In the late 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren conducted a torrid affair that went bust thanks in part to a bit of miscommunication. When the French feminist described herself as “your loving wife” to the hardscrabble Chicago novelist, she was just playing cute in her second language, not actually asking for a ring; the letter Algren wrote back proposing marriage deserves a display in the Museum of Awkward Moments.
Barbara Browning routinely mentions the Beauvoir-Algren letters in her debut novel, The Correspondence Artist, which makes sense: The book, like the affair, is wrapped up in powerful feelings of disconnect, confusion, and sexual need. The heroine, Vivian, is a middle-aged writer who’s ending a years-long affair she’s conducted with a famous artist, primarily over e-mail. To conceal the lover’s identity, she imagines him or her as one of four other famous artists: The lover is alternately a Nobel-winning Israeli novelist, a hot young Vietnamese-American visual artist who hangs out with Matthew Barney and Björk, a Basque separatist, and a Malian rock star. The true identity of the lover doesn’t matter, Vivian means to say; what does is the isolation that courses through her as she recalls the relationship’s demise and how she was left feeling like a second-class citizen. “It makes it sound like I have a secret and exciting love life,” she writes. “I guess I do, from a certain perspective, but…in most respects it’s as stupid, awkward, and frustrating as anyone else’s.”
Still, imagining a failed romance through four different characters does give the story an unusual liveliness, and Browning expertly filters critical moments through each imagined lover. A miscommunication with the visual artist leads to an embarrassing moment where a live feed of her masturbating is projected in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, while the same miscommunication, imagined with the musician, leads to a case of dengue fever. The structure is unwieldy, but never confusing, and it helps put Vivian into focus: When the lover could be anyone, what’s left is the sense of the frustration and erotic charge that suffuses this push-me-pull-you romance.
So, it’s a little frustrating to see Browning muddy Vivian’s emotional state to engage in some metatextual fun and games in the book’s closing chapters. A riff on Faulkner leads to an overwritten attempt to ventriloquize him instead, and some musing on the Marx Brothers prompts a farcical Monkey Business-esque plot turn. Why abandon the sincerity that was so carefully cultivated early on? Vivian is happy to explain that it has something to do with the “essential poetic disintegration of reality,” socialist politics, and Lacanian therapy, all of which claim a larger portion of the stage in the closing pages.
But the earnest and engaging writer, single mom, and burned lover who showed up in the beginning gets lost. At first the four-lovers conceit seems like a symbol of how faith in love can so easily gets split into pieces—a lover rhetorically drawn and quartered. By the end, it feels like a display of narcissism: Why have just one famous lover attracted to you when you can invent four?