In this exquisite meditation on gift-giving, intimacy, the body, and performance, Browning (I’m Trying to Reach You, 2012, etc.) dashes the boundaries between autofiction and novel and offers daring readers something more intimate and muscular than a mere book.
Barbara Andersen, a clear stand-in for Browning, teaches performance theory in New York City by day and records ukulele covers by night. Enthralled by Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, Barbara sends recordings to strangers she meets by chance on the internet as well as to prominent public thinkers like David Graeber and Lauren Berlant. “The recent implosion of the global financial system made it evident that we needed to try something else,” Barbara muses about her impulses. Her fascination with “inappropriate intimacy” ultimately draws her into an erotic long-distance relationship with musical virtuoso Sami, an autistic man who lives in Germany. But when Barbara finally flies overseas to meet Sami in person, he has a breakdown that prevents their meeting and causes Barbara to question everything. Against this development, Barbara traces the work of her friend Tye, a gifted performance artist and trans man, weaving descriptions of his performances into details about her own teaching, activism, and art. At one point, Barbara reveals her struggles with memory, transforming the act of writing—and reading—this novel into a collaborative performance of recovery and creation between writer and reader. “It’s not just that I seem to have erased quite a few unpleasant memories,” Barbara writes. “Sometimes I think this is what opened up some space on my hard drive for imagining things.” Browning takes a book that could easily exist in hypotheticals, layers, and masks and instead grounds it in the chaos of its time, including the disruptive politics of the Occupy movement, the infamous Pussy Riot protests and arrests in Russia, and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The effect is indeed intimate but never inappropriate. Browning is working at the edges of her craft, and it’s utterly thrilling to watch.
A delicious love letter to readers and co-conspirators everywhere.