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  • Yours to Have
  • Laura Westby Cannon (bio)
The Gift
Barbara Browning
Coffee House Press
248 Pages; Print, $15.95

What is the economy of creative gift-giving? What kind of intimacy and vulnerability can it produce between two people? Barbara Browning explores the exposure, risks, and rewards of artistic giving in her recent novel The Gift. The reflective narrative is told from a first-person Barbara Anderson, a professor living in New York City who enjoys creating ukulele covers to "spam people" with love songs.

There exists a healthy dose of similarities between the author and narrator, intentional on Browning's part, as seen through several direct addresses to the reader that acknowledge the book's literary form as an artful expression. She also discusses the fluidity between fictive and nonfictive works and considers how frequently real life finds its way into art.

The further one reads into the novel, a realization occurs that this thinly-veiled first-person narrative investigating the act of giving is a gift itself, as intimate for Browning's readers as the dances, poems, and emails her main character produces for others throughout the text. Through her exploration of the economy of art, Browning delivers a hyper self-conscious work of meta-fiction. A dialogue of what it means to create and share art begins a narrative conversation of the complications and experiences that arise from that sharing.

The novel begins with an email that "appeared to be a bit of spam." A doctor from the Midwest who specializes in the treatment of obesity emails Barbara to solicit business, with the promise of 90 fiber capsules for the first ten patients. He signs the email "Love Mel." Rather than delete the message, Barbara engages and ultimately sends Dr. Mel an ukulele cover song of the bossa nova artist João Gilberto's "I Wish You Love." The doctor responds but he redacts the intimate wording from his valediction in subsequent emails. The experience leads Barbara to muse about inappropriate intimacy and wonder whether her ukulele cover song might have inspired Dr. Mel to produce his own cover song. Thus commences Browning's study of giving and receiving art, the production of creating in response, and the overall economy of creative gift-giving. The result of this study is The Gift, the novel the readers hold in their hands.

Throughout the text, Browning's narrator continues to muse over the idea of art feeding art through creative response. Her character tells us that she borrows from real life to create her own art through writing and surmises that much of literature has done the same throughout history. She remains hyper-aware, however, that her characters are based upon real people and real people's artwork; several times throughout the text Barbara tells readers she is always asking her friends "if they're OK with what I'm writing." This ushers in a consideration of the ethics of borrowed art.

Though we're told "this is a work of fiction," Barbara also confides that she "fudge[s] what that means sometimes." She refers specifically to Zora Neale Hurtson's Mules and Men (1935) and points out that Hurston also "fudged the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, habitually." But the ethics of what she does are never far from her consideration, qualifying her borrowings by telling her readers that she hopes the works might be "a little more precious."

There is an inherent and deep connection that happens with the sharing and creating between people. This interests Barbara immensely. She finds the exposure and vulnerability exhilarating, and believes in the power of intimacy that comes through making and sharing art with each other. This is the economy she speaks about throughout the text.

Browning, the author of two prior novels, both from the publisher Two Dollar Radio, seems most interested in the fruitful exchange between artists. This becomes especially developed between her characters Barbara and Sami. Readers are introduced to Sami early in the novel, after a performance by another of Barbara's friends named Tye, an experimental dancer. But Sami and Barbara's relationship is much different than hers...


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