Dionne Brand’s most recent book, Theory, is one of those novels that does what it sets out to do absolutely perfectly; but what it sets out to do isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s written in a self-referential discourse that is bitingly authentic to arts and humanities academia, so much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone without that background being interested in the book at all. (As you can see what with my use of the word discourse, I’m slipping back into my academic jargon already). Theory is almost two years old at this point but I can’t imagine it being irrelevant anytime soon. At least in its niche market, I imagine it will become an important text. How meta would it be to study this book in a post-secondary classroom or in a university professor’s research, this book which is about both of those things?
For those readers who are plot-centred, it might feel like a stretch to call Theory a novel at all. The book is all character study. Told in the first person from an unnamed academic narrator (likely a Black woman or afab person—but deliberately ambiguous), Theory chronicle their life’s important love affairs. Although they certainly have a lot to say about the women themselves, a lot of the focus is on how the lovers interrupt and fuel the narrator’s decade-long dissertation project. You see, “Teoria,” as one lover calls the narrator, is one of those PhD students who finds it hard to do anything but work on their thesis, while at the same time seeming to never make any progress in actually finishing it. At one point they say:
My distractions seem more compelling than the dissertation. Why is it that the mind can be caught up so heavily in feeling? We have been taught that the mind can be marshalled and feeling can be sublimated, but this, I swear, is false. Feeling is more compelling and insistent than what we call ‘ideas’. Understandably, this is my own theory. No citation. Just self-diagnosis
Teoria is an amusing and unreliable narrator. Most of the time, they are hilariously lacking in self-awareness. They grumble about the troubles of their life with no understanding of their own role in creating them. They seem incapable of recognizing that the gigantic scope of their PhD project may have something to do with the reason they are unable to finish. But occasionally, at others times, Teoria shares thoughts such as “The problem with not having a lover is that there is no distraction from the person I am… There’s no one to fix, in other words, except me.”
There’s a certain cheekiness to the portrayal of Teoria. (Thank god for that nickname so that I have something to call them). It’s like you can feel Brand the author behind the character having a hell of a lot of fun. Brand has held a number of different academic positions; she’s currently Professor of English at the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. She’s obviously intimately familiar with the academic world. It’s not even worth saying that she’s beyond qualified as a teacher, writer, artist, and academic. But she doesn’t actually have a PhD. Because she also never finished her dissertation! (I’m gleaming this from the author bio in one of her older novels). Anyway, this bit of side knowledge just fills me with glee in relation to this novel’s protagonist who is also ABD (all but dissertation).
If the names Althusser and Fanon and the terms like Lacanian feminist aren’t familiar to you, you may won’t get much from Theory. It even has footnotes for goodness’s sake! But for anyone with a background in humanities or arts academia, Theory is fascinating, funny, and thought-provoking. It made me laugh out loud a few times, and certain lines had me stop to think and let my mind ponder a train of thought. Teoria is both very smart and not very smart at the same time. But they may, as the narrator of Theory, have just written a dissertation on love and relationships.