Please go read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews right now. I realize the publisher’s summary doesn’t necessarily sound universally appealing, but I’ve decided it is a Necessary Book. I’ve been reading it since mid-January, which I suppose means I’ve been living in it, rather than reading to get to the end of it.
I finished it last night, returned it to the library this afternoon, and I’m so sad it’s gone. It’s delightfully written, skillfully characterized, and it will hug and hold you tight. And then it will rip your heart out.
But eventually you’ll laugh about that together, too.
Here are three selections I want to highlight.
The first is probably one of the best things I’ve ever, ever read. To the point where I want to frame it and put it on my bathroom mirror. Keep a copy in my wallet. Memorize it.
Two and three aren’t necessarily representative of the novel as a novel, but they bring up to craft points I thought might be useful to have in your toolkit.
All My Puny Sorrows is narrated by Yoli. She has a sister named Elf, who for most of the book has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. It’s not her first, nor is it her last before the book ends. Yoli’s going through her own shit, too (teenage kids, a divorce, money problems, elderly mother, car trouble), but foremost in her mind is what she desperately wants for her sister:
Imagine a psychiatrist sitting down with a broken human being saying, I am here for you, I am committed to your care, I want to make you feel better, I want to return your joy to you, I don’t know how I will do it but I will find out and then I will apply one hundred percent of my abilities, my training, my compassion and my curiosity to your health–to your well-being, to your joy. I am here for you and I will work very hard to help you. I promise. If I fail it will be my failure, not yours. I am the professional. I am the expert. You are experiencing great pain right now and it is my job and my mission to cure you from your pain. I am absolutely committed to your care. (At this point I could hear Joanna saying Yolandi? Yolandi?) I know you are suffering. I know you are afraid. I love you. I want to cure you and I won’t stop trying to help you. You are my patient. I am your doctor. You are my patient. Imagine a doctor phoning you at all hours of the day and night to tell you that he or she had been reading some new stuff on the subject of whatever and was really excited about how it might help you. Imagine a doctor calling you in an important meeting and saying listen, I’m so sorry to bother you but I’ve been thinking really hard about your problems and I’d like to try something completely new. I need to see you immediately! I’m absolutely committed to your care! I think this might help you. I won’t give up on you. (Toews 176-77)
There’s something a little crazy, a little heightened about this deluge of a passage (it’s immediately preceded by a really wild dream sequence/mental break). And it’s just so powerful to me. Because don’t we all want what Yoli imagines in this passage? That total, wild, impossible commitment? From a doctor here, but from anyone in our lives. Don’t we also want to be that? Toews has built out of words the best possible thing you can imagine and held it steady just long enough to shock her reader with the force of that want. But it’s also crazy. It’s completely unrealistic and recognizing its unrealism. Even in so doing, however, the thing stays, as though it’s so unreal it’s become real. Or shifted real–it’s a reminder of the material potency of impossible things.
What I love about this scene is the jumble of that first paragraph–it captures perfectly this sense of the long, eclectic family dinner, the frenetic pace at which conversation shifts around the table, within one’s own headspace–the non sequiturs, the emotional disjunctures, the sheer cacophony of so many voices. And she does it all without really having to detail any of those sense–it’s all captured in the nouns and the way they fall together on the page. And Toews takes that a step further when she then transitions into this long paragraph about a Jack London short story.
Now, I’m of the opinion that this sort of overt intertextuality usually doesn’t work that well. Actually, that’s too kind. I usually hate it. But here, perhaps because of the randomness of the chosen text, it does seem randomly appropriate, natural in that way. I like the way Toews’ clarity of characterization comes through even in the narrator’s abbreviated summary o what sounds like an extended conversation about Jack London. But it’s not really about Jack London, but about the people who are sitting around talking about him. He’s significant only to the extent that the way he’s interpreted and the way he traffics at the table reveals a lot about those people–both in terms of what interpretations they draw from London, but also their physical, material, interlocutory tags.
And then, of course, that final paragraph brings us back to the trouble at hand like whiplash. The way things can be busy and normal right up until something sets you off and you realize they’re really not.
Dinner passed like a Bunuel film. I kept an eye on my mother, on her face, her hands, expecting eyeballs to be severed, blood to flow. We were on the sunny terrace of a bustling Italian restaurant, my mother was a Pieta, she was Michelangelo’s Mary and my thoughts were murderous. Nic was pouring sangria wearily into a thousand glasses, my mother’s sister was grabbing hands and squeezing, talking fast and then asking what is Twitter?
She asked Nic about the camping expedition he made this last winter and somehow this led to a discussion of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” We all had different theories for why Jack London has the dog abandon the dying man at the end of the story. And for some of us the word “abandon” wasn’t quite accurate. My mother and my aunt hadn’t read the story but they thought about it and in tandem concluded that the dog is going to get help. Nic believed that the dog understands that the man is now dying, freezing to death, and needs to be alone, the way a dog or cat prefers to be alone as it dies. So the dog leaves out of respect, giving the man his space. I didn’t believe in either of these theories. It’s a dog, I said, it senses that the man is dying or dead already so what can it do now? Nothing. It’s over. The dog takes off. It has to find some food and shelter, first things first. Its instinct is to survive. I mean, not to…did Jack London commit suicide? I looked at the rest of them apologetically.
Nic had a strange smile on his face. He was crying. his hand was covering his eyes. His watch was too big for him, the strap was sliding around on his arm and he sometimes had to hold his arm still, in a certain way, to keep the watch from falling right now. (Toews 153)
I just love Melanie in this scene. And the impenetrable family language Elf and Yoli speak here, which the nurse Janice (and Janice is an excellent nurse throughout the book–this is not a scene that speaks to her failings as a medical professional) cannot quite grasp. Every sparse piece of dialogue here is bursting with the full flavor of who all these characters are. (Even Melanie to an extent, and this is her only mention for the whole of the book.)
How are you feeling right now? Janice is saying.
If I squint across the room at Elf I can change her eyes into dark forests and her lashes into tangled branches. Her green eyes are replicas of my father’s, spooky and beautiful and unprotected from the raw bloodiness of the world.
Fine. She smiles feebly. Dick Riculous.
I’m sorry? says Janice.
She’s quoting our mother, I say. She says things like that. Chuck you Farley. You know. She means ridiculous.
Elfrieda, you’re not being ridiculed, okay? says Janice. Right? Yoli, are you ridiculing Elf?
No, I say, not at all.
And neither am I, says Janice. Okay?
Neither am I, says a voice unexpectedly rom behind the curtain, her roommate.
Janice smiles patiently. Thanks, Melanie, she calls out.
Any time, says Melanie.
So we can safely say you are not ridiculous, Elfrieda.
Well, it’s called self-ridicule, whispers Elf, but so quietly that Janice doesn’t hear it. (Toews 28)