Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: What We All Long For, by Dionne Brand

There is a long tradition in novels of treating cities not only as settings for plot but actual characters that play an irreducible role in the story. Dickens did it with London; Joyce did it with Dublin; numerous (perhaps too many) writers have done it with New York City. Dionne Brand, darling of the Toronto writing scene for many years, attempts to do it in this 2005 novel What We All Long For, a book obsessed with the polyphonic pulses of Canada’s largest urban area. But can Toronto—with its wide but shallow roots, with a multiculturalism so inexorable and yet so very, very siloed—achieve enough staticity to actually become a character? It’s a conundrum that Brand’s novel struggles with, and it is within that struggle that the book accomplishes both its beauty and its frustrations.

Brand is best known as a poet (see my review of her most recent collection, Ossuaries) but in What We All Long For she displays a deftness for the structured arc of prose and the shadings needed to create believable characters. The book’s two protagonists are neighbours in a rundown apartment building on College Street: Tuyen is a young gay installation artist whose family fled Vietnam in the 1970s; Carla is a black, relatively asexual companion of hers whose family has been torn apart by infidelity, suicide and crime. What unites these girls’ narrative trajectory is an issue with their respective brothers: Tuyen’s is a boy named Quy who got lost during the madness of her family’s flee from Vietnam and grows up in the Thai underworld; Carla’s is a young thug named Jamal (the best drawn character, incidentally, in the whole novel: Brand captures his irrational, immoral inner world with frightening verisimilitude) doing time in a Toronto prison. And how these two brothers’ stories will intersect at the novel’s climax drives the majority of the book’s narrative.

And this intersection, however improbable, makes What We All Long For worth reading. But the joys of this book are often undone by its predictable and reflexive politicizing, by its hackneyed ruminations on multiculturalism, ethnicity and “the immigrant experience.” These have become the staple preoccupations of Canadian literature’s long and protracted adolescence, and Brand does nothing to move these concerns to where they belong—in the subtext, in the undercurrents of a work for which the primary concern is plot. What’s more, these emphases lend an unintentional focus, not only on Tuyen and Carla’s immaturity but also on the possibly shaky morality of the novel itself.

Example: Early in the book, there is a flashback scene of the girls in school with their friends that turns into a clichéd rant against the inherent ‘Eurocentrism’ of their curricula. The girls feel excluded from school, marginalized, forced to study things that have nothing to do with their world; and yet despite this history of perceived prejudice against them based on their ethnicity, they are not afraid to unleash a little prejudice of their own. Here’s a snapshot of Carla’s mental world years later, on her bike as he heads home after visiting Jamal in jail:

She hurtled through the upscale region of High Park, the old British-style houses. The people who must inhabit these with their neat little lives made her sicker to her stomach than usual because she’d just left her brother … The trees held nothing. The manicured circle of flowers, the false oasis of the park, only made her sicker.

There are many times when Carla engaged me as a protagonist, but scenes like this really ripped my sympathies away from her, transforming her into an unpalatably naïve character through whose eyes I did not wish to view the world. (Tuyen has similar moments of prejudicial indiscretion. She aims most of her animus, impulsively, at the Toronto neighbourhood of Richmond Hill where her parents have settled. For two girls living in the prismatic cauldron of downtown Toronto, they really do have a black and white way of looking at things.)

Carla has a similar moment later in the novel. She confronts her father Derek in arguably the book’s most powerful scene, blaming him for her mother’s suicide and failing to guide Jamal toward a better life. This altercation is gut-wrenching, especially since Brand does such a magnificent job showing how far apart Derek’s view on this family history is from Carla’s. Yet the power and significance of this scene is undermined by what happens as Carla, hysterical with rage, leaves Derek’s house:

Outside on the sidewalk she searched her jeans for her keys. The shiny black Audi sat at the curb. Beginning at the closest tail light she scored the skin of the car all the way square to the far tail light. “Fucking prick!” she yelled at the house. An old neighbour digging up his spring garden looked at her, surprised. He and her father used to come outside on Saturdays in the summer and polish their cars together. “What are you looking at, asshole?” she screamed at him.

I have no issue with her keying Derek’s car, but does she have to rip the old guy next door a new one? This knee-jerk reaction, much like her scene hating rich people as she bikes through High Park, defuses any emotional connection we have with her. The fact that she verbally assaults the neighbour lends a morally questionable undercurrent to the scene, one that can be found scattered throughout What We All Long For: a justification for a victim to become, in turn, a victimizer. These moments are allowed to stand without nuance, without transcendent shading from (presumably Brand’s) narrative voice.

This lack of nuance butts up against the novel’s greater agenda, which is to be a messy, multidimensional love letter to the messy, multidimensional city of Toronto, at least as Brand perceives it. In this effort, she succeeds in many places and fails in others. I loved, for example, the way she captures Koreatown during the World Cup fervor of 2002 (where the main action of the novel is set), the sheer energy of that moment. I loved how she reveals that much of Toronto’s multiculturalism is merely, as Doug Saunders recently put it, “a diversity of isolated islands” with not nearly enough cross-pollination between them. But there are rote observations as well, especially of life downtown—this idea that everyone’s an artist, everyone lives in lofts, nobody actually works very much for their living, etc. All this belies the reality of what it’s actually like to try and survive in this large and largely hardhearted downtown core.

But if we can scrape enough of Brand’s municipal boosterism out of the way, what we find underneath is an emotionally powerful and skillfully paced novel about familial bonds about to be strained to their limits. The interstitial scenes of Quy coming of age in the Thai and Malaysian underworld are exquisitely rendered. The corresponding scenes of his family struggling to locate and be reunited with him will break your heart. Carla’s attempts to connect with Jamal despite his criminal leanings are singularly devastating. And how all of these threads coalesce into the novel’s violent climax is well-earned.

Indeed, so much of What We All Long For works very, very well. But it would have worked even better had the whole Toronto-as-a-character approach—and its concomitant rants about the city’s patchwork identities—not been placed so clumsily, so predictably, in the foreground.

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