Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: Brother Dumb by Sky Gilbert

Sky Gilbert
Brother Dumb

Published by ECW Press

Reviewed by Michael Allen Potter


Can you trust the voice of an author who never actually wrote anything as he ruminates on the peaks and valleys of his own literary career? And what can be made of a man looking back on a life (not lived, mind you) in an autobiography? Brother Dumb asks these questions, and many more, in the course of its 207 pages as it intentionally challenges and actively engages the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, author and character, memoir and extended monologue.

“Just a quick style note. (You might not think that I’m paying attention to style, but I am.) I know it seems weird – and it will become even weirder – that I don’t refer to anyone by their actual names, including myself. (I go on about “my daughter” or “critics” anonymously, but when it comes to the women in my life, I’ve changed their names – to protect the innocent.) Also, I’m not going to quote from my books. In a way this doesn’t make sense, I know. It’s not as if you can’t figure out who I am. But all this is related to the way my brain works. I need the illusion of privacy. Which brings me to why I would even write this. It’s the kind of book I should never have written, that I promised never to write. But certain incidents – horrible, nightmarish incidents – have force my hand. And also, if I were to use real names, it wouldn’t seem like fiction. Sure, it’s all true, but it’s important for me not to think it’s true. The best type of writing is when the author is trying to fool himself that what his writing is a lie.” (p. 29)

Gilbert holds the University Research Chair in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at The University of Guelph and has been a driving force on the Toronto queer theatre scene as an actor, playwright, and director for decades. This dramatic background is quite evident in the pages of Brother Dumb as Gilbert’s unnamed narrator makes so few forays into actual dialogue in the course of a reminiscence about a life lived most vibrantly in the years on either side of World War II that the narrative quickly coalesces into an almost singular rant against the whole of humanity itself (with the occasional direct address thrown into the mix to vary the POV, ever so slightly). Highlights on this misanthropic hit list include (but are by no means limited to): other writers (“the arts attracts the worst class of people. By that I mean the lazy liars, the unabashed hypocrites, the gossiping guttersnipes” (p. 25)), jazz (“I really do think that the whole thing is bogus” (p. 4)), and parties (“God, I hate parties”(p. 34)). This Salingeresque character, however, reserves his most potent bile and invective for the “crapulent dolt[s]” (p. 18) who engage in the literary criticism that forced him into the exile that is laid out, at length, in the pages of this book. “Since I couldn’t detach myself from reviewers – the stupid, fatuous crap they spew to feed their own egos – there was nothing to do but abandon the act of putting my work before them.” (p. 118)

The vehemence of this last sentence begs the obvious question: “Why would you (meaning me) even consider reviewing Brother Dumb?” Because this type of difficult-to-categorize literary pranksterism thrills me in a way that straight fiction and conventional autobiography often do not and because this hybrid genre, alternately discussed as fictoir, memtion, autolieography, and (this is my favorite) Freyction, reminds us that creative writing is still an art form that is meant to be appreciated for all of its thought provoking, controversial, antagonistic, unreliable, and deliciously vague potential.

And because “I distrust the whole idea of authenticity, actually – I think it’s very inauthentic.” (p. 134)


Michael Allen Potter holds degrees in English and Theatre Arts and is currently a graduate student in The Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa where he is completing a book about identity theft in New York State. Michael can be contacted via his new blog: I, Cartographer.

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