A Smart, Heartbreaking Novel at the Crossroads of Performance and Art

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Kari Orvik

THE GIFT
(Or, Techniques of the Body)
By Barbara Browning
Illustrated. 235 pp. Coffee House Press/ Emily Books. Paper, $15.95.

There are times, in our encounters with art, when we find ourselves on the receiving end of an unasked-for gift: the gaze of a girl in a 16th-century portrait; a sustained low note on the cello; the naked muscle of a dancer’s straining limb. In these moments, we may stumble upon what the dancer, writer and performance theorist Barbara Browning, in her blithely metafictional third novel, “The Gift (Or, Techniques of the Body),” refers to as “inappropriate intimacy” — an accidental partnership or exchange, perhaps uncomfortable, yet full of possibilities. Browning, for her part, relishes the creation of such unusual, erotically charged encounters throughout daily life: email spam, performance art, YouTube videos and academic panels each provide opportunities in “The Gift” that she seizes with zest. The result is a smart, funny, heartbreaking and often sexy delight of a novel that presses hard against the boundaries of where literary and artistic performances begin and end. Perhaps no surprise from an artist who likes to “recuperate what might appear to be wasted time by thinking of it as conceptual art.”

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“The Gift” is narrated by one Barbara Andersen, an artist and professor of performance studies in early 2010s New York and an obvious stand-in for Browning herself. She is, among other things, engaged in a continuing art project that involves recording ukulele covers as unsolicited gifts for strangers and friends. In typical artless fashion, she reasons that her uke covers “could possibly help jump-start a creative gift economy that would spill over into the larger world of exchange.” In fact, what the project does do is lead her into a longdistance collaboration with Sami, an…

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