Book review: A good read in Theory

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A review of Dionne Brand’s Theory by Sadiya Ansari for The Star.

While a string of failed relationships and an unfinished thesis dissertation do not amount to the building blocks of plot that would excite most, in the hands of CanLit legend Dionne Brand these banal subjects transform into a layered exploration of how someone so desperately trying to escape the constraints of traditional expectations and power relations is still bound by them.

The book is narrated by an almost 40-year-old unnamed, ungendered, “all but dissertation” PhD student reflecting on a visit from older brother Wendell.

“I saw him fold up his soul and put it in the bottom of his shoe,” the narrator says later about Wendell, a former academic who abandoned his studies to give in to their father’s insistence that a life in business was the only one worth living. In a single sentence, Brand reveals how the narrator’s identity is constructed in opposition to the sibling, and tinges this seemingly plain observation with pity and the kind of superiority we come to expect from academics.

We should come to expect nothing less than such a masterful sentence from Brand, a prolific and internationally acclaimed poet and novelist, and a professor at the University of Guelph. Her work has been honoured with the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Trillium Book Award. She was also Toronto’s poet laureate from 2009 to 2012.

Theory is told in four parts: the first three parts are devoted to different lovers; the final section covers the unending relationship the narrator grapples with — their thesis. In fiction, Brand’s long been lauded for characters inspired by careful observation of those around her, often portraits of Torontonians you pass by who never quite make it to pages of any official cultural register. Her latest work further cements her unparalleled ability to capture the personalities who live in long-ignored corners of this vast city.

Her narrator’s sharp mind is able to synthesize a range of complex ideas from long-gone giants like Antonio Gramsci and Frantz Fanon to contemporary thinkers such as Christina Sharpe and David Chariandy to provide a clear-eyed analysis from 10,000 feet of the wretched conditions around them. But here on earth, that same sharp mind fumbles through life, particularly romantic life, unable to recognize incompatibility with a lover with a keen interest in the occult, or the signs of infidelity until its literal stench becomes too hard to ignore.

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Brand creates many of these clever binaries in her character’s behaviour — a narrator who says they are devoted to their academic work who is easily derailed by beautiful woman, who remarks how unremarkable their childhood was and yet reveals how much lasting hurt is rooted in it, who rails against corporate predators but wrinkles their nose when their activist lover houses actual victims of such predators.

The narrator narcissistically claims their work is too intricate to be understood by a thesis committee. And yet there’s evidence that as a person of colour who lacks meaningful mentorship and whose ideas represent massive leaps across disciplines, they’re likely doomed to be stunted in the structure of an institution that tends to reward intellectual silos and work that pushes ideas forward in slow, incremental intervals.

The narrator refuses to navigate this practically, and Brand provides an incisive critique of left-wing academics that produce these impossible conditions, the idea that “progressives” remain ensconced in institutions that recreate the class conditions they rail against, self-satisfied with their lectures and publications, or as Brand writes: “They confused their privilege with intellect.”

What Brand does so adeptly in this book is reveal how the many layers of power and personality destroy romantic partnerships, stress familial bonds and muzzle intellectual potential. Just as the narrator struggles to get through a PhD, Brand shows how difficult it is for her character to live outside the presiding confines of gender, heteronormative relationships and capitalism. And despite the narrator’s best efforts to try to create a different kind of world to live in, they can’t help but be a paternalistic partner, or a jealous colleague.

Theory is a book for those who are intrigued by how a brilliant thinker approaches lost love, unmet potential and unreliable narration. But if none of that appeals to you, Brand’s gorgeous prose and sly humour will definitely win you over.

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