Brownstein, Gabriel 1966-
BROWNSTEIN, Gabriel 1966-
PERSONAL: Born April 13, 1966, in New York, NY; son of Shale (a psychiatrist) and Rachel (a professor) Brownstein; married Marcia Lerner, August 10, 1998; children: Eliza, Lucy. Education: Oberlin College, B.A., 1980, Columbia University, M.F.A., 1992.
CAREER: Educator and author of short stories. State University of New York at Stony Brook, lecturer in English.
AWARDS, HONORS: PEN/Hemingway award for first fiction, 2002, for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Zoetrope and Literary Review; contributor of reviews to Boston Globe and New Leader.
SIDELIGHTS: Gabriel Brownstein's debut collection of short stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, was partly inspired by characters created by some of literature's most enduring writers. Five of the volume's nine stories are narrated by the teenaged Davey Birnbaum, a resident of an early twentieth-century apartment building on West 89th Street in New York City called the "Old Manse," where he keeps tabs on a cast of misfit tenants. With names, situations, and dialogue lifted straight from the pages of such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Franz Kafka, Brownstein creates "marvelously smooth hybrid tales that prompt readers to think twice about the intersection of life and fiction," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Critical praise for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W was nearly unanimous and garnered Brownstein the 2003 PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction.
As a child of the 1970s, narrator Davey's mundane concerns include supermodel Cheryl Tiegs and the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, but his favorite pastime is watching the neighbors. His detached observation gives The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W an "achy undercurrent of nostalgia [that] buoys up Brownstein's big themes," according to Mark Rozzo in a review for the Los Angeles Times. These big themes include "thorny stuff like assimilation, voyeurism and role-playing," Rozzo added. In the title story, inspired by Fitzgerald's 1922 tale of the same name, a Christian woman gives birth to a full-grown old man, Jewish and bearded, who ages in reverse; save for one central moment, his physical body is perpetually out of sync with his mental state, and he dies a senile infant. According to Amy Reiter of Salon.com, the story is about "an immigrant forced to take up foreign customs in a strange land," and, more broadly, about "love, acceptance, openness, [and] growth."
Brownstein is forthright about his generous sampling from other writers; "I have stolen from works of great literature," he admits in the book's preface. Joining Fitzgerald are other authors to which Brownstein pays homage: Kafka inspires the story "A Penal Colony All His Own, 11E," in which a boy creates a living shrine to himself—the "MacMichaelmas Museum of Kevin"—in his dead parents' home; the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne is recalled in "Wakefield, 7E," about a man who leaves his family and spies on them from across the street; W. H. Auden influences the tragic latter-day Icarus tale "Musée des Beaux Arts," in which a misguided proctologist straps wings to his son and pushes him off the roof of an apartment building; and Isaac Bashevis Singer inspires "The Dead Fiddler," about a psychotherapist who loses his faith in science and finds a new faith in religion. Though borrowing so heavily from existing works might make Brownstein open to charges of plagiarism, Jackie Mc-Glone of Scotland on Sunday wrote of the title story that the author "has brilliantly fleshed out the character and transmuted the story into something that is surprisingly original, and entirely his own." Similarly, Amy Reiter of Salon.com maintained in a review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W that "so seamlessly does Brownstein weave these bits and chunks, constructs and conceits into his own quirky, glintingly lively narratives and make them so very much his own that they come off as completely fresh and original."
Garnering comparisons to authors such as J. D. Salinger, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Steven Millhauser, Brownstein's stories evoke an unsettling air, according to Amanda Craig of the London Times, which "successfully captures . . . a quintessentially urban air of mystery and strangeness, a willingness to exploit and manipulate." Four stand-alone stories also included in Brownstein's collection also received good reviews. "Safety" is narrated from beyond the grave by a father who watches his family grieve after he is killed in a car accident; "The Inventor of Love" concerns an abused and orphaned boy who is taken in by two successive gay couples; and "The Bachelor" describes the affair between a Jewish graduate student and the daughter of a Nazi. According to Rob Thomas in a review for Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times, these stand-alone stories "prove that Brownstein can assemble worthy fiction entirely on his own." Thomas also praised the telling of the stories, which he cited as effective due to the fact that the narrators are somewhat removed from the action.
In addition to recalling other works of literature, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W serves as an ode to New York City, which serves a significant role in the collection. According to Julia LoFaso in Library Journal, Brownstein's "stories are infused with a genuine sense of place." The author, a Manhattan native, based the apartment building in his book on the one in which he grew up, and the character of Davey can be read as his alter ego. In an interview with McGlone, he recalled the New York of the 1970s as a "city bankrupt and filthy but full of aspiration. Snowstorm and blackouts and strikes—garbage, transportation, teachers—all this was ordinary, exciting and incomprehensible."
Brownstein told CA that his primary motive for writing is the same as it was for twentieth-century writer George Orwell: "Sheer egotism. Beyond that? Habit is a big part of it. I get up in the morning and it's what I expect to do. When I skip a day, I feel it. When I skip several days in a row, I get irritable. Beyond habit, there's pleasure. Of course, there's a lot of frustration involved. And I'm not talking about the pleasure of working, of losing oneself in a task that one feels suited to. In Joan Didion's essay, 'Why I Write,' she says that the time spent writing is the time she feels most herself. I feel that way."
"Everything influences me," Brownstein added. "Anytime I read something, I think, in one way or another: I would (or would not) like to write like that. I wish I could write with a voice as assured and supple as Philip Roth's, with the wit of Lorrie Moore, the inventive geniality of Grace Paley, with the grasp of culture of Don DeLillo, with the authority of a Saul Bellow or a James Baldwin. I read a story by Alice Munro or Stephen Millhauser and see possibilities, all sorts of things I want to rip off.
"My guess is that most influence happens unintentionally, that you have to distinguish between influence and aspiration. The piles of sword-and-sorcery books I read as a kid must inform my conception of character and narrative and setting, and probably they do so more fundamentally than any more recent reading of Henry James, however much more seriously I studied and considered James. If I had to pick two writers whose sentences shaped mine, they would be Roth and Dashiell Hammett.
"To go back to Joan Didion, she says she writes in order to discover what she is thinking. Maybe writing is a kind of inspiration in itself. You start a sentence and you wonder where it will end. That's not to say I start out with a blank; William Gass compared writing to mixing a martini. I have a vague idea of the martini I want to mix when I start—don't ask me how many parts life and how many parts reading and how many parts stories I have heard (and which one of those is the olive?)—but I am always surprised, and sometimes disappointed, at the kind of drink I end up with. A lot of the pleasure and frustration in writing comes from that gap narrowing, between the hopes for a project and its actualization."
Brownstein described his writing process as "dogged and lazy. I work every day. Sometimes that means writing on my way to work, on the Long Island Railroad. Sometimes that means getting to it very early in the morning. Other times that means lying on my bed and reading the sports pages while my computer hums on the other side of the room. I look out windows. If I've got time, I go get something to eat. I move back and forth from the computer to the page, long hand and notebooks, manuscript and pencil. I like to tinker with sentences. I write a lot of drafts."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Capital Times (Madison, WI), December 13, 2002, Rob Thomas, "Brownstein's Stories Use Classics Masterfully," p. 11A.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2002, review of The CuriousCase of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, p. 820.
Library Journal, August, 2002, Julia LoFaso, review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, p. 148.
Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2002, Mark Rozzo, "First Fiction," p. R14.
New York Times, September 29, 2002, Sarah Shatz, review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, July 29, 2002, review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, p. 50.
Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), January 19, 2003, Jackie McGlone, "I'll Take Manhattan by Stealth," p. 6.
Times (London, England), January 15, 2003, Amanda Craig, "Here's Looking at You," p. 18.