Complicated Kindness — Miriam
this is a wonderful, lovable, hilarious, brilliant novel.
version: it triggered an essay’s worth of reflection and exposition.
that’s a classic “good news/bad news” situation — that
will depend on the reader. For myself, all I ask is give me the good
friend David Mills gave me A Complicated Kindness for
Christmas, 2004, and when I finally got around to reading it, I wrote
to David: “It’s so, so good, and illustrates a concept
I’ve been considering lately. In fact, it’s a perfect
example of that concept — the idea of misery rendered into art,
rather than simply rendered.”
distinction was much on my mind around that time. I had just read
one of those “memoirs of a horribly dysfunctional family” that
are so wildly popular these days, and I had been disappointed. I
was trying to figure out why. After reading A Complicated Kindness, I
thought, “this is
why, because this is the way it ought to
I was visiting my parents’ house in Canada a while back, I
noticed a “Bizarro” cartoon on their fridge, sent to
them by brother Danny, who had also sent me a copy.
young woman sits behind a book-signing table with a sign that reads: “Meet
the author of My Miserable Life.” An
older couple stands in front of her, the woman saying, “LOOK,
WE’RE SORRY! IF
WE’D KNOWN YOU WERE GOING TO BE A WRITER,
WE’D HAVE BEEN A LOT BETTER PARENTS!”
commented on that cartoon in a letter to another friend:
it. And yeah, I realize that I traffic in the same kind of “confessional” writing,
but in considering that seeming contradiction, it occurred to me
that I don’t really consider my prose writing as “art,” not
the way I do drumming or lyric writing. The prose writing is more
really, simple reporting, while in those other activities I have
to transcend my
experiences, thoughts, and emotions and distill them to another level
I know. But I hope you understand that I’m doing what I often
do when I’m working something out in my head — “thinking
over your ass!
about that. Yesterday I was writing to a new friend who is an author
(Mike Heppner, reviewed in the most recent Bubba’s Book Club — he
wrote to tell me how much he appreciated that review, and we’ve
started trading letters. He was very appreciative about Roadshow,
I’m proud to say).
wrote back to him: “I have wanted so much to respond to your
review of Roadshow,
but wanted to take the time to write what I wanted to say (there’s
a useful concept! ‘to write what I wanted to say’).”
that’s the first long
version of a realization I came to after reading A Complicated
Kindness. But wait — there’s
more. Part of that letter to novelist Mike Heppner had taken the
analysis deeper. I was writing to him about that same subject — the
current popularity of memoirs about dysfunctional lives, including
the discredited one that ought to have been called A Million
Little LIES. (Considering
myself to be a writer of nonfiction who expects to be believed,
a guy like that ruins it for the rest of us — yet people are
apparently still buying and reading his book).
comment was about that other runaway bestseller I had recently read,
and hadn’t liked very much.
didn’t feel any sense of value from
the reading experience, or much entertainment either.
thought about why . . .
decided that, to me, a dysfunctional life is not art,
in and of itself. (Farthest thing from it, really.) Of course such
experiences can be rendered into art,
and have been a multitude of times, in novels, poetry — and
countless pop songs!
difference is hinted at in my own youthful attempt to define art
(fools rush in). I’ll call it “Bubba’s Theory of
Art is the telling of stories.
Art must transcend its subject.
won’t go into the Aristotelian compression I intended by those
words; I’m sure you can grasp what I was driving at. It’s
in the Second Article of the theorem that purely “confessional” work
leaves me cold (especially the “My Miserable Life” category
of books — I always disliked that kind of song, too). However,
in the case of those books, it isn’t the analytical part that
matters — for me, it’s the unrewarding reading experience.
Like, why bother?
yet . . . I don’t feel that way about travel books. Reading
them is often hugely rewarding, offering entertainment combined with
knowledge and insight about other people and places. Not unlike a
good novel, I suppose — but I rank travel writing closer to
journalism. You’re trying to capture something, not create
difference between invention and reporting is also contained in the
Second Article of Bubba’s Theory — a novel can be “about” many
things, but a good one is so much more than what it’s “about.”
I’m stirring up a stew of banalities.
But let’s get back to A Complicated Kindness. The
story is set in a village in Manitoba, near the U.S. border, which
is populated almost exclusively by Mennonites. An early passage in
the book describing them is quoted in the flap copy (David bought
me a hardcover, but I have bought a few paperback copies for friends,
and I like how these new trade paperbacks have flaps as well). The
narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl, Nomi, whose voice might be described
as “desperately funny.”
Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect
of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years
ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar
religious thing . . .
the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique
of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking,
temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock ’n’ roll,
having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going
to cities or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all
over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
community are not quite “old order” Mennonites, who are
similar to the Amish (or the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, whose
name is actually a corruption of “Deutsch,” German) in
their austerity and rejection of modern technology. The people of
Nomi’s village have accepted electricity and automobiles, but
still maintain a puritanical, highly judgmental closed society. Conformity
is simply expected — even demanded. Too much deviation from “accepted
behavior,” or too much questioning of the church’s teachings
can be punished by “shunning” — a vicious sentence
of social excommunication where the “condemned” becomes
effectively dead to the people around him or her, even their loved
ones. No contact of any kind is allowed. For example, if a wife so
much as acknowledges her shunned husband in any way, she will be
that stern, repressive background, Nomi tries to cope when the older
sister she worships leaves town, then again when she learns that
her mother has slipped away in the night. Nomi is left with a father
who is kind and loving, but increasingly distracted — he sits
in their front yard for hours in his yellow lawn chair, looking at
the empty highway, only coming in to watch his favorite TV show, “Hymn
her father’s eccentric behavior grows, Nomi discovers that
late at night he has been going out to the town dump and “organizing” it.
He also starts selling off every stick of furniture in the house
they share. Nomi becomes ever more mystified — about her father,
her mother (why did she leave? why didn’t she take her passport?),
her sister, and — more than anything — by her life.
story is laugh-out-loud funny at times; other times wrenchingly sad.
The novel’s “voice” is perfectly pitched, Nomi’s
observations wryly sarcastic and naïvely wise, with a sure and
wicked aim. As I wrote to David Mills
after first reading A Complicated Kindness, “it
was beautiful, funny, and sad. In fact, maybe more superlative — like
gorgeous, hilarious, and heartbreaking.”
Toews (pronounced taves, apparently) grew
up in a small Mennonite town in Manitoba herself, and admits that
some of this story is drawn from her own life. However, rather than
simply tell that story, she has used it to inform her art within
a frame she has created to fit it.
deliberately fragments time, presenting episodes in a non-linear,
disconnected series — the way they might be considered, or
processed, by a bright sixteen-year-old struggling to understand
everything. She is also able to render all dialogue without quotation
marks, which is a technical accomplishment worthy of note, but it’s
the substance of
her story that demands admiration.
its light touch in portraying a deliberate analysis of religious
fundamentalism. There is also tenderness in the portrait of the Mennonite
community, as in the passage that gives the story its title.
there is kindness here, a complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes
in the eyes of people when they look at you and don’t know
what to say. When they ask how my dad is, for instance, and mean
how am I managing without my mother.
novel also represents the finer edge of another much-generalized
type: memoirs, or fictionalized memoirs, written by women. Sometimes
disparaged as “chick lit” (my wife, Carrie, sniffs at
that, “You never hear about ‘dick lit,’” but
in fact you do — it just tends to have more pictures!), it’s
true that a certain lowest-common-denominator formula has spread
a wide, shallow net — but only to meet its audience, as in
pop music and so-called “reality television.” What writers
write is not nearly as important as what readers read. (And ditto
with music.) It would be a shame if great books were to be lumped
in with the dross, of course, but I don’t think we’ll
see, say, George Eliot, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, or Joan Didion
filed under “chick lit.” Or Miriam Toews.
even if the general run of such books amounts to little more than
a plastic tiara, there are still some real jewels among the paste.
have appreciated a couple of other fairly recent books that might
get generalized that way, memoirs that were written as nonfiction,
yet transcended mere reality by rendering their stories into true
art: Too Close to the Falls, by
Catherine Gildiner, and Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, by
Susan Jane Gilman. Both were written by women recounting their journey
out of girlhood, and they are rich and enjoyable, often funny, but
with a depth of description and reflection that makes a rewarding
the fiction side, and on the lighter side, I also enjoyed The
Starter Wife, by
California’s own Gigi Levangier Grazer. Perhaps the personal
appeal of this novel was heightened by my living among the same people
and places she lampoons so effectively — with clear-eyed malice
tinged with affection, not unlike the way Nomi looks at her community — but
it was a good story well told.
didn’t feel that way about those “My Miserable Life” books.
now that I’ve stretched all the way from dysfunctional memoirs
to chick lit in the course of describing this one little book, I’ll
state the obvious — I highly recommend A Complicated Kindness.