Samantha West was making phone calls. She had a pleasant voice and wanted you to buy things. Only Samantha West wasn’t a person. She was a cyborg telemarketer controlled by a human at a computer. Her voice was very soothing. “What?” she said when a reporter asked if she was a robot. “No! I am a real person,” Samantha West said. Then she laughed.
Samantha West would intrigue Vivian and Gray Adams, the respective narrators of Barbara Browning’s two novels, The Correspondence Artist and I’m Trying to Reach You. Samantha West might not be a great conversationalist, but she’d make a fine fictional paramour with whom to correspond—this would entice Vivian—and she’d definitely past the Turing test of performance art, a pretty welcoming standard—if you asked Gray Adams. Her drabbest quality, of course, is her dependence on capitalism. Samantha West would be much more interesting if she were an artist instead of a telemarketer. Unfortunately, all of us must make a living.
The questions Browning’s narrators would ask of Samantha West are the same questions they’re asking of themselves and the world. How did you arrive here and where would you rather be? Are you involved in any plots or capers? So are you a real person or just trying to be one?
Maybe we’re all just automated systems, following Sylvan Tomkins’s Script Theory. We have a limited number of things to say and can only keep repeating them. Our conversations, and thus our lives, are less a smorgasbord of imagination and more a dull, cobbled-together collection of stock phrases, facile presumptions, and delusions built on a comforting albeit clearly misguided sense of purpose and hope. We drag ourselves through the repetition. What variety there is is in the remix.
In these two novels, Browning explores the intersectionalities of art, intimacy, identity, and technology. In The Correspondence Artist, we study the affairs of Vivian and “the paramour,” who could be any one of her four superstar lovers and who might not exist at all. In I’m Trying To Reach You, we keep up with Gray Adams, who’s mapping out a possible assassination-conspiracy that’s has resulted in the deaths of Michael Jackson, Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, and Les Paul. Gray’s research involves the internet. “Sven had recently begun ribbing me about the amount of time I was spending on YouTube,” Gray tells us. “He wasn’t thoroughly convinced that it was ‘productive.’” Yet—conveniently enough—all the time conspiracy-investigators spend on the internet can be considered productive (which may explain the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories these days). “In fact, I pretty much always feel like I’m doing research,” Gray tells us.
Both of Browning’s novels are about how we make mystery and meaning out of our own lives—the lives we have stumbled upon and the lives we would fancy leading. Technology aids and abets us in this quest to explore these other, more extravagant lives, lives of grandeur, danger, and delectation. With the internet, we become avatars of our own invention, cavorting with other creations: exotic international lovers are conjured through banal email exchanges, silly Hitchcockian schemes are spurred on by YouTube comments. Send me a Facebook message and then we’ll express-kidnap the publishers of obscure literary fiction. It’ll be quite the caper.
Vivian has amazing taste in her (possibly fictional) lovers. Throughout The Correspondence Artist, she enjoys the company of four people who compose “the paramour.” There’s:
1. – Tpizi Honigman, “the beautiful 68-year-old Israeli novelist who’s just won the Nobel prize”
2. – Santutxo Etxeberria, the legendary Basque separatist
3. – Duong Van Binh, “the 22-year-old art world phenomenon”
4. – Djeli Kouyaté, the Malian “world music” griot mega-star
Each lover offers a different perspective on “the paramour.” Tpizi, for instance, is older and wiser and alluringly maternal, whereas Duong Van Binh is cheeky and chic. The lovers complement and explain each other, just as our exes complement and explain our current catch. “The paramour,” then, is a composite of these four stupendous characters, whom Vivian repeatedly reassures us are fictional, fabrications on a fantastical truth.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of each affair, Vivian tells us about Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren, who met in Chicago, corresponded by hand-written missive, and later rendezvoused for the occasional assignation. This is the model for Vivian’s relationship with “the paramour,” which says more about her own artistic aspirations than it does her romantic ones. Vivian likes to imagine herself as someone with secrets—part confidante, part spy. She’s playing a major invisible role in the course of the (art) world. It’s a glamorous life she might not actually be living, but let’s pretend, just as she does.
The Correspondence Artist is a delightful study of love in the internet age, where we can so easily allow our fantasies to get the best of us. It’s a little inevitable, to see someone’s picture and briefly fall in love with them, especially when that love can be such a light, facile thing shared through hyperlinks and GIFs. Projection has always been a danger in relationships, but projection can also be creative and fun, and the internet allows us to project ad infinitum. At the end, in the very final pages, though, Vivian reneges on this fantasy with “the paramour,” admitting that deception has been involved. Or not quite deception: “Fiction affords the convenient possibility of switching things around,” Browning writes, as a sort of elaboration.
One of the most commendable things about Browning’s books is that she’s able to explore technology in a way that’s generally anxiety-free and unburdened by the hyper self-consciousness found in so much 21st-century fiction that’s supposed to be about “us” and “today.” Unlike most contemporary protagonists, Browning’s narrators aren’t looking for anything exactly authentic or real or Real, although Gray Adams might muse for a few minutes on whether or not if it’s really worth the effort to capitalize that “R.” Vivian and Gray are mostly happy to inhabit realms where imagination and technology mix together to allow us to inquire about what might not actually exist in this drab meat-space. Like us, Browning’s characters accept the weirdness of the world as quotidian.
There is a heart-deep desire to connect, to acknowledge and be acknowledged in an otherwise disposable world. In a touching scene at a performance studies conference in Zagreb, before delivering a talk on his dissertation topic (“Semaphoric Mime from the Ballet Blanc to William Forsythe: A Derridean Analysis”), Gray Adams sits through Amanda’s talk on Isadora Duncan and Marinetti. Even though a tech guy and Gray are the only two people in attendance, Gray tells us that “Amanda forged ahead, stoically.” Amanda reads in a “tremulous voice” while Gray is “careful to maintain the appearance of rapt concentration.” It’s an awkward situation, clearly not ideal. Yet there’s so much compassion in that adverb stoically, such a generosity of spirit. Gray and Amanda applaud each other. Who hasn’t been caught in a situation like that before, a situation that’s painfully embarrassing yet also forgettable—just another morning it’d be best to discard? Still, Browning ensures us that somehow by being alive, here, in this frivolous moment, we’re contributing to something—who knows what that “something” is. Why not invent it then?
Both books employ relaxed, chatty narrators who are mostly charming. There’s consistent use of the conversational you. Vivian frequently starts off by saying, “Perhaps you can imagine” or “Perhaps you know,” as a way to draw us in, to make us feel comfortable with her high-flying coterie of lovers. Gray Adams joshes a bit. There’s an amiable aimlessness to this relaxed narrative style, which allows for digressions and mini-lessons. In The Correspondence Artist, for instance, Browning summarizes Freud’s “fort/da” and muses on Artaud’s love for the Marx Brothers, with their “boiling anarchy.” Gray Adams discourses on dance and the lovable quaintness of critical theory.
In a one-star review of I’m Trying to Reach You, Amazon user “scoundrel” writes: “The summaries of them [film noirs] add texture but no flavor.” Which is interesting to me since I’ve always found film noirs to be quite flavorful—a sort of burnt cigar and cheap whiskey throat-burn mixed with cream soda. But what this reviewer is legitimately getting at is the jumble-y nature of Browning’s style in general. I’m Trying to Reach You is a hodgepodge of anecdotes, internet nonsense, and frivolous moments of thoughtfulness that don’t really “add up” in the usual sense. The meanings don’t stack. The typical, traditional approaches to art aren’t very useful here. There’s not much of an arc or of consequence. The prose is interesting but certainly not lapidary. Keep in mind, “hodgepodge” is a compliment. When reading Browning, just enjoy the textures of the dance.
Five quotes from these two books that describe Barbara Browning’s writing overall, if you ask me:
- “It encapsulated all the feelings I’d been wanting to get off my chest, without having any actual story attached to them.”
- “I didn’t love everything, but I found it very provocative.”
- “It was a little sad, and a little funny.”
- “Of course, he insisted that contrary to appearances, my plotlessness was actually very arousing.”
- “We will always be too late / For something – fumbling for our tickets, sick // At heart, and getting stranded on some dock.” (From a poem titled, “But We Were Led to Believe that We Were Going Somewhere,” which Vivian wrote when she was 21.)
Our transmissions—texts, letters, YouTube comments, emails, messages stuffed in green-glass bottles. Browning is fascinated with the frail ways we communicate. In The Correspondence Artist, she explores Lacan’s interpretation of Poe’s story, “The Purloined Letter,” continually returning to Lacan’s notion that “‘a letter always arrives at its destination’” and Žižek’s reply that “a message in a bottle arrives at its destination as soon as it’s thrown into the sea.”
Every morning Vivian checks her inbox to see if “the paramour” has sent her a new mildly sensual note or .mov file. Gray Adams scours YouTube in effort to explain the deaths of his favorite artists, searching for clues that’ll collaborate the conspiracy he’s constructing in his head. We forge meaning from chaos.
Technology enables constant conversation, yet how often are our messages and posts and replies are really rambling messes hurled into the digital abyss? We keep saying the same things, repeating each other repeating ourselves. Perhaps technology will make us finally accept the inherently non-sequiturial nature of all communication. Broken records can still make beautiful music. Maybe if you believe this, I will too.
Of the two novels, I’m Trying to Reach You has greater emotional resonance. Here Browning is more attuned to the urgent, insignificant moments of bliss and dull devastations that pepper our ephemerality.
In one particularly salient moment, after eating hot dogs with a friend in Washington Square Park, a jolly gaggle of dachshunds appears and Gray Adams thinks, “We were so enchanted we didn’t even remember to take pictures.”
Sven and Gray are in a serodiscordant relationship, and when Sven gets fatigued sometimes, Gray doesn’t always know what to do or say. They text each other emoticons.
Just like Vivian’s lovers, Gray and Sven live on different continents and this distance places their romance in a kind of abeyance. They discussed getting married when it became legal in Sweden but Gray wasn’t quite interested in that old-fashioned institution. “Sven thought I was over-intellectualizing the question [of marriage] because I couldn’t deal with my emotions,” Gray tells us. “He’s a romantic.”
In both books, there’s a broader sense of helpless complicity in the horrendous machinations of the world-at-large.
“I felt vaguely responsible even though it obviously wasn’t my fault,” Gray thinks about some banality.
Browning nettles with the purported division between art and life. (I’m pretty sure that’s her dancing to Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes in AhNethermostFun’s YouTube videos.)
When Vivian writes in an email that “I think being in love is when you allow yourself to enter a state of fiction,” this isn’t meant pejoratively. Fiction’s just as legitimate, since it makes up the better part of life. We create exquisite amusements and something more, something splendid, something strange—something like love.
It’s the kind of message that you might find in your spam folder: If love is a fiction, it’s one we write together.
Recently I was on the phone with a real person who sounded very much like a machine. The real person had a name that was shared with me at the beginning of our conversation—an invented American-ish name, I’m pretty sure, although I do not remember it. There were long pauses while we waited for the real person’s computer to do calculations and then dispense the pertinent information. During these long pauses, the real person did a good job of sticking to what I can only assume was a script written solely to convey the facsimile of empathy. Every thirty seconds or so, the real person told me things like, “I am still being attentive to your needs,” and “I have not forgotten you.” Direct statement. I have not forgotten you.
We waited. “We will take care of your situation soon.” We kept waiting. But it was that first statement that struck me, because of how strange it felt to hear—so artificial yet so weirdly heart-jabbing at the same time. The blatancy of it was touching. I have not forgotten you. I can’t imagine actually saying that aloud, to a stranger or to a lover, although really it’s the core of so much of what we say to each other all the time, so much of what we write or want to write, or scream or wish to scream. “I HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN YOU!” We kept waiting.
Photos by Derek Sapienza.