In The Correspondence Artist, Barbara Browning’s debut novel, Vivienne has a paramour whose identity must be kept secret. But since Vivienne seems to want to tell us all about him or her, she invents a handful of personas to stand in for her lover: a world music rock star from Mali, an Israeli novelist, a Basque revolutionary, and a Vietnamese artist. Vivienne moves the story deftly back and forth between her fantasy lovers, telling us about their trysts and sharing their discussions on film, contemporary art, jazz, literature, Jacques Lacan, and other topics familiar to the international art intelligentsia. In the hands of many other writers, conversations like these often come off stilted or speechy, but Browning lets Vivienne talk directly to the reader in a natural, comfortable, almost chatty manner that is totally convincing. She asks us questions and worries, for example, that we might not be following her explanations of Lacan. “Am I losing you?” she asks us as she attempts to summarize Lacan’s observations on the various meanings of the word “letter.”
The Correspondence Artist declares its ambitions and establishes its roots through two recurring literary references: the mostly long-distance romance between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren as seen through the posthumous publication of her letters to him and as depicted in her novel The Mandarins, and the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Purloined Letter,” but as seen through an explication of the story offered by Lacan (see his Seminar on “The Purloined Letter). Browning, who has a PhD and teaches at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies, is among a growing number of academics who have set up camp in the forest of fiction as a way of breaking free from the traditional model of academic writing. She moves seamlessly between critical theory and pop culture and I will confess that I rather liked getting my dose of Lacan this way.
Woven into her narrative of love, sex, and miscommunication are emails to and from Vivienne’s various lovers – hence the book’s title. But, with the exception of her spam filter,which has a habit of arbitrarily snagging important messages from her view with unfortunate results, email fares no worse than old fashioned snail mail in its ability to stir up misunderstandings between separated lovers.
On my way home I wrote Djeli from the airport a pretty heartfelt message about our time together, how close I’d felt to him, and because I was feeling that close, I made the mistake of raising the subject of a couple of moments of seeming miscommunication in our sex. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – this kind of thing happens to everyone once in a while. Of course it’s best just to let these situations pass. The worst idea is probably to touch on it, however tenderly, in an e-mail.
Vivienne is one of those post-modern narrators who knows she is writing a novel. She is so eager to make up fictional characters for our amusement that it isn’t surprising when she ultimately tells us she has “gotten attached in different ways to all of the characters in this novel.” Fiction, like letter writing, can be a form of love-making. In something of an echo of the movie Groundhog Day, Vivienne regales us with incidents that recur over and over with slight variations with each of her lovers. Her blend of worldly sophistication and guileless honesty even leads her to this admission:
It’s probably pretty evident that this novel was constructed out of some fairly questionable knowledge gleaned from Google, a small, arbitrary stack of library books, a few Netflix DVDs, and my bin of sent e-mails. I’m clearly not an expert in Israeli political fiction, Basque separatism, experimental digital art, or Malian pop music. I know a little about all of these things, but not a lot.
As I finished The Correspondence Artist I couldn’t help but compare Browning’s book with another that I just read – Ben Lerner’s over-hyped and nearly insufferable novel 10:04, which I found only marginally better than his first one, Leaving the Atocha Station. Both have hyper-smart narrators who are anxious to show off their knowledge while telling us about the novel they are writing and which we are reading. But Browning effortlessly and entertainingly manages to juggle her metafictions while Lerner only manages to suck the life out of his.
Browning is also much smarter about the inclusion of embedded photographs in her book than Lerner, who can’t seem to think beyond literal illustrations. Here’s just one example from The Correspondence Artist. Early on, Vivienne tells us that Binh, her Vietnamese lover, has sent her an email that consisted of “just an embedded image, beautiful, innocent, saturated with color: a split beef heart on a piece of chipped china.”
But near the end of the book, she explains that she was being deceptive and she shows us the photograph again, but this time uncropped. “That’s my hand, of course. I’ve already told you that I’m the one who’s been sending digital images as attachments all this time. So it really should come as no surprise that I, not Binh, was the one to proffer my heart on a plate.” It’s a bit like the magician who repeats her trick a second time, telling us to watch carefully and she will reveal the secret. Instead of becoming deflated and disillusioned with magic, this member of the audience gained new respect for the tools with which the magician performs and swore he will be more attentive the next time. Good lessons for any reader.
Barbara Browning, The Correspondence Artist. Two Dollar Radio, 2011. Browning extends the fun of The Correspondence Artist to a playful website of the same name, where, among other things, she answers the all-important question “How I Came To Write this Novel.”