The Gift by Barbara Browning

The Gift (Emily Books) BY Barbara Browning. Coffee House Press. Paperback, 256 pages. $15.
The cover of The Gift (Emily Books)

Now that we’re in the midst of accelerating climate change, runaway consumerism, and the rise of Donald J. Trump, approaches to fiction that appeared relevant a decade ago are in the process of being rendered escapist, if not downright quaint. At first glance, Barbara Browning’s The Gift, with its focus on performance art and the relationship of creative people to the elements of their own existence and physicality, might appear too focused on arcane matters to speak to our moment. But this novel, it soon becomes clear, is deeply relevant and timely, in part because the underlying “gift” of the title refers to the struggle to be our better selves and to expect a better collective self from our institutions. Browning also recognizes that societal wellness lives in our understanding of and generosity toward our own bodies, and that, when all else fails, our bodies—what we do with them—harbor resistance.

Set mostly in 2012 during the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City, The Gift is narrated by a woman not much different from the author (or one supposes—the author is mischievous) as she encounters a series of beautiful eccentrics. The novelist Barbara Andersen teaches fetish-theory seminars and creativity workshops that break down boundaries between fiction and reality in interesting ways. She has a girlfriend named Olivia and a friend named Tye, who is a performance artist with work that has debuted at the Whitney. Browning’s meticulous descriptions of Tye’s visceral and thought-provoking performances speak to the events in Andersen’s life that year because they influence her thinking. The passages about Tye are, in other words, intricately woven into the narrative, but they are also breathtakingly original, and presented with such clarity that readers may wish for even more of them.

In one of Tye’s performances, a surrogate Tye reads a critique of how Tye’s gender is described by critics; meanwhile, the real Tye constructs the stage, bleeding fake blood onto the floor. With Baudrillardian undertones, the surrogate Tye tells the audience: “I hoped to suggest, if not create, a fascistic postmodern dance regime. Followed by an assassination. Which ostensibly opens up the possibility for regime change. But the change is never realized. Instead my body is made subordinate to the regime I constructed.”

As Andersen considers how Tye’s work relates to what’s happening in the wider world, she also thinks about the ways that the Occupy movement brings into the political sphere ideas that echo performance art of the past, particularly Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto” from 1965, “No to spectacle . . . No to the heroic/No to the anti-heroic . . . No to style.” Occupy says “no to the glamour and transcendency of the star image,” much as French sociologist Marcel Mauss’s influential 1925 book The Gift is trying “to get at the heart of . . . the logic of the market that did such violence to ordinary people’s sense of justice.”

The title of Browning’s book, then, is a sly joke: A novel is supposed to be, on some level, a gift to the reader, but Browning’s The Gift as mediated by Andersen is also an exploration of ideas about reciprocity in Mauss’s text, even as it creates a sneaky doubling in the text of the author-narrator, which applies to characters like Tye and Olivia as well. Their real names, Andersen tells us, have been changed for the novel. Of course, so has Andersen’s.

It would be easy to get lost in these generous meta references, except The Gift’s other gift is that whoever wrote this novel—Andersen or Browning—has a magnificent sense of play, and does a superb job of dropping her doppelgangers and social and aesthetic analysis in among the rhythms and travails of the narrator’s life, which include the failing health of her mother, her friendship with the reclusive Sami, and what you might call performance or just daily acts of “creative faith.” These include responding to e-mails from strangers, like Mel, a “board-certified psychiatrist” specializing in weight loss, who used to be a professional musician.Sometimes Andersen also sends out amateur ukulele songs, like “I Wish You Love,” or nudes of herself. This openness doesn’t always go well, but it doesn’t go as catastrophically as you might expect. Andersen’s faith in herself and in art is sometimes complicated, but it never feels false or misplaced.

Sami, who lives in Cologne, Germany, and is painfully shy, slowly becomes more and more important to Andersen. Sami can play the santoor, violin, and piano. She begins to collaborate with Andersen.What “collaborator” means is an open issue; in Browning’s work, where performance and life have so little space between them, the term can take on many meanings. In a very personal way, the relationship between Andersen and Sami also suggests the blinkers that the online bubbles or cells we inhabit create as we grapple with the internet and social media—another subject that has relevance to our current political and social divide.

As the relationship deepens, Andersen suspects Sami may have Asperger’s, sympathizes with his pain from neuroma, and talks to him about his problems with his mother. When Andersen makes plans to visit Sami in Cologne, the novel takes another turn, raising the specter of catfishing.

The act of humanity on Andersen’s part is to not just trust Sami but to trust him even after the ill-fated trip goes awry and she must return to her life with the Olivia and Tye. Respect and love are a source of strength, and trusting the embrace of a stranger—a true attempt to understand—is part of what can make us fully human.

There is a lovely grace and beauty to the arc of the novel despite the complex granularity of the ideas that contaminate what I guess I’m going to have to reduce to calling, crudely and in direct contradiction of Browning’s clear wishes, the plot. Among these ideas is Andersen’s assertion that “writing queer fiction was maybe not so much about representing non-normative sex acts or the people who engage in them as it was about understanding the fundamental relationship between fiction and sexuality.” The Gift continually explores variations on this theme; the entire book is bursting with the intertwining of the physical and the philosophical, storytelling and sensuality.

In this sense and many others, The Gift is intensely relevant to our modern world, in a way that brings to mind Lidia Yuknavitch’s recent postapocalyptic novel The Book of Joan. In Yuknavitch’s book, people resist by modifying their bodies; in Browning’s, the resistance is so natural and mundane that it emerges in everyday interactions. The two novels may seem vastly different, but my point is that in our present predicament, the distance between the useful fictions we write has begun to collapse, so that narratives of the future and the present often exist at the same time and the same space.

The Gift is an unusual novel about the performance of life and the life of performance that tells us empathy and passion are deeply political, and that fiction that flips a finger to the boundary between storytelling and the body is an expression of hope and a way toward a different future. In so many ways, Browning’s creation is a beautiful meditation on art, and a balm for readers in these difficult times.

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of or the Southern Reach trilogy and, most recently, Borne (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).