'I'm Trying to Reach You' by Barbara Browning
'Of course, that's what's utopian about the Internet, but also creepy—this possibility of jettisoning one persona for another.'—Review #198
I read this novel on a dare. Sorta. I was browsing the back catalog of Two Dollar Radio, a publisher I’ve featured many times, and the cover of Barbara Browning’s 2012 novel ‘I’m Trying to Reach You’ caught my eye. I clicked to the book’s ordering page to find it was out of stock and due to be reprinted. There was no date indicating when this would happen, but there was a note: ‘Indie bookstores may have copies though, so please inquire with your fave indie!’ It felt like the publisher was daring me to find this book in the wild. Challenge accepted. I checked all my go-to second-hand book stores. The Strand. Nope. Mercer Street Books. No dice. Unnameable Books. No luck, either. Then, on a recent weekend in Chicago, Donna and I stopped by Myopic Books. Victory.
Here’s the cover:
Whoever had this copy before me dog-eared many pages, which makes me crazy, and it seems they dropped it in a pile of leaves or something because it had a coating of dirt. And some pages are stained. (Take care of your books, people!) The novel follows an academic named Gray Adams, who’s doing post-doctoral work involving Jacques Derrida and dance theory at NYU. It’s summer 2009, Gray is ordering Netflix movies through the mail (remember that?!) and revising his dissertation into a book by moving some commas around. Michael Jackson has just died, which sends Gray into a YouTube rabbit hole of videos related to the King of Pop. He eventually lands on a video of a woman dancing. It’s not immediately clear what her dance has to do with Michael Jackson, until suddenly she does the Moonwalk. The novel’s paragraphs are broken up by a screenshot of the video. I flipped back to the opening pages and found a QR code, which I zapped with my phone to find the videos Gray watches throughout the book. I have never seen anything like this before, and the merger of text and multimedia made me feel there was some kind of spiritual kinship between Barbara Browning’s novel and Books on GIF, like:
The woman continues to post videos of her dancing—sometimes alone, other times with accompaniment, including a ukulele player. Gray becomes increasingly obsessed with her and the seemingly random people who post comments on her videos. Meanwhile, other prominent figures in the dance world die, including Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham. Is there a connection between these deaths and the videos? And why does a man who looks like Jimmy Stewart seem to be following Gray around? Is he part of some sort of dance-murder conspiracy? The story gets increasingly bizarre, and as I alternated between text and YouTube videos, I was like:
Turns out Browning is the dancer in the YouTube videos, and it’s making my head spin. The author has created a character that’s obsessed with watching videos of the author performing. I’ve never seen anything like that before reading ‘I’m Trying to Reach You.’ I’ll be thinking about the act of switching back and forth from book to phone to watch the videos. While it was a bit clunky as a reading experience, it forces the reader to participate in a mini performance-art piece commenting on our current Internet obsessions. Gray was fixated on YouTube, but every time I went to watch what he was watching, I also often checked my email, Twitter and Instagram. The book is an artistic achievement, and I agree with Emily Gould’s blurb that ‘it contains intimations of the potential of what books can be in the future.’ It might not be for every reader, but Browning’s novel is fun and engaging, and, if you’re up for it, I encourage you to scour your favorite used bookshops to find a copy.
How it begins:
I was in Zagreb the day that Michael Jackson died.
When I heard the news, the first thing I thought was, “That’s it. That’s the first line of my novel. ‘I was in Zagreb the day that Michael Jackson died.’” It seemed exactly right—odd, bizarre even, incongruous, an appallingly sad event viewed from an eerie state of helpless remove. It encapsulated all the feelings I’d been wanting to get off my chest, without having any actual story to attach them to.
I’d been toying with the idea of writing fiction—probably as a way of avoiding the real task at hand, which was my academic writing. Given the economic climate and the disconcerting contraction of the university job market, the old saw “publish or perish” was taking on a new urgency. It was making me a little anxious. So sometimes when I sat down at my computer, I’d find myself fantasizing about writing a novel instead.
That first line fell in my lap, but it was entirely true.
I was in Zagreb the day that Michael Jackson died.
Who they thanked:
In the oddest acknowledgements I’ve encountered so far, Barbara Browning apparently spent an entire day on an anagram-creating website to alter the names of those people who provided ‘talent, inspiration, help, encouragement, cautionary advice, and/or editorial comments’ for this novel. She suggests plugging the names back into the website to decipher them, which I tried. No luck. I doubt ‘Caramel Jetsam’ is actually someone called ‘Rectal Mesa Jam.’ Oh well. Others who merited thanks: ‘Infidel Smoker,’ ‘Vanity A. Goon’ and ‘Wiltsy O’Kibitzer,’ among many others. All the names are pretty funny!
‘I’m Trying to Reach You’ by Barbara Browning was published by Two Dollar Radio in 2012. 204 pages. $14.88 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #197
Watch this: This performance from French dancer Yoann Bourgeois is amazing.
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