Monday, July 29, 2013

The Correspondence Artist by Barbara Browning

"Obviously, these kinds of questions interest me, because, as I mentioned, I occasionally dick around writing fiction. Look, I'm dicking around right now."

This book should not work. It is a series of repetitive meditations on a fading relationship that includes a one-sided email correspondence, Lacanian analysis, references to Simone Beauvoir's letters to Nelson Algren and a sestina. The narrator, Vivian, is in love with her story of almost-love and retells it with slightly different details, the rather unappealing "paramour" cloaked in four guises: an elderly writer from Israel, a pop star from Mali, a young conceptual artist from Vietnam and an aging Basque separatist. Vivian tells her stories slantwise to protect her famous-in-some-
way fuckbuddy, from what, we are not ever quite sure, but she tells it because she wants to write something.

That feeling of wanting to connect, both within the correspondence and with the reader, is what energizes Vivian's slight and circuitous story. There is also a satisfying sense of fun that carries everything along. Browning throws you out of the story at surprising moments, reminding you that it is all a story, whatever that means:
"When I met Tzipi I'd been around the block. Although she's twenty-three years older than me, I'm at the antique end of her spectrum. And I'm not dumb. Even Tzipi's acknowledged that. I went into this with my eyes wide open, and she's been honest with me every step of the way.
I told you, I have no idea why I got a little reckless with my emotions with her, when I managed to be so self-contained with the paramour."
While I read, it was irresistible to ponder which lover I could fall for. Browning knows this of course, and has Vivian think about the same thing. For me, the answer was none of them, which in turn subtly deepened my understanding of Vivian's desire.

I really enjoyed this celebration of epistolary writing. It was light, but hypnotic, and even led me to try my hand at the sestina form, along with inspiring me to write several letters and postcards. How can I help but recommend a book that made me DO something?

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