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When Gray Adams, former ballet dancer turned academic, gets stuck turning his dissertation into a book, he does what any good academic does: more research. Unfortunately, his research isn’t into his book’s topic (“Semaphoric Mime from the Ballet Blanc to William Forsythe: A Derridean Analysis”), but rather into the deaths of three iconic figures in dance—Michael Jackson, Pina Bausch, and Merce Cunningham.
Browning’s playful novel follows Gray as he deciphers cryptic clues embedded in a series of YouTube videos. But readers expecting a mystery similar to Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe might be disappointed; even Gray realizes that his theories are probably paranoid projections. Instead, the novel delves into Gray’s scattered mind as he goes in search of information. Sometimes, Gray’s search leads him on surprising discoveries, such as when he uncovers the Swedish word for “boyfriend” (pojkvan, a compound word combining ‘boy’ and ‘skilled’).
At other times, though, he simply rambles. Gray occasionally disappears down a black hole of YouTube comments, uncovering vaguely threatening messages from a man he dubs “Jimmy Stewart,” as well as the original poster’s responses. But the comments speak at cross-purposes. Their “conversation,” comprised of quotations attributed to the “real” Jimmy Stewart and poetic fragments from Emily Dickenson, offers juxtaposition but no real discourse. (The less said about the sophomoric and homophobic responses from “real people,” the better.)
This, perhaps, is intentional. Browning’s novel is a pastiche. She cuts and pastes from many different sources to create a multimedia experience. (The videos that Gray sees, for instance, are available on YouTube.) And while this works, Browning often fails to exploit how different media can work together. For example, when Gray sends photo messages to his Swedish boyfriend, Sven, Browning includes the photograph in the text. But rather than parse the photograph or use the photograph as a jumping-off point for further musing (a là W. G. Sebald), Browning merely describes what’s in the picture, as if seeing it weren’t enough. Similarly, Browning includes lengthy summaries of the film noirs that Gray and Sven see, but doesn’t examine how these films illuminate their relationship. The summaries add texture but no flavor.
Indeed, the characters, other than Gray, feel nebulous. Gray exists so much in his own head that the other people who pass through his life do exactly that: pass through. His involvement with Sven consists mostly of text messages and emoticons. They act less like boyfriends and more like FWBs (Friends With Blackberrys). Sven’s HIV-positive serostatus is given less space than, say, a hermeneutic examination into Les Paul. But, even though Browning isn’t aiming for psychological realism—indeed, Gray continually claims that he is short on cash, but never has any issue jetting off to Europe—she prefers to play for bemused chuckles, like Gray’s deaf downstairs neighbor, described only as “Bugs Bunny’s sister,” who speaks IN ALL CAPS WITH AN EGGZAJURATED NOO YAWK ACCENT.
Despite its flaws, the novel shows ambitious scope, encompassing everything from critical theory to the relationship between Merce Cunningham and John Cage. But, in the end, the novel feels like watching an artist’s greatest hits on YouTube: you get all the high points, but it doesn’t feel like an album.
I’m Trying To Reach
By Barbara Browning
Two Dollar Radio
Paperback, 9780983247111, 204 pp.