Toews, Miriam: All My Puny Sorrows

Courtesy of Knopf Canada

Courtesy of Knopf Canada

Toews, Miriam
All My Puny Sorrows
Knopf Canada, 2014
Hardcover, 321 pages

Newsflash:  longlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize!

Much has already been said about Miriam Toews’ latest novel, All My Puny Sorrows — that it is searingly honest, unbearably sad, funny, extraordinarily personal and perhaps, for some,  uncomfortably autobiographical.  All of this is true. It is all of these things but, also, something more.  Toews herself has made no secret of the fact that the book is a direct response to her older sister Marjorie’s recent suicide (2010), and that of her father, twelve years earlier, and that many of the details of the story closely parallel the facts of her own life.  The protagonist of this story, Yolandi Von Riesen, is a struggling writer, from a prairie, Mennonite background, with a school teacher father, and an older sister who is a gifted pianist.  The father, and later the older sister, commit suicide. The writer moves to Toronto to begin a new life there with her mother and daughter. While Toews’ days as a writer struggling for recognition seem safely behind her at this point, the other details of this sketch do apply as equally to Toews as to her protagonist. Some early response to the book has focused on this aspect of the writing, with some quibbling over whether it would be better classified as a memoir.  One is reminded, vaguely, of the swirl of discussion around Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? which was briefly and somewhat controversial for similar reasons.  There is no doubt, as well, that suicide is a dark mystery for most of us and that any book by an insightful writer which provides such an unflinchingly personal, front line account of the phenomenon holds an undeniable and legitimate fascination, in and of itself.  But, to focus only or mostly on the autobiographical nature of the story, and Toews’ courage in writing it, is to forget that Toews is an artist and that the novel is a carefully crafted artistic response.

Yolandi and Elfrieda Von Riesen are two sisters growing up in the conservative Mennonite community of East Village, in the 1970’s, somewhere “just west of the shield” in, presumably, Manitoba.  Their father, Jacob, is an elementary school teacher, an idealistic dreamer with a fondness for books, characteristics which identify him as a misfit in his community, and, therefore, suspicious. Their mother is a quietly subversive Mennonite wife, a hardy survivor with a (somewhat oxymoronically) weak heart, and unsuspected depths.

As if the six-year gulf between Elfrieda (Elf for short) and Yolandi, does not confer enough glamour on the elder sister in the eyes of her adoring sibling, she is also a beautiful, green-eyed sylph, who blossoms into a gifted, world-class pianist with a very successful  international career.  The family’s early years are sketched out quickly, with much warmth, affection, and trademark Toewsian observational humour.  She wrings much hilarity out of Yolandi’s reactions to her conservative Mennonite community, which can perhaps best be described as deadpan disdain. Although, as a result of their non-conformity, they occupy a tenuous and marginal position in this community (who knew there were degrees of excommunication?) the family itself is a cohesive, loving, supportive unit. However, it is clear early on that there are differences between the sisters, and parents, in personality,  emotional pitch and approach to life  to which, knowing what is to come, one is tempted to assign explanatory power. For example,  in one small but revelatory incident, in which a defective camp stove explodes into flames during a family camping expedition, of those present only the young Yolandi thinks to actually try to put the fire out and take practical, if somewhat misguided action in this regard:

… Elfrieda danced around the fire singing “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks, a song about a black sheep saying goodbye to everyone because he’s dying, and our father swore for the first recorded time (What in the Sam Hills!) and stood close to the fire poised to do something but what, what and our mother stood there shaking, laughing, unable to speak. I yelled at my family to move away from the fire, but nobody moved an inch as if they had been placed in their positions by a movie director and the fire was only fake and the scene would be ruined if they moved. Then I grabbed the half-empty Rainbow ice cream pail that was sitting on the picnic table and ran across the field to a communal tap and filled the pail with water and ran back and threw the water onto the flames, which leapt higher then, mingled with the scents of vanilla. chocolate and strawberry, towards the branches of an overhanging poplar tree.

Here, in a tiny, amusing nutshell, is the map of each Von Riesen’s approach to life and its various calamities.

The main narrative soon shifts several decades forward, to the girls’ adult lives.  Elfrieda is now an established artist, financially secure with an adoring husband and lovely home, a radiantly beautiful performer whose artistic authenticity is beyond reproach and whose concerts are considered international happenings, and which leave her audiences transformed. Yolandi, on the other hand, is struggling to become a writer, eking out a subsistence penning young adult rodeo stories while she works on her “real” novel,  which she carts around in a plastic bag and often misplaces. She has two failed relationships behind her and a child from each in tow.  Rather counter intuitively, it is Elfrieda who wants to kill herself.

We meet up with the sisters soon after Elf’s most recent failed attempt to end her life and learn that signs of trouble had surfaced not long after she had moved away as a young adult to study music abroad — bouts of depression from which it took her months to recover, and a previous attempt to starve herself.  As well, we learn that Jacob, the father, has, in the interim, ended his own life by placing himself in the path of a train. The bulk of the story plays itself out in the excruciating period between this latest, and more aggressive overdose attempt by Elfrieda, and her eventual successful suicide. During this time, Toews takes a very intense and unavoidably personal look at the big questions which surround suicide — the essential betrayal of life and of love that it represents, the limits to which sibling love and responsibility can be stretched, the incomprehensibility, to those not afflicted, of the urge itself.  As a result of Elfrieda’s determination to die, the two sisters find themselves in an unwinnable contest over whose needs should take precedence. After Elfrieda’s first attempt to starve herself, which Yolandi was instrumental in foiling, there is the following exchange between the sisters:

Yoli she said, I hate you.

I bent to kiss her and whispered that I knew that, I was aware of it. I hate you too, I said.

As Yolandi explains,

It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem.   She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.

We feel Yolandi (the water fetcher’s) frustration with her fierce, brilliant, beautiful sister’s inability to make even the smallest, most mundane practical efforts towards self-preservation.  After Elf has explained that even though she used  “love,” as a mantra, the word itself depressed her, Yolandi’s irritation boils over:

Look, I said, then just stop saying”love” over and over, okay? Just don’t do it. But Yoli, you don’t understand, she said.  You can’t understand. Which wasn’t true, entirely.  I understand that if you say a certain word over and over and it begins to make you feel bad then you should goddamn stop saying that word. Why do we keep having these exasperating conversations? I would ask.

As Elfrieda’s efforts to die become more determined and active, Yolandi’s frustration evolves into something akin to panic, as she begins to intuit that neither reason nor love may be enough to save her sister and she is forced to explore the tricky conundrum of how to distinguish love from self interest.  Can Elfrieda truly love her sister if she fervently wishes to leave her?  If Yolandi truly loves Elfrieda, can she ask her to live on, in anguish?  When Elfrieda begs Yolandi, in the name of sisterly love, to help her travel to Switzerland for an assisted suicide is she being repellently, narcissistically  manipulative, or is Yolandi selfish to resist? Only Toews could find the funny in this — with the hapless Yolandi texting a sort-of, sometimes, maybe (now probably not) lawyer boyfriend in Toronto for information about the complexities of killing one’s sister.

Yolandi’s continued efforts to keep her sister alive, and support her mother, to manage frequent trips from Toronto to Winnipeg,  often on an emergency basis, while organizing the supervision of her two children, trying to work and keep her own life together, inevitably exhaust her, and she is forced to consider another essential question: when is it permissible to cut and run, to stop fighting the inevitable, to bow to her sister’s implacable will? This is, perhaps too raw a question to approach directly, but it surfaces in a family conversation about a Jack London story, in which a dog, eventually abandons its master to his frozen fate, perhaps to try to find help, perhaps in a bid for its own survival. It also dangles in the air when Elf, in a calculated move, declares she is better, ready to leave the hospital, prepare for a performance tour, think about moving to Paris with her husband, in short, make healthy, life- affirming plans.  Neither Yoli nor her mother believe her. As Yoli describes it:

If ever there was a delayed reaction for the ages this is it, a vast, forlorn space like the Badlands, a no man’s land, universes between her words and my mother’s and my response.  My mother and my sister smile at each other like it’s a contest and I freeze.


Really? I say. Paris? That’s so great Elfie. I can’t believe it.

Capitulation to the inevitable begins to take shape in that “vast and forlorn,” space in which Yoli and her mother try to navigate the complexities of love, faith, hope, despair, and Elfrieda’s right to self-agency, and respect.

So, All My Puny Sorrows is, indeed, nuanced, unblinking, courageous and minutely observed reportage from the front lines of the suicide experience, which somehow manages to be funny too. However, as alluded to earlier, it is more than merely courageous reporting.  The blog format is neither large nor deep enough for me to explore the number of ways in which I admire Toews writing but a few aspects of it, apropos All My Puny Sorrows, demand discussion.

First is her ability to express her idiosyncratic tragicomic sensibilities in her images, and to enfold hugely complex ideas into a scene which allows the reader to understand emotionally, almost instantaneously, what might otherwise take some time to articulate, — precious time during which impact dissipates.  Examples are legion. Consider this early instance, where Toews is giving the reader a sense of  the family ethos —  which includes an “extreme hostility to the entire health network.”

When my mother had her lawn mower accident and was lying there in the grass next to two of her toes and the paramedics leapt out of their ambulance and ran over to her she looked at them and said what on earth are you guys doing here?

Visceral abhorrence of disconnected body parts competes ferociously here, with the cuteness of toes, and the overall absurd hilarity of the scene.

Another memorable All My Puny Sorrows image is this description of one of Yolandi’s most anguished moments, as she tries to find her way (another layer of nuance) to a restaurant rendezvous with family. She tries to reason her way through the problem of defining the limits of sisterly love and its attendant responsibilities, vis-a-vis Elf’s request that she help her kill herself:

I closed my eyes and tried to think. What is love? How do I love her? I was gripping the steering wheel the way my father used to, like he was towing a newly discovered planet behind him, one that held the secrets to the universe.

The fragility of the thread that connects us to our world, the excruciating import of right thinking in this critical moment, the sense of being lost in the universe, the weight of the problem, gently funny childhood nostalgia, hope —  all effortlessly inter-fuse in this one  image.

Finally, one must consider Toews opening scene — a simultaneous beginning and ending.

Our house was taken away on the back of a truck one afternoon late in the summer of 1979.  My parents and my older sister and I stood in the middle of the street and watched it disappear, a low-slung bungalow made of wood and brick and plaster slowly making its way down First Street, past the A&W and the Deluxe Bowling Lanes and out onto the number twelve highway, where we eventually  lost sight of it. I can still see it, said my sister Elfrieda repeatedly, until finally she couldn’t. I can still see it. I can still see it. I can still … Okay, nope, it’s gone, she said.

The house was moved after the property was sold to an expanding local business. No one in the family knows its ultimate destination. Before the story has even begun, it is clear that life, as the Von Riesen’s have known it, is over, gradually receding into the distance until it is swallowed by the horizon of time and memory.

There is something vast and glacial about this novel. A sense of implacable fate or time (perhaps they are the same thing) which will unfold, regardless — and against which resistance is futile — blows through it like a lonely wind. As Yolandi comes to understand, to her initial confusion and dismay,  there is no reasoning with what will be. Neither is love an effective antidote. In the foreground this manifests as the here and now story of Elfrieda’s ferocious, relentless determination to die in the face of commanding evidence of the joy and beauty life offers, and the devastation her action will wreak. Rustling and murmuring in the background, however, are the allusions, ideas, and images which place this personal story in the context of infinite time.  Heaven knows, Toews wears her erudition lightly, but it is there, informing and shaping the affect of the story. The spirit of Heidegger (who is referenced specifically, as are Hume, Thomas Aquinas, Dylan Thomas, Shelley, Northrop Frye, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and D.H. Lawrence, among others) permeates the novel, and, indeed, the title of Heidegger’s seminal work, Being and Time,  provides a neat precis of significant motifs.

The key to this novel is a sense of scale — the comparative scale of a human life (the “dasein” (being of a human) as Heidegger would have it) when set against nature and time.  The first indication of this comes, of course, in the title,  All My Puny Sorrows — an allusion to a poem by a young Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who lost his father, early in life, and subsequently, several siblings) written to console a colleague (Charles Lamb) whose own sister was ill.  The key word is “puny.” As a child, the always intense Elfrieda had incorporated this line into a personal symbol — AMPS, with the “S” theatrically enlarged, and although she originally intended to leave her mark on East Village by spray painting it in gigantic red letters on the town’s water tower, she eventually had to content herself with less exalted locations. The puny scope of one individual’s existence is cleverly set against what Canadian poet and man of letters Don McKay would call “deep time,” by the fact that Elfrieda’s original inspiration came from a family road trip which included a stop to see ancient pictographs on the rocky shores of Lake Superior. Significantly, Elf is the only one who braves the dangerous, slippery rocks and manages to actually view these messages from the past and be inspired “by their impermeability and their mixed message of hope, reverence, defiance and eternal aloneness.”  What did she see there and how could one so intent on oblivion be so driven, paradoxically, to leave lasting evidence of her existence?

This sense of individual being juxtaposed against the reach of time, and the presence of forces beyond our ken, is buttressed with numerous references to implacable nature. The last critical period of Elfrieda’s life plays out, in part, against the ice break up on the river, it’s creak and grind the omnipresent soundtrack to the family crisis. Mention is made of the “unforgiving” Canadian Shield, and solar eclipses, and, again, on that fateful road trip, Elfrieda and her father attend campground lectures on the black-footed ferret and dark matter, or as Yoli describes it “invisible forces and extinction.” Perhaps most powerful is an early image of the doomed Elfrieda silhouetted in evening light against a backdrop of the Badlands of South Dakota.

The problem of time, and our imperfect understanding of it surfaces continuously in the story. Elfrieda, in particular, has issues with time.  In the eternal way of the young, she is incensed with the idea of “telling time” insisting, haughtily, that “that’s a fascist arrangement of a thing — time — that’s naturally and importantly outside the realm of categorization or even definition.”  Yolandi and Elfrieda’s agent have an encounter, while visiting Elf in the hospital, with an elderly patient, who clutches a clock and demands to be told the time, although it is far from clear that she can comprehend the answer. When Nic, Elf’s husband and Yolandi make a hasty visit to the basement, to confer secretly about Elf’s home care, Yolandi, spots a single book lying (randomly?)  in the middle of the floor:  The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. As well, (via Heidegger) time presents a potential sign post to the meaning of existence — a big preoccupation for Yolandi, after her sister and father have died. The subtext here is that the length (measurement) of a life is inconsequential — how can it be anything else when placed in the context of all of time? What may be more important is the depth of the experience, the mark one leaves in the universe.

When Yolandi is not busy trying to fathom the meaning of life, she is still faced with the problem of navigating her own.  It is safe to say, I think, that when Toews needs to work through something important, she looks to literature for help.  Fittingly, it is to literature that Elf directs her sister for advice about how to deal with her impending departure, and that of her father before.  In her affectionate, exasperatingly superior way, Elfrieda has chided her younger sister for not having read widely enough — one particular instance being D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. When Yolandi does investigate the work, she finds in the opening paragraph (as I’m sure Toews did) a recipe for survival:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.  The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes.  It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

“The meaning of life and all that jazz” to quote Toews from an earlier post remains as enigmatic at the conclusion of the story as it was at the beginning, is, perhaps, even more so.  Toews has, however, provided us with a wider window through which to view the mystery.

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