Review: “The Correspondence Artist”

Review by Tobias Carroll

Barbara Browning
The Correspondence Artist
Two Dollar Radio; 168 p.

Barbara Browning’s The Correspondence Artist applies stylistic juxtapositions in welcome and unexpected ways. This novel, Browning’s first, is experimental in structure yet casual in tone. It’s an extended metaphor of a book that nonetheless abounds with insider details, art-world cameos, and precise images — even resorting to the occasional still frame to etch a particular scene onto the mind of the reader. The premise is simple; the narrator, a writer named Vivian, has had (or, possibly, is having — whether or not the central relationship has ended or remains intact is one of the book’s central questions) a relationship with someone, referred to only in the novel as “the paramour.” The paramour’s identity is concealed to protect him or her, and so Vivian recounts the story of their meeting through four proxies: artists, writers, and revolutionaries of varying ages, genders, and geographic origins.

It’s something of a dance, then: watching Browning, through Vivian, restage certain emotional moments through vastly different setpieces. A case of missed communications leading to a stumble in the relationship is rendered four different ways: in one a sort of performance-art comedy of errors involving hotel rooms, video cameras, and a public art installation; in another, Vivian finds herself under siege by political radicals. Among the constants here are Vivian’s relationships with her teenage son Sandro and friend Florence; the format, with memories punctuated by emails and the occasional image, remains constant as well, whether the lover Vivian describes is a Basque separatist or an Israeli novelist.

The structure of the novel leads to few revelations: here, the story really is in the telling, with the book’s depth coming from the densely wrapped strata of questions it raises. This is a layered work, with occasionally blurred lines between the stories of the four fictional lovers, and even between the stories Vivian recounts and the Browning-written novel before us. (Specifically: it’s a bit surreal to see both Paul D. Miller and Harry Mathews make appearances within the text after reading their enthusiastic blurbs on the novel’s cover.) Characters real and fictional write themselves into novels within the novel (and outside of it; that Subcommandante Marcos — who has, in fact, written a detective novel in collaboration with Paco Ignacio Taibo II — makes an appearance is surely no accident.)

Also summoned up are issues of ethics — Vivian meets many of these fictional lovers after first encountering them in a journalistic capability. That break with convention — the line between interviewer and interviewee eventually dissolving after a meet-cute — seems, in some ways, to mirror the novel’s own break with traditional narratives focusing on the beginnings and endings of relationships. Yet it also raises certain issues that either Browning or Vivian don’t readdress.

Given the scope of The Correspondence Artist, certain other understated issues may also prompt frustration. This is, fundamentally, a novel set among a very particular milieu. And while it does raise questions of family, of trust, of intimacy — and, of course, of identity. Class, though, is something of the elephant in the room here — I’m reluctant to use the phrase “jet-setting lifestyle,” but there is something of that present. We are among the creative class in this novel (and in the stories told within it), but it’s a very well-off division of it.

To be fair, Browning is after questions of distance here — all of the fictional lovers mentioned by Vivian are separated from her by continents and oceans. Email is the primary means of communication, and the fact that a spam filter looms large in many of these narratives suggests that, while some of the concerns here may be timeless, others are very much of the moment. This is a fully globalized novel, and many of its concerns have a contemporary urgency. How best to maintain a relationship with someone on the other side of the world? To what extent do we forget the looks of our paramours, to the point where they might begin to lose distinction, to vanish into our minds or become indistinct, to become suffused with the accumulated details of other lives? The occasional appearances by celebrities and Browning’s ability to convincingly create authentic-sounding artists may delight or frustrate, but it’s The Correspondence Artist’s exploration of fragmented identities that ultimately endures.