The Correspondence Artist

By Barbara Browning

Two Dollar Radio
March 2011
168 pages


Reviewed by Matt Dube


Barbara Browning's The Correspondence Artist has a conceit that will sound like a dog whistle to readers hungry for a certain kind of high-concept writing: the novel recounts the ups and downs of a semi-clandestine relationship, and because the paramour's (the term the narrator prefers) identity needs to be kept secret, the narrator substitutes fictional, possible lovers in the place of the actual one, lovers who resemble the paramour, but not so much so we'd actually be able to identify him or her. Oh, and we'll also see a lot of the correspondence between the lovers-- or at least one side of that correspondence, emails from Vivian to the paramour. The shifting series of serial lovers allows readers to indulge the fantasy of what it might be like to date a variety of appealing types. What better frame to throw around a long form narrative than to say it will develop and explore, with wit and insight, a love affair in its many stages.

The gallery of lover stand-ins Browning offers is a rich group, the kind that you really might fantasize about dating. There's an older Israeli novelist, a Basque revolutionary and lyric monologist, a Malian polyglot pop musician, a Vietnamese video artist-- and the particular details of these relationships, the dates they go on and the conversations they have are sharp, witty, and well-developed: I experienced that nerdy thrill novel reading sometimes gives you when you learn something new, like I did here reading about a Berlin hotel so overdesigned that it belongs in a William Gibson novel, or what to expect from the restaurant scene in Bamako. I'm interested in what a Malian musician would have to say to his Lacanian therapist, and the micro-history of ETA we get tickles me the way that getting another strange stamp in your passport might. There are other delightful strands woven in here that are harder to describe, including a serial retelling of Simone de Beauvoir's relationship and correspondence with Nelson Algren.

Each of the book's four chapters, too, has some sort of other conceit. One is structured around a "reading" of Lacan's lecture on Poe's "The Purloined Letter,” another way in which Browning can interrogate her own project, or more broadly, the nature of correspondence itself. In another, she considers the role of masturbation and sex in the bonobo community, developing an explicit but also zoologically astute exploration of sociality and sexuality. I enjoyed navigating between these shifting, inventive, scholarly screens. But I didn't think there was much to them, or else they add up to less than the sum of their parts.

Take what we might call "the love plot": by indulging in the serial substitution of lovers, you might expect Browning's narrative to reveal to readers some core experience about being in love-- that we'd see ourselves in narrator Vivian, or Tzipi, or Djeli, Santutxo, Binh.  But this somehow fails to happen. Instead, the relationships repeatedly stage a couple key scenes-- a confrontation with the paramour's other lover at an outdoor cafe, a night when a planned rendezvous fails to come together. We never get a sense of the ebb and flow of the relationship, or what, aside from brilliant talk and some great sex, holds them together. My disappointment at the scenic paucity is only exacerbated when Browning/ Vivian admits that she has taken the staging of these few scenes from other, publicly available sources, like the climax of Howard Hawks' 1952 film Monkey Business.  It's a part of the conceit that we only read Vivian's side of the correspondence, so it's uncharitable to ask Browning to revise her remit. But the result, like what we see with the "love scenes," never really develops the lovers, so that the relationship remains an illusion, lacking insight, or spark, or surprise. It remains a solitary fantasy, which might be a given in a book that contains as much masturbation as this one does.

Vivian describes her voice as having "a certain Midwestern flatness about it,” and I think that's an accurate description of much of the writing in this book-- it's a bit flat and clinical-scholarly, but in a good way. The analysis, as often textual as it is romantic, is above-board, hands-on-the-table kind of stuff, and its good-naturedly dogged in its pursuits (the recurring figures of Algren and de Beauvoir and the fort-da game, among others) in ways that often pay off. In the same spirit, the narrative, or maybe just the narrator, is honest about the methods employed: she notes, "For the most part, I've stuck with the actual chronology" and "I like to leave in a mistake or two, because it seems to make the project more personal.” Those admissions and others like them, especially those that come all in a rush at the end of the book, read as a self-conscious deflation, as if to say, don't blame me if I don't know any more than you do, I never pretended to be the expert. I suppose that's fair, but I wanted a little more insight from someone who took the time to construct what is otherwise such a striking, deliberate, and self-aware novel.