Truth, Lies, And Occupy: Talking To Barbara Browning About 'The Gift'
Alternative facts, redefined
Photo via The Gift (Coffee Houes Press/ Emily Books)
Not long after I first started writing professionally, I received an email from a casual acquaintance congratulating me on my recent piece in the New York Times. "Way to go!" it read. "I didn't know nuclear fallout was the kind of thing you'd be writing about!"
It wasn't. The Times piece in question, about the environmental and health-related hazards of investing in nuclear energy, had not been written by me. It had, instead, been written by "Kristen Iversen," a professor and the author of the book Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. Kristen Iversen and I shared a name, basically, with just one letter being different, but while I was at the very beginning of my career at the time I discovered her, she was already well-established; when I Googled my own name or my own name plus the word "writer" (as I was prone to doing at that time), hers would pop up instead.
And so I became a little obsessed with her. I learned that she had grown up in Arvada, Colorado, which felt incredible to me because when I'd been in high school, the fake ID for which I'd paid a junior whose eyelids never rose past half-mast $80 was a Colorado ID, and it listed my hometown as Arvada. (This once got me into trouble with a bouncer who was from that area, too, and knew instantly that I was not, based on the fact that I pronounced "my hometown" wrong; he let me in the bar anyway.) I determined that were I to ever write a memoir, I would also title it Full Body Burden because isn't that a great name for a memoir? For a time, I checked in with my doppelgänger with what I think now was maybe an alarming frequency, but which I also understand was actually a way of determining how my own career was developing; like, would there come a day when a Google image search of my own name would show my face, instead of hers?
This all started five years ago. As time went on and my face did become the first one that popped up when I searched for it (it's also the second and the fourth; I don't know who the third image is), and as my career became distinct in its own right (though I still haven't gotten that Times op-ed), I stopped seeking out news of my double and kind of forgot about her existence. So it was funny then, when I sat down with Barbara Browning, author of the provocative, hilarious, devastating meta-novel The Gift, and she told me that she'd Googled me prior to our meeting, and stumbled upon the other K. Iversen: "This must happen to you all the time when people type in Kristin with an 'e,'" Browning said. "So I thought this was really funny because it’s related to Barbara Andersen."
Barbara Andersen is the protagonist of The Gift, and she shares quite a few things in common with Barbara Browning, like her career, her friends, her body, her politics, her family, her apartment, her experiences, and her attraction to and engagement with "inappropriate intimacies." In the novel, which is set during the height of the Occupy Movement and has a strong political current running within it, Andersen becomes involved in an online relationship with Sami, a musical virtuoso with Asperger's who lives in Germany (Andersen, like Browning, lives in New York City and teaches performances studies at NYU). The two engage in an intimate correspondence, trading emails, songs (they both do ukelele covers), video performances; their interaction is an extension of themselves, and of their art; there is something performative about their giving, but that doesn't mean it isn't real.
Or, wait. Because maybe, it's not real. Over the course of The Gift, the question of Sami's true identity is raised over and over. Andersen's friends and her lover greet her increasingly romantic and devoted attachment to Sami with varying degrees of skepticism, particularly when Andersen decides to visit Sami in Germany, only to find that things are maybe not at all what he's presented them as being. Beyond Sami, though, The Gift also explores Andersen's relationships with everyone from her friend Tye, a fellow performance artist (he's been selected to appear at the "Whitey Bulger," an important biennial art event; you can guess what the name gestures toward) and trans man whose work is provocative in a way that inspires Andersen and aligns itself with her own meditations on politics and identity and honesty, to her aging ill mother, which leads to many revelations about memory and familial bonds, and Andersen's lover, a poet who wants a more "appropriate" type of intimacy than Andersen is able to give.
Browning pushes at the borders of autofiction with The Gift, wiggling away any constraints as you would a loose tooth, and exposing many a nerve in the process. Her sinuous prose, supple and strong as any dancer's muscle, teases the reader into thinking about uncomfortable things, like what it really means to be honest and how an insistence upon truth with a capital "T" can lead to disavowing the possibility of alternate, perhaps utopian realities. The Gift operates within a realm where it is accepted, or at least acknowledged, that much of what humans do—how they behave and how they feel—is a construction, or, as Browning tells me when speaking about one of her prior novels, The Correspondence Artist, which centers around a complicated love affair of Browning's, "What I was trying to teach myself by writing this story was that romantic love is almost always inevitably a fiction you tell yourself. You fall in love with somebody, and you invent this story about it. So recognizing that this whole hopeless trajectory that I was on with this love affair was already sort of a fictional construction, I thought, Well if I actually make it into a fiction, somehow I’ll feel like I’m more in control of my own story."
This notion of telling yourself fiction in order to force it into being a reality is a particularly human dilemma; what is civilization but the manifestation of the idea of what humans ought to be? But the idea of constructed reality is particularly relevant right now, as politicians spin the truth and use phrases like "alternative facts" to manipulate the public's perception and historical record. Browning says, "I’m the kind of person for whom a couple of years ago the phrase 'alternative facts' would have been super interesting, and it still is interesting, but it’s just so fraught to talk about it now."
For Browning, though, the phrase isn't only fraught for political reasons; she had to deal with a blurred truth in a personal way when the full weight of Sami's lies was revealed to her. She says about that experience:
It raised all these very intense issues around truth and representation, and ironically now, because of the political situation that we’re in, all of these issues about alternative facts, it’s gotten really scary to even make these suggestions that I used to very habitually make in a utopian way... For a while I just felt I couldn’t publish [The Gift] because it’s just too complicated, the pain that can happen when you fiddle around with autofiction and when you fiddle around with alternative facts, it just felt fraught for me on a personal level and now it’s fraught on a political level. But for awhile I went around thinking, Okay, I wrote this novel, and I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but I can never publish it. And I just have to leave it in a drawer. I really sort of felt that way for a while. And now I’m just trying to tell myself that there might actually be something important about doing something like this, because there’s such an unannounced conversation that’s going on about truth and fiction and the internet and it’s gotten so that people on the left who often in the past have had subtle interesting ways of thinking about what Foucault called “regimes of truth” are now not necessarily thinking in the most nuanced or complicated ways about what all this means. And so now part of me thinks it’s important for it to be happening right now, and part of me is nervous for it to be happening right now.
Indeed the American mainstream left's dogmatic adherence to what is and isn't true feels like it is handicapping their movement against an oppositional force that has no problem with constructing a reality in which pizza parlors operate as underground child sex rings, Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and the Holocaust never happened. It is as if the right studied Lacan and are using constructed reality to create a singularly American hellscape in which we're now all trapped. Talk about fraught.
And yet, despite, or perhaps because of, the borderline dystopian reality in which we now live, there's more of a reason than ever to explore what it means to create a truth, if not the truth. Browning does so beautifully in The Gift, to such a degree that there ceases to be a delineation between what's "real" and which characters are virtually identical, save for slight name changes (Browning's son Leo becomes "Leon," her mother Eleanor becomes "Elaine") to their real-life counterparts, and what's purely fabricated (Andersen's lover in the book is not real, because, after seeing the manuscript, Browning's real-life partner asked to be removed from the narrative). But while the blurriness of what is and isn't real exists for the reader, there is never any doubt that Browning is in full control of her story.
Browning tells me when I ask her if she has any problem going back and forth from what really happened to what she made happen, "I don’t know if I’m proud of this or if I should be very ashamed of this, but I am a bit of a control freak." She continues:
I never worry about it because I always feel it’s so clear for me what’s what. It’s funny for me to say, because I’ll say to you, I believe that love is always a fiction and I believe in Lacan; I understand that gender is a fiction. So I can say all of that but, at the same time, no, I never felt like I might be skating on thin ice. I never felt that way. I myself never feel like I’m unaware of when I’m shifting gears in that way even though I will say something really ultra-Lacanian, like it’s always already fictional, or it’s always already real with a big R. But saying all that I fundamentally feel like I know what’s what. I never felt nervous about losing that ground.
That is why, then, when reading The Gift, it never feels like you are being manipulated into thinking one way or the other. Rather, reading The Gift feels more like a collaboration between you, the reader, and Barbara Browning, who takes you on a journey into a complicated set of realities, and reveals to you how Barbara Andersen makes her decision about what to believe in, and you, as the reader, make yours. It's, at its heart, an incredibly generous way of presenting art because of the way in which it allows the recipient some level of control when it comes to how they want to engage; it's up to them to believe or not believe, and to act upon what it is they're learning and accepting. Despite all the melancholy that pervades The Gift (and that pervades all of our lives), the book is never sad, exactly, it is just honest, and that honesty is tinged with hope.
Browning explains one of the inspirations for this aspect of The Gift's tone:
I had a colleague, Jose Muñoz. And he’s the source for all of this, for the epigraph; he was a queer theorist and he wrote this beautiful book about utopianism, and a lot of queer theory is sort of… it’s fairly bleak. But his way of seeing things was really all about, let’s just imagine the world the way that it should be and let just live that way as though it were that way. And he’d just have these amazing parties, just behaving the way the world should be. He taught me a lot about that. He died right after I finished the book, right after the first draft. And he was one of my best friends.
With Jose, his thing was watching the pigeons, [watching] the pigeons fly through the sky... there’s always one bird who’s going to tell us how to get in formation and how we’re going to navigate all of this. [After he died], I realized that it’s not one bird, that it kind of shifts around, and we were going to have to reconfigure.
It is this idea of collective and collaborative reconfigurement, even in the face of devastating events and damaging lies, both personal and global, revealed, that is the underlying message of The Gift: We can all work together toward the reality we want; it might seem, and even ultimately be, illusory, but working toward that utopian future together is, at least, something within our control, even when it seems like nothing else is.