Reviewed by Tanis Macdonald
The ironic features of Sky Gilbert’s latest novel, Brother Dumb, include the standard disclaimer on the copyright page. Any "resemblance to persons living or dead" is not only not coincidental; it is necessary for reading Brother Dumb as a historiographic metafiction that examines literary celebrity, public prurience, and autobiographical compulsion. Brother Dumb requires that readers know about a particular twentieth-century fiction writer who is as famous for his reclusive life as he is for writing an iconic youth-oriented novel of disaffection. You know: that book about a guy who’s sincere as hell and all, and just can’t stand phonies. Knowing that said author protects his privacy in a litigious manner, Gilbert couldn’t refuse the disclaimer, but the book’s metafictive features, right down to the simple one-colour cover, are part of the book’s cultural nod to living a private life that has invited public admiration and public disdain in equal measure. Positioning his novel as the first-person narrative that the reclusive author has been writing for years, Gilbert teases out the tension between autobiography and fiction as the author claims himself as his once and future subject. What will be revealed in this final book, written for the eyes of the elusive "perfect reader"?
Gilbert answers with Brother Dumb: a fictive autobiography, wherein the beleaguered author character warns of evil abroad in the world, along with the frustrations of being misunderstood and the poisonous pretentions of university professors and literary critics. The author also dishes out plenty of philosophical spirituality and a heavy dose of self-justification. Sound familiar? It ought to. The literary ventriloquism of Brother Dumb - note-perfect without being slavishly imitative - breaks out into more hazardous territory when it delves into the black hole in the author’s biography. The novel begins as a satire when Gilbert plumbs criticism, reception and style, and matches them with biographical anecdotes. But in explaining the author’s war experience, Gilbert’s novel becomes something more agonizing, more vulnerable, more difficult to read. Brother Dumb contains the homonym "brotherdom," and in the end, the novel is a story of extreme disconnection: a man’s refusal of his own body as "a place where sex and death sit cosily, like old friends, having a lethal chat over a cup of tea."
As a holy pseudonym that the narrator desires, Gilbert offers the appellate "Brother Dumb" partially in jest. The narrator is anything but dumb in the sense of being mute; nor is he ignorant or unknowing, though he longs to be relieved of the burden of knowledge. This misanthropic, emotionally-stunted man carries forward the legacy of twentieth-century violence, and Gilbert’s story of art and refusal is rich with reminders of the existential vicissitudes of corporeal existence, and of how pain shuns the spotlight of language. Writes the narrator to his unidentified perfect reader, "I know you won’t try to analyze this. That’s why I let you read it."
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Books reviewed: The Accidental Orphan by Constance Horne, The Doctor's Apprentice by Ann Walsh, and The Brideship by Joan Weir
- L'oie, le chat et la souris by Pamela V. Sing
Books reviewed: alibi by Pierre Samson and Le jeu de l'oie: Petite histoire vraie d'un cancer by Sylvie Desrosiers
- Disenfranchised Grief by Dorothy F. Lane
Books reviewed: The Darren Effect by Libby Creelman and Happiness and other Disorders by Ahmad Saidullah
- The Art of Artifice by Andrew Lesk
Books reviewed: Delirium by Douglas Cooper, Beneath that Starry Place by Terry Jordan, and Angel Falls by Tim Wynveen
- Endgame Tap-Dancing by Kerry McSweeney
Books reviewed: Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
MLA: Macdonald, Tanis. Lethal Chat. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #203 (Winter 2009), Home, Memory, Self. (pg. 149 - 150)
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