The Gift

You’re not smart or cool or hip enough for this book, but it doesn’t care—it will lead you by the hand anyway through the nooks and crannies of NYC’s art world, intellectual circles, performance pieces, poetry readings. It grants you access, a gift, a glimpse inside a world you’re not enough for. From Barbara Browning’s own words, it’s a book about technique, art, love, surrogacy, gift economies, feminism, communism, and the erotics of collaboration. It’s non-fiction disguised as fiction, or at least sliding to that end of the spectrum.

The book is a gift, as intended. A mediation on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which deals with artistic talent needing to be given away and not just bottled up and sold. Browning’s work is another in a long line of dreamy, smart, creative books by intellectual women I’ve been digging lately—Maggie Nelson, Kate Zambreno, Chris Kraus—all of whom have mentions in the book. It’s the chin nod to one’s peers or influencers. Other name drops: Sophie Calle, Valerie Solanas (wherein I learn that she scrawled edits to the NYPL copy of SCUM Manifesto complaining about the publisher’s changes), Lauren Berlant (repeatedly referred to by Browning as “the smartest woman in the US”), Andre Breton, Gertrude Stein.

She begins by talking about the ukulele covers she’s been making for friends and how she responded to a spam message by making a cover for the sender. This leads into a discussion about a reclusive musical genius with Asperger in Germany she befriends (and later has a disastrous attempt to visit in Köln where she learns that he’s given a fake address), Sami, who makes his own musical videos posted online. Browning also makes various naked dance videos of herself or her hands, set either to music or to the voice messages that Sami leaves her. The German term for Asperger is Inselbegabung, meaning “insular talent.”

The book meanders, dipping into performance art of her transgender friend Tye, bragging about how smart her NYU doctoral students are, giving lectures at the post-Occupy Free University, pop-up lectures on Pussy Riot, New Museum patronage of Karen Finley’s sexting piece, discussing appropriation in the digital world (centos are poems constructed of lines from other poets, the form originated in 3rd century AD). It’s delightful, uncategorizable, intellectual, dreamy, thought-provoking stuff.