ISSUE 6 — October, 2006
A Complicated Kindness — Miriam Toews
Short version: this is a wonderful, lovable, hilarious, brilliant novel.
Long version: it triggered an essay’s worth of reflection and exposition.
Perhaps 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 news first.
My 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.”
That 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 be done.”
When 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.
A 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!”
I commented on that cartoon in a letter to another friend:
Love 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 like journalism, really, simple reporting, while in those other activities I have to transcend my experiences, thoughts, and emotions and distill them to another level of expression.
Hoity-toity, 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 out loud.”
All over your ass!
Sorry 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).
I 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’).”
Anyway, 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).
This comment was about that other runaway bestseller I had recently read, and hadn’t liked very much.
I didn’t feel any sense of value from the reading experience, or much entertainment either.
I thought about why . . .
I 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!
The difference is hinted at in my own youthful attempt to define art (fools rush in). I’ll call it “Bubba’s Theory of Art.”
1/ Art is the telling of stories.
2/ Art must transcend its subject.
I 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?
And 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 it.
The 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.”
Perhaps I’m stirring up a stew of banalities.
Perhaps. 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.”
We’re 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 . . .
Imagine 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.
Nomi’s 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 shunned, too.
Against 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 Sing.”
As 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.
Nomi’s 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.”
Miriam 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.
She 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.
And 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.
But 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.
This 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.
And 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.
I 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 read.
On 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.
I didn’t feel that way about those “My Miserable Life” books.
And 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.