Reflecting, "I myself am an extremely moderate person," Barbara Browning oddly offers a contradictory yet incredibly modest assessment of her talent in the opening pages of her novel "The Gift." Through this addictive, brainy and vibrant novel, which straddles nonfiction and fiction, Browning celebrates an unabashed passion for art and togetherness in a world muddled by assumed intimacy and inherent skepticism.
Our narrator, Barbara Andersen, is not unlike our author, a performance studies professor at NYU. Comfortable at midcareer, she starts to record cover songs on the ukulele for friends. What began as a unique series of gifts turns into a consuming "conceptual art piece," one that drives her work and personal life.
"Gifts never make me feel obligated, though they often make me feel inspired, so I make something in response but never out of a sense of debt." In post-Occupy New York City, Andersen uncovers a new relationship to community and connection.
Browning's ever crackling mind leaps from inspiration to analysis. She delightfully connects e-mail spam to Lewis Hyde's "The Gift," a book that expands on the interplay between Marcel Mauss' anthropological exploration of gift economies as well as the larger idea of creative "giftedness." This linguistic and anthropological play encourages Andersen to accept requests and share the recordings online. Reader may indulge in their own multimedia relationship with the novel through the author's prolific online catalog of songs and dances. Just try to close this book without feeling a creative pull.
The book would succeed on its own as a unique meditation on creativity, but Browning introduces a collaborator whose troubling and muddied history challenges Andersen's notion of empathy. Sami is an autistic, amputee music prodigy in Germany who also posts his musical catalog online. Their wholly democratic fascination with music of all stripes ("from the sublime to the ridiculous") feeds a compulsive conversation. Their unique courtship, consummated only through freely given gifts of art, rattles our perception of belonging.
Despite the darkness that complicates Sami and Barbara's entanglement, "The Gift" is infused with humor and tremendous emotion. As Andersen falls deeper into a world of shared intimacies, she bravely explores the extent to which we can be honest with ourselves and others. Reflecting upon a colleague's observation that love is, in many ways, an aspiration to remain in sync with another person, Andersen comes to recognize that "all of us are more trapped in ourselves than we like to pretend, and love is simultaneously what makes us want to get out of the bottle but also feel how stuck in it we are."
Life itself makes a mess of our ambition, our health, our happiness, but it's the gift of our commitments to one another, felt through collaboration, that liberates us.
Lauren LeBlanc is an independent book editor and writer, as well as a nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn.