Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Remember those days, long before your teachers ever asked you to write about literature, long before you ever read a review, long before that whole critical apparatus struck up in your brain, when a book was simply an experience that grabbed you, took you over emotionally and bodily, so you came out at the end drenched in its world, not thinking but feeling, a bit changed and simply better for having read it? Well, that's what All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber) has done for me, a confessedly autobiographical novel about the suicide of a father and sister, conveying a passionate sorrow yet bouncing throughout with wisecracking wit. I have no doubt that it's absolutely brilliant, but I don't want to start thinking about why, don't want to have to detach myself in that way and turn into an object for examination something I think of as an experience through which I laughed out loud while simultaneously tears ran down my cheeks and into my lap.

And I'm not sure I could say why it's so brilliant: there's a kind of alchemy in the way Toews melds tragedy and comedy as messed-up narrator Yoli (Yolandi) visits her hospitalised elder sister Elf (Elfrieda), a beautiful and brilliantly successful pianist who yet has tried to take her own life as their father did before her, and as Yoli struggles to give her sister the will to live and looks into their Mennonite childhood for the sources of her depression.

And I'm not sure taking the novel apart helps, or even quoting from it although I long to: perhaps it's better to tell you that when I sat reading it (snuffling and dabbing and nose-blowing and cracking out laughing) and gulped out hilarious bits to my partner he looked at me with stony-faced puzzlement, but that when he then read the book he too was laughing out loud (and shedding secretive tears). It's the very tragic context in which the sometimes wild, sometimes deadpan wit occurs that gives its punch, socking a life-affirming shock amidst the sorrow; and there's a two-way current: the affirmation throws into greater relief the heartbreaking situation and Elfie's denial of life (well, OK, maybe I am thinking about how it works now). It's a truly poignant doubleness that is summed up thus as Yoli sits talking to her cousin Sheila, whose sister Leni also committed suicide:
...Sheila and I sat on her bed and talked about our sisters, Leni and Elf, and their unfathomable sadness, and about our mothers, Lottie and Tina, and their perpetual optimism.
It's Toews' voice and way of looking at the world that rip through the tragedy, finding an aching hilarity and saving humanity and community in the midst of the direst situations. As the grieving and desperate Yoli and her mother fly to the funeral of a dear aunt (who has gone and died in the midst of it all) and discuss how they can save Elf, the following hilarious situation arises:
Then a man in the aisle began to complain that somebody's kid had bit him in the ass when he'd stood up to get something from the overhead bin. It was true, I'd seen it, a three-year-old was marching up and down the aisles, bored out of her mind, and suddenly came face to ass with the guy and just opened her mouth wide, chomp, and the guy screamed, he hadn't known what hit/bit him and the little girl stood there with her arms folded across her chest while her mother apologized profusely in a posh British accent, ordering the kid to say she was sorry. I won't, insisted the little girl, also with a lovely accent, and the mother said you will and the girl said I won't, you will, I won't. Finally the guy whom she'd bitten said it really wasn't a big deal, just a big surprise, that's all, and let's be done with it. But the mother was relentless, kept insisting that her kid apologize, you will, you absolutely will, until a whole bunch of people from seats 14A to 26C all yelled out she won't!
OK, I'm quoting now, but hey, read the book and get the full force of that in its context.

Yoli keeps looking for answers. Is it some chemical imbalance in Elf's brain? she wonders, plumbing the medical staff for reasons. Is it their family history within a repressive Mennonite community? Is it the tragedy of that community's history? Yolis' grandfather, she tells us, survived a massacre in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 by hiding in a manure pile and was then sent  with other Mennonite survivors to Canada.
When my mother went to university to become a therapist she learned that suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next to the next, like flexibility or grace or dyslexia. My grandfather had big green eyes [as does Elf], and dimly lit scenes of slaughter, blood on snow, played out behind them all the time, even when he smiled.
'Are Mennonites a depressed people,' Yoli asks, 'or is it just us?' She doesn't alight on an answer, but the book (OK, now I'm thinking about it) moves towards one. It begins with an image of the house Yoli's father built with his own hands being towed away due to pressures from the Mennonite community, after which he spends the rest of his life sitting in his new house staring across at the empty space left behind. Loss of home and cohesive community are at the root of it all, and the motif keeps recurring. 'I'd like to take Elf back to Toronto,' she says:
I'd like for us all, my mother, my sister, my kids, Nic [Elf's devoted husband], Julie [Yoli's best friend and cousin], her kids - even Dan and Finbar and Radek [Yoli's exes and/or on-off partners] - to live in a tiny isolated community in a remote part of the world where all we have to look at is each other and we are only ever a few metres apart. It would be like an old Mennonite community in Siberia but with happiness.
Another patient on the psychiatric ward tightly clutches her handbag which carries only her house key, warning people not to steal it from her, unknowing or denying that her son has sold her house behind her back. An image too of beleaguered pioneers recurs. 'Our platoon had taken another unexpected hit,' Yoli says at one tragic moment, and when the worst finally happens: 'It was time to circle our wagons. We've lost half our men and supplies are dwindling and winter is coming', and the novel ends with a positive assertion of home and community.

Yoli's life is a mess, her humour is sometimes wild, and the prose moves at breakneck speed. But there is nothing slapdash or uncontrolled about this book. It's acutely structured and every word counts. The survivors in Yoli's family survive through that pioneering spirit and the saving grace of language and wit. This novel, with its mordant and skewering wit, is indeed a triumphant circling of the wagons.
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