February 2011

Ben McLeod


The Correspondence Artist by Barbara Browning

Writing about the Internet is boring. Ostensibly itís all about communication but viewing it or describing it is describing people sitting still, in silence, looking at a screen. Plus writing about the net is usually obsolete as soon as it hits the page.

Barbara Browningís first novel The Correspondence Artist is a mysterious romance we only get to see in the rarified aether of online communication, and she capably relays the sensation of that perilously ambiguous world. Addressing the audience directly in the beginning, her narrator Vivian explains that what follows is a one-sided history of her ailing romance with a nameless "paramour," an internationally renowned artistic figure. Since this person places a very high premium on privacy, sheís decided to create not one but four separate fictional lovers behind whom she can disguise the real details of the affair. But these different characters also allow her to try and explain various parts of her loverís real inconsistencies and endearing flaws.

While the fictional four are all fantastically different in surface respects, at the core they are the same solitary person, like a four-leaf clover. Behind the different cosmetic masks is the real paramour with all the real skips and pops we notice when weíre falling in love with someone. Whether the paramour is a novelist, an avant-garde video artist, a musician or a poetically-minded revolutionary leader; an Israeli, Vietnamese, a Basque or Malian, a man or woman somewhere between their early twenties or late sixties -- that real central paramour is a doting parent whoís in Lacanian therapy, a teetotaler prone to overwork who rarely visits the US, an occasional accidental sexist whose political opinions can veer murkily into hypocrisy. Vivian and the paramour enjoy intense sex when time and geography allow, and share an off-handedly erudite e-mail correspondence the rest of the time. Theyíve each settled into the territory of ďI love you, but Iím not in love with you.Ē

Browning tells the tale of their first meeting four times, each one different but identical in its main details. Later on an aggressive spam filter lands Vivian in serious peril, again in four different but oddly similar ways, each flavored by that version of the paramour; the politico deposits her in the hands of sinister Marxists, her novelist accidentally summons up the specter of a wrathful mythological villain and so on. Itís like one of those logic puzzles where Sally doesnít ride the blue or red bike, and the person who rides the yellow bike does so before Friday, and Jerry rides on the day after the white bike is ridden. That is, if you decide to believe that there is any one composite "real" version of the paramour.

The one most immutable, concrete character in the book is Vivianís teenage son Sandro. Growing up with a single mother in Manhattan, Sandro is casually and unpretentiously hip, and bemusedly in the know about many of the details of his momís relationship. An intelligent kid who is his motherís anchor in the many-veiled versions of her life, that relationship reminded me of Helen DeWittís The Last Samurai. Not simply because itís a story about a single woman raising an intelligent kid (with a mysterious pseudonymous lover); partially it was the cast of figures being sorted and shuffled by their qualities, but primarily both narrators are so offhandedly intelligent and well-read without condescension that it makes the book a pleasure to read. Both novels directly address the reader, and frequently and unapologetically leap into passages about rarified intellectual or cultural subjects.

One of the central reoccurring subjects Vivian comes back to throughout the book is the letter-heavy love affair between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. The Correspondence Artist, just like A Transatlantic Love Affair, only contains one half of the crucial conversation. Browning skillfully makes this a strength, since only reading her side of the emails allows the paramour to remain anonymously any or none of her fictional four. This kind of writing can get tricky -- she almost always manages to refer to her lover in gender- and culturally-neutral terms, although a slip here or there seems like a sly clue. In parts of the book she seems to be wishing her real lover were more like one or another of her imagined ones (who hasnít been there?). Iíve been told that it helps if a writer feels some affection for all their characters -- and Browning clearly does.

Itís tough to say if Barbara Browning had a particular real-life person in mind behind the mask of the paramour. It was also tough not to try and guess whom that figure might be while reading the book. But if itís ultimately a novel about the mysteries of communication and your loverís true identity, I suppose that kind of information is *spoilers*

The Correspondence Artist by Barbara Browning
Two Dollar Radio
ISBN: 0982015194
192 Pages