Theory. Random House Canada
Does she see me there, dressed in paper, dressed in the cuts on my fingers from turning pages?
—Dionne Brand, Theory
Dionne Brand’s engrossing new novel, Theory, experiments with the genre of the campus novel, employing the restricted perspective of a first-person narrator to recount a tale of love affairs and work. This “I,” through which the reader views the novel, resists characterization by being both unnamed and ungendered, which also prevents the reader from confidently asserting the sexuality of the speaker. What is the effect of departing from the naturalized straight white male anti-hero narrators written by Philip Roth or Kingsley Amis, and asking the reader instead to occupy the interior life of a person over several relationships which affect the narrator’s perspective on the self at work? The effect is twofold. As Brand writes, “I knew, and they knew, that academia was a place for perpetuating class and class privilege.” The text reveals the history of the academy, and the campus novel, as capitalist and colonial, and populated accordingly; and it highlights reader complicity in the elision of all but white characters, and the naturalizing of capitalist values in previous fictions.
Is it possible to revive the genre without a radical breaking of genre contracts, such as we saw with Suzette Mayr’s slipstream campus novel/supernatural tale, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall? Theory floats dangerously close to the whirlpools and toothy monsters of sexist literary tropes. The novel is structured around three sections named for lovers (the fourth explores the relationship with the narrator’s dissertation), and this structure begs the question “How is this different?” The novel must amplify and transcend the familiar to succeed in interrogating the genre. This means that the characters, including the childhood love who dies tragically and haunts all future affairs, familiar from Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce, must achieve more than the usual lover/muse vehicles for the protagonist’s journey. Brand’s supporting characters are active and live socially complex lives that extend before and beyond the narrator. The narrator is not a professor, lusting after students, but an ABD graduate student at the mercy of an exploitive system, in the limbo of sessional work. As such, the narrator reminds the reader of the quotidian reality of academic life, which offers the most and least secure employment. The narrator’s situation illustrates complex socio-economic privilege and precarity. Simultaneously, the book provokes self-examination of the reader’s relative privilege.
Theory is a book that shows its hand, cites its borrowing, and surveys diverse contemporary and historical thinkers from Walter Benjamin to Rinaldo Walcott. But it is also a book about the dangers of reproduction, the reproduction of bad systems, genre expectations, trauma, gender paradigms, and flawed analysis. Ultimately, the major difference from other campus novels comes, for me, as a reader, because the undescribed self of the narrator opens the door for the reader to conflate the narrator’s experiences with that of the described lovers, their inability to be within or without each other completely, what they make of each other. Simultaneously, the narrator is a projection of the reader, and so Theory becomes what it describes, a book about context and encounter, perspective and relationship, and thus invites readers to analyze their own reception. Theory interrogates assumptions about masculinities (as a plot point as well as a theme) and sexual relationships, inviting the reader to ask what, if anything, is important about positionality to a reading of this novel. Readers can only blame themselves for problems with naming, gendering, or judging, because the narrator/self that they project both is and is not from inside them.
Brand’s writing is perilously sublime, the love stories in Theory so sincere and fleshly that they are hypnotic. At times, Brand must work to remind the reader to be suspicious of the narcissistic narrator—for example, by having the narrator express satisfaction at the death of a supervisor who might present obstacles to their success, or by having the narrator acknowledge that a fragment of theory just professed is contradictory. And yet, the novel interrogates the self-awareness of the narrator, who thinks constantly and simultaneously about the enmeshment of life and theory, about specific and valued bodies and their conditions, and about capitalism and its shadows, always in a mode of non-reconciliation, of intimate compartmentalization. Our unreliable narrator is not humanized by the story; they are human start to finish, historically situated, a product of economies, capacities, and experience, vulnerable and privileged, and worthy of compassionate critical examination—just like their unreliable readers.
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