that Olivia writes for Barbara A. regarding Sami:
I'm not the person
who should tell you what to do.
I just rub arches.
While the novel ultimately transcends all identities one might give it, you could say that it is also a queer book or a feminist theory or a political response, or all of the above and more. It's set in early 2012 at the height of the Pussy Riot controversy, in which three members of the Russian rock band were arrested for criticizing the government. Barbara A. sits on panels and gives discussions throughout the work regarding Pussy Riot's political plight, even meeting two of its members (who were not detained) at a dinner party one evening—something we feel Barbara Browning might have done. This kind of intellectual landscape partners with the framework of the novel, but does not monopolize the text. Take gender identity, for example. We meet Tye, who identifies as a man and is frequently referred to as trans, and yet, while the text certainly makes clear Tye's transition and struggle thereafter, the book does not define Tye by his gender identity. Tye acts instead as a wrecking ball for binaries and facile categories in human nature.
Throughout the novel, Sami is our pen pal as well. We get to know him through email, voice recordings, and text, but never in person. He toys with the idea of visiting New York, but those plans fall through. Eventually, Barbara A. makes plans to visit Sami in Cologne. Yet the trip to see Sami doesn't feel like the typical crescendo of actions and reactions. We're so entrenched in their relationship that we don't see the inevitable outcome of Barbara A.'s trip coming and it is all the more gut-wrenching for it.
Ultimately, it is Barbara A.'s relationship with Sami that calls into question the reality of her fiction. Browning isn't new to this genre-bending landscape. Her novel I'm Trying to Reach You has a character that serves as a kind of spiritual doppelganger for the author. However, where this book differs is in the reader's emotional grasp on the text. In fiction, we suspend our disbelief, allowing ourselves to enter the world as if it were real, while only subconsciously knowing that it is not. With nonfiction, even creative nonfiction, we assume that what we read is subjectively true. But The Gift teeters on the fence between the two genres.
Over and over, this book had me revisiting that phrase, "inappropriate intimacy." If it is fiction, how close are we actually to the people that populate its pages? At what point is the non-truth keeping us at bay rather than letting us in? At what point does the truth break the fictive dream in a way that makes me ask the preceding questions all over again? I like that I ask these questions. I like that The Gift makes me ask them.
Barbara A. (and probably Barbara B.) has a need to honor the people she writes about, accurately, yet in a generous way, often seeking their counsel on how she's portrayed them. But rather than feel as if we've missed a more honest view of these people, the reader comes to understand what the book is really doing—that "we're all misread sometimes, even when we're being obvious."
Once Sami wrote me, "When I die they should write 'I've been sound and smoke' on my tombstone, actually it has to be in German cause 'Schall und Rauch' is a metaphor for 'nothing' or 'unimportant,' in English it's 'smoke and mirrors,' but sound and smoke have no limits and no borders and therefore I love it.
This paragraph is a section of its own in the novel, and it comes with no further explanation from our narrator. Yet, this simple piece informs so much of what I love about this book. What is real? What is fiction? What actually happened and what is Barbara—A. or B.—hiding from us? What makes one Barbara real and the other not? And does it matter? And if it doesn't matter, is that what makes it matter? The Gift is a book that allows us to live undefined and free at our wavering edges. We can be unrestricted, so we have to allow the book the same courtesy too.
In the end, Barbara A. writes, "I made this for you. It was the last thing I did. It comes from the heart. Love, Barbara." And perhaps that sums it best—that the blurred lines of fiction and reality, the ambiguity of what it means to be human, are perhaps all intractable parts of an algorithm we all know and spend our lives trying to solve.