I’m Trying to Reach You (Two Dollar Radio, 2012) is a novel by Barbara Browning about dance, performance art, YouTube, the blurring of art and life, the death of Michael Jackson, academic writing, lurking, other things. It’s written in a straightforward, casual manner, in a style that comes across as a hybrid of memoir, fiction, performance and citation/footnote. Browning’s past works include the novel The Correspondence Artist (Two Dollar Radio, 2011), an audionovel and two academic books. She’s also a dancer, teacher, poet and ukuleleist.
Browning’s book revolves around a dancer-turned-scholar struggling with money and tasked with transforming a postdoctoral thesis into a novel. The book frequently references itself being written:
I began copy and pasting from my dissertation’s abstract, but I was pretty sure the editors’ interest would begin the flag around the third sentence, when I began dog-paddling into the murky waters of “grammatological impossibility.” I pulled up the Microsoft Word Reference Tools to see if I could find a better phrase. […] The best replacement for “impossibility” seemed to be “ridiculousness.” I wondered if I should be trying to make this book sound more like a comedy.
The overall “tone” is, I think, both frank and comfortably self-aware :
But after all, even hamsters surely realize they’re not getting anywhere, and yet there must be something to it, because they keep going.
I was tempted to read the novel, at first, as mostly autobiographical and presented to the reader as fiction, but then the book contradicted my initial assumption that the narrator was female. The narrator and Browning seem to have similar backgrounds, but Browning also resembles, in other ways, the “YouTube dancer.”
This, I think, is possibly explained by this passage:
But Schechner has a somewhat different way of thinking about the “real” self in performance. He says that there is always a “peculiar but necessary double negativity that characterizes symbolic actions. While performing, a performer experiences his own self not directly but through the medium of experiencing the others. While performing, he no longer has a ‘me’ but has a ‘not not me.’”
I feel like Browning’s intent was, maybe, to “not not” be her characters, to be neither them or not them.
Prior to reading this book, I had very little knowledge of dance theory, so I found the citations and anecdotes scattered throughout the novel stimulating to read.
Sometimes he’d look out the window while he was teaching and see a big tanker moving by extremely slowly. He said sometimes when this happened, he’d try to time the particular exercise he was teaching to the time of the ship passing by. He said he never told his students that that was what he was doing. They just went along with his direction and danced very, very slowly.
I also enjoyed the scenes in which the narrator attends conferences and relays impressions to the reader.
I attended a late-morning panel on performance and new media. There was a guy who introduced himself as a “witch doctor” and he compared the manipulation of avatars in cyber-space to the use of voodoo dolls. That was a little disturbing.
Lastly, I liked how I’m Trying to Reach You’s academic focus was contrasted throughout the novel with text message conversations, with text messaging sometimes permeating certain scenes.
I knew that would make him feel a little better, and indeed, when I wrote that in a text he answered: “ :) ” - but in truth, my mind was elsewhere.
I remembered Cary Grant and the way he looked at Ingrid Bergman when he discovered that Claude Rains and his mother had been slowly killing her with poison.
Overall, I felt engaged by I’m Trying to Reach You. I found it accessible, intelligent, and would give it “extra points” for its “meta” sensibilities. I felt intrigued by the YouTube subplot at first, then grew frustrated with it around maybe the midway point, then liked its conclusion. I would definitely read more books by Barbara Browning and/or more books written in a similar tone.