cover image The Gift

The Gift

Barbara Browning. Emily Books (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-56689-468-5

In this charming, erudite, and often devastating metafictional novel, a writer and academic from New York carries on an intense email correspondence with an autistic musician in Germany—who may or may not be who he says he is. Set in the early 2010s and centered loosely around Occupy Wall Street, Browning’s (The Correspondence Artist) novel takes an unabashedly digressive form. The narrator, who calls herself Barbara Andersen, dances from highbrow topics (the gift economy, performance theory) to anecdotes about her family members, lovers, and friends to accounts of her ongoing “conceptual art project” (she makes ukulele covers of various pieces of music and sends them to friends and strangers). Meanwhile, she makes repeated reference to the very novel we’re reading, a move that lends her pontifications about authenticity, fictionality, and representation—stirred by her fraught relationship with the musician, Sami—a sometimes comic, sometimes unsettling edge. All this might seem like so much postmodern hot air, but the narrator has an exceptionally graceful page presence: loony and profound, vulnerable and ingenuous, Barbara acts to unify the book’s central concerns, giving its intellectual flights of fancy a palpable human pulse. Maybe nothing in this book is exactly what it seems. But the sadness, at least, is real. (May)