The Gift

The Gift

by Barbara Browning

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A “winning and expansive novel” that “describes one woman’s intimacies with lovers, strangers, culture and ideas, and family and friends” (Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick).
In the midst of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a writer and academic from New York
named Barbara Andersen begins spamming people indiscriminately with ukulele covers of sentimental songs. A series of inappropriate intimacies ensues, including an erotically charged correspondence and then collaboration with an extraordinarily gifted and troubled musician living in Germany.
“All this might seem like so much postmodern hot air, but the narrator has an exceptionally graceful page presence: loony and profound, vulnerable and ingenuous, Barbara acts to unify the book’s central concerns, giving its intellectual flights of fancy a palpable human pulse. Maybe nothing in this book is exactly what it seems. But the sadness, at least, is real” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566894777
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 04/17/2017
Series: Emily Books
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 250
File size: 851 KB

About the Author

Barbara Browning teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale University. She is the author of the novels The Correspondence Artist (winner of a Lambda Literary Award) and I'm Trying to Reach You (short-listed for The Believer Book Award). She also makes dances, poems, and ukulele cover tunes.

Read an Excerpt

The Gift

(Or, Techniques of the Body)

By Barbara Browning


Copyright © 2017 Barbara Browning
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56689-477-7


ON JANUARY 31, 2011, I RECEIVED WHAT APPEARED TO BE A BIT of spam in my e-mail.

The message began, "Hi barbara," and went on to explain that the sender was "Dr. Mel," a board-certified psychiatrist in Winnetka, Illinois, specializing in the treatment of obesity: "I use Phentermine for patients who have had success with that medication in the past. I also use Liquid Diets and can also use the HCG program. I have been practicing thirty years in Winnetka. The first ten new patients get 90 free Fiber Capsules with their first office visit. Check me out at Love Mel."

This e-mail came from, but I noted that Mel had included his personal e-mail at the bottom, so I decided to respond. I wrote: "Hello, Mel, and thank you for your message offering me your information and the possibility of receiving free Fiber Capsules for obesity treatment. I am a congenitally skinny person, and I live on the East Coast. Still, I appreciate your concern. I was actually more interested in the fact that you signed your message with the word 'Love.' That was so nice. I was just wondering why you love me. Feel free to answer if you have the time. Love, Barbara."

A few minutes later, Mel wrote me back: "wow i guess because I believe in the love cure. A great lady in California writes about the love cure, and love is a good thing to spread around. I sort of feel that way when I send an e-mail whether or not it is well received. Lately McDonald's and other food sellers are into luv and 'lovin' it' and that is OK too. It is OK to be Lovin' it when it comes to McDonald's. Most of my e-mails go to patients and self love is the intention of their weight loss efforts. Pride, Self Love, Gratitude are the feelings that come from being well formed. The purpose of the program is self love, not weight loss. So I guess I hope you love yourself today. I wish you love. Mel."

That was interesting. Naturally, I paused to think about how effective Mel's weight loss plan was if he was telling his patients that it was "ok to be Lovin' it when it comes to McDonald's." But then I considered that perhaps Mel's therapeutic stance was moderation in all things, including moderation.

I myself am an extremely moderate person. But as you can see, even that phrase, extremely moderate, is a contradiction in terms. And in truth, sometimes I am excessive, though I try to express my excess in ways that are easy to ignore — for example, recording ukulele cover tunes for people. I had started doing this a few months before this e-mail exchange, prompted by the hospitalization of a friend of mine. I made a few covers for her, thinking they might cheer her up. Then I noticed that a Facebook friend was having a birthday. I seemed to remember that he liked Iggy Pop when we were in college, so I recorded "The Passenger" for him. Suddenly it seemed like Facebook friends were having birthdays every day. Since I'd recorded a song for that guy, I felt I should do the same for the others. Then I started taking requests. It got a little out of control. I decided it was a conceptual art piece.

Actually, I decided it was a conceptual art piece a few months into the process, while reading Lewis Hyde's The Gift, which is a meditation on the relationship between Marcel Mauss's famous anthropological treatise of the same name — an account of gift economies in a global and transhistorical context — and the notion of artistic "giftedness." I was reading Hyde for a graduate seminar I was teaching on theories of the fetish. Mauss's essay had long preoccupied me. Hyde's extension of its propositions into the realm of creativity may seem to turn on an arbitrary quirk of language, these two seemingly disparate meanings of a single word, but it's kind of intriguing. I don't mean to imply, by invoking Hyde here, that I'm gifted on the uke. On the contrary, my musical gifts, both as a singer and an instrumentalist, are, in keeping with my temperament, extremely moderate. I have similarly mediocre talent as a dancer. In these domains, I'm really better at appreciating art than making it. But it occurred to me that maybe if I began (or, to be honest, continued) super-producing both asked-for and unaskedfor recordings of my uke covers as gifts, I could possibly help jumpstart a creative gift economy that would spill over into the larger world of exchange. The recent implosion of the global financial system made it evident that we needed to try something else. My idea may not have been particularly revolutionary, but I thought it might be a start. The super-production of my very modest gifts seemed to me, precisely, to realize that paradoxical "moderation in all things, including moderation." Whether or not this was the therapeutic stance of Dr. Mel, I guess you could say it's mine.

The next step in the correspondence was clear. The affectionate closing of Mel's most recent message provided an obvious choice of song, and it happened to be a tune I adore. I have some powerful associations with the melody of "I Wish You Love." François Truffaut used it in Stolen Kisses, a film that takes its title from the original French lyric by Charles Trenet. The most famous renditions in English are probably Nat King Cole's and Frank Sinatra's. Blossom Dearie put a perky spin on it. But my favorite version by far is Joâo Gilberto's gorgeous bossa nova interpretation in his tender, Brazilian-inflected French.

I found the chords for the song on the internet. It wasn't in my ideal range, but I didn't bother to transpose it (transposition is quite a challenge for me). I tried recording it in my lower, smoky Julie London register, but it sounded pretty forced, so I went up an octave instead, producing a high, tremulous warble with, if I do say so myself, an affecting air of mild desperation. I sang the song in English and then again in French for good measure. I popped it off to Mel.

It took a little longer this time for him to write me back. I imagine he was trying to decide if I was a lunatic. But when he answered, he answered warmly: "thank you. Beautiful." He went on to say that years ago he'd been a professional musician, playing in clubs on the South Side of Chicago, but he'd had to give up the boozy piano-playing life to make it through med school and open his weight loss clinic in the suburbs. He said that now on rare occasions he noodled around on a Korg. His message ended indicating that I had intuited something perhaps profound: "I wish you love is a favorite so you got it." But this time he didn't close with "love" — just "Mel."

It didn't surprise me that Mel had been a musician. All my life, nearly all of my amorous relationships have been with musicians — or at least lyrical types. Which is not to say that I was having amorous feelings toward Mel. Still, while I tend to play dumb about these things, I was aware he might find it a little flirtatious of me to send him a warbling home recording of such a romantic song. I didn't intend for my gift to be flirtatious, but I did intend for it to be inappropriately intimate. I could claim I was provoked by Mel's own oddity, indiscriminately larding his business spam with "love." But let's face it, I was raising the stakes, and it wouldn't be unreasonable for Mel or somebody else to suspect some kind of erotic investment in this exchange.

In fact, that seemed to be the interpretation of my lover, Olivia. In my excitement over the unexpected intimacies taking place between Mel and me, I blind copied her on my message to Mel containing my cover of "I Wish You Love." She is, unlike me, an artist with a pretty high level of self-exigency, but I thought she might find some charm, if not in my plunking and warbling, then at least in Mel's and my utopian efforts to be "lovin' it." Unfortunately, she failed to note that the original addressee of the message was Dr. Mel, and when she read my minimal text, "i made this for u," she assumed I'd recorded the cover for her. When she realized it was intended for Mel, she didn't take it that well.

Really, I didn't have any erotic aspirations in regard to Mel, but the question does bring me back to Lewis Hyde. "In the world of gift," Hyde writes, "you not only can have your cake and eat it too, you can't have your cake unless you eat it. Gift exchange and erotic life are connected in this regard. ... Scarcity and abundance have as much to do with the form of exchange as with how much material wealth is at hand." For Hyde, that's the link between the redistribution of wealth and eros. To him, and to me, the beauty of the gift is that, like sex, it confounds our sense of what it means to give pleasure and to receive it. The more you give, the more you have.

Take, for example, the uke covers. If I solicit a request from someone, they may think I'm asking what I can give to them. But every request sends me down a path of pleasure. "Genius of Love" by the Tom Tom Club. "We Almost Lost Detroit" by Gil Scott-Heron. "This Guy's in Love with You" by Burt Bacharach. "Kiss Me on My Neck" by Erykah Badu. You really don't think about how weird or delightful or righteous the lyrics are, or how quirky or gorgeous the original arrangements were, until you do your own dumbed-down version. And then you find yourself checking out other people's covers on YouTube. How many weirdos are out there for you to fall in love with as they croon into their laptops? When I make a cover for someone, that person may or may not enjoy it musically. But in the best of all possible worlds, the recipient feels compelled to do something with the gift — mine (although my musical gifts, in both senses of the term, are pretty negligible) or the true musical gift at the origin of the song. Hello, Burt Bacharach is a fucking genius.

Who knows if my antics prodded Mel to sit down and noodle around on his Korg — or even to record his own cover tune and embed it in the next batch of weight loss spam he sent out into the ether. If he did that, the nudge was the best gift I gave him. But I didn't get any more messages from him. I think he might have taken me off his mailing list.

If he did unsubscribe me, I don't think it was out of fear or offense — I think he just realized I wasn't likely to become a patient at his weight loss clinic, especially given our geographic distance. There's a probable explanation for his having sent me weight loss spam from Winnetka in the first place. I occasionally get other spam from that area — like updates from the botanical garden in Glencoe and a Highland Park Toyota dealership. There seems to be another Barbara Andersen living near there. She apparently created an e-mail address very similar to mine, on the same domain, except since I had nabbed "barbaraandersen" first, she added "64," presumably the year of her birth. Either she or these businesses she frequents make a little typo when they enter her contact information into the system — they forget the 64. I also occasionally get family photos or personal messages that have gone astray. I politely reply to the senders, saying, "oops, sorry, but I think you sent this to the wrong barbara! i live in new york!" Sometimes they apologize, but mostly these exchanges just fizzle out.

On June 1, 2013, I went to see a performance by my friend Tye. That was just last night. I'm still processing it.

Tye hadn't mentioned it to me, and it wasn't widely advertised. It just happened that a mutual friend sent me an e-mail about the event, and she said it was sponsored by the Whitney Museum. So I looked at the Whitney website, and it said that the performance would be at The Kitchen, which is an experimental theater on Nineteenth Street on the far West Side, near the river. The website said the show was free, but you had to reserve a space, so I sent an e-mail asking if there was room for me. At the last minute, I got a message back saying I'd been bumped up from the waiting list, which I didn't know I was on, but I had to confirm right away that I could be there or someone else would get my space. So I confirmed, walked over, and got there about fifteen minutes early.

The performance was to begin at eight. The building was locked, and no one else was there. After about five minutes, someone else showed up — a short, bald white guy with glasses. He was friendly. We both wondered why it was closed and why we were the only ones there. At about 7:55, Tye walked up, and we embraced. I introduced him to the guy I'd just met. His name was John. Tye said there would be two other audience members — and indeed just then another appeared — a tall, delicate guy with black nail polish. His name was Joe, and Tye seemed to know him. Tye said to John, "You, I didn't know, but I Googled you and saw your picture. In fact, it was somebody else with the same name, not you. I chose you because of the picture of that other guy with your name, because he looked like someone I often collaborate with." He must have been referring to Tom, a distinguished older gentleman with white hair who's appeared in many of Tye's pieces.

Anyway, Tye didn't seem to mind that this John didn't look like Tom. I guess it was sufficient that conceptually there was a Tom look-alike there.

Then a very beautiful young woman walked up and tried to ring the bell. She explained that she was writing an article about Tye for the magazine Art in America and wanted to see as much of his work as she could, although she hadn't received confirmation that she had a seat. Tye politely told her there was no room for her, though he'd be doing this piece once more a few weeks later, and she could try her luck again if she wanted. As she walked away, I told Tye that if he wanted to give this journalist my place he could, and John said the same thing, but Tye said no, he'd chosen us for a reason. The last audience member was a guy named Matthew, who is the head curator at The Kitchen. He was already inside, in his office.

Tye unlocked the door and led us in. He took us up two floors in the freight elevator, and then we went into a stairwell leading down to the administrative offices. Tye hollered down to Matthew, and he walked up the stairs to join us. While we were in the freight elevator, before Matthew joined us, Tye explained that he'd been given $1,500 by the Jerome Foundation as a commission for two performances of this piece in the Dance and Process series. He'd also been given $100 for his artistic fee and $400 for materials by the Whitney for two additional performances of the same piece, but for the first time ever he hadn't overspent his materials budget. Usually he ends up losing money when he makes a piece because he likes to build fairly elaborate structures, and that's expensive. But in this case he hadn't spent anything, so all the Whitney money had gone toward the conceptualizing, discussion, and performance of the piece.

I'm pretty sure we were doing the math in our heads. If you think art has calculable monetary value, and if you divided those total fees by four audiences of four people each, then each of our free tickets was worth $125.

That ticket value accounts for the funding only, though I suppose the hope is that art's value will exceed the initial investment made to create it. I suppose this is the hope with any investment. I actually forgot for a moment about the other performances, so I was thinking my seat was valued at about $500. That would be pretty steep, though to my mind, worth it. But it might have been hard for the four of us to swing that kind of ticket price — particularly Joe, as he was a graduate student. Anyway it's a moot point, as nobody asked us for anything.

After Matthew joined us, Tye led us through the top floor, past some ragtag sofas, and into a storage room. It was twilight, and the only illumination was the natural light coming through two skylights. It got darker as the performance progressed. Tye told us we could sit wherever we wanted, except in his chair. He took a seat on a padded office chair. Matthew and I took the other two chairs in the room. Joe and John sat on the floor. There were some cardboard boxes, an old desk phone, and some wooden planks leaning against the wall. Someone had attached a handwritten sign to the wood saying: "be careful."


Excerpted from The Gift by Barbara Browning. Copyright © 2017 Barbara Browning. Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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