Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tell me, what do we all long for?

If there's one thing that gets my guaranteed goat, it's generalizations. I aspire to become my high school english teacher, who would cover essays with cryptic abbreviations such as "RG," for "rash generalization." No crime was worse, in her eyes, than presuming on the seasoning of sauce for both goose and gander. This is why I ignore prize lists, bestsellers and other people's recommendations, boiling my own sauce out of weirdness such as Women & Sufism and film theory, which no-one really reads for fun. While the novel has to brave - must, even - an attempt at the general, it has always struck me that poetry is an art of the specific. Which is why, when poets turn to prose narrative, their novels tend to have the charm of the particular, the minute and the perverse. And which is also why I am so astonished by the badness of Dionne Brand's latest, What We All Long For.
In fairness, I should have seen it coming. Everyone on the planet - including some who write for the New York Times - think it's the greatest book ever. Rave reviews have raved late into the night. I have handsold a dozen or more copies based on other people's gushing adoration. But something wasn't right... I put the book on hold at the library when it first came out, and then didn't even buy it when it appeared in paperback a year later, even though I was still fifty-seventh in a list of four hundred and twenty. I just knew it would suck.
Now, don't get me wrong - I love Brand's work. I have taught In Another Place Not Here, and own several volumes of her poetry. But something about how reviewers kept talking about how her new book was so "real," how it captured the spirit of the city, how it told the truth (because there is only one) about the immigrant experience in Canada, about racism, whatever - that's a government report, not a novel. Other people might read to see themselves reflected, to see the blinding truth but - that's the blinding obvious, duh!
I read to be surprised by things I didn't know (I knew), to be astonished by a detail or description so hallucinatory it couldn't possibly be for real. Not for wisdom, but for enchantment. Not for dialogue that sounds as if it were copied from an anti-racism education workbook, but for the incredible but true ways in which we sometimes speak without thinking, or think without speaking. Insight doesn't stick to the surface. It doesn't say "somehow" (I counted a dozen somehows in 5 pages) - it knows how. It never repeats itself, except when it means to.
But (unlike Brand) I don't generalise. Perhaps this is the book that others have longed for, and I respect their longing. But I wonder at the arrogance of that "all" and those it excludes, and the vagueness of its promise (what do we all long for? belonging, I surmise from 100 pages). I long for the specificity of an author who once longed to make something new, not mis-reproduce memories of eavesdropped streetcar chatter, not tell me things I already know.

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