I laughed and I cried all the way through All My Puny Sorrows, a comedy about suicide. Well, to be accurate, I felt that hot snuffling feeling beneath and behind the eyes that precedes tears, and which Miriam Toews’s superlative book is confident enough to describe right back to the reader as “like being tear-gassed”. Toews (“pronounced ‘Tâves’”, the back of her memoir Swing Low unhelpfully notes) has a rare talent: she knows exactly how far you can push both tragedy and farce, and how an author can match them pound for pound in a book, a scene, a single paragraph, to provoke a kind of short-circuit in the reader’s head: is it okay to laugh at this horror? Is it okay to cry at this joke?
The story is told by Yolandi – Yoli – whose sister, Elfriede, known as Elf, is a stupendously talented concert pianist. “When I listened to her play”, another character says of her, “I felt I should not be there in the same room with her … her playing was a puzzle, a whisper.” She is also suicidal. It’s a drive, not a longing: she is not in love with death (and this is not a book which romanticises death) but traumatised so much by living that to go after death is the only logical option.
If you love someone more than life itself, do you love her enough to assist her in her suicide bid?
As the book opens, Elf is in hospital; she remains there for much of the book’s duration, and whenever she does leave – no matter how much she seems to have recovered from her “illness” – it turns out she has sweet-talked the nurses (hospital staff don’t emerge well from this book) and her discharging herself is prelude to another suicide effort. The reader, who’s become invested in these quirky, wise sisters’ story, reacts with the same horror as Yoli to the ringing of a telephone, the news of Elf’s latest suicide attempt. When Elf, regaining the power of speech after her latest botched attempt, says to Yoli just one word – “Switzerland” – it takes a moment for what she’s trying to say to become clear. From this comes the book’s central moral dilemma: if you love someone more than life itself, do you love her enough to assist her in her suicide bid?
Laughter and sadness chase each other through this book, often cavorting around in the same paragraph, the same sentence. It has one of the highest bodycounts of any book I’ve read recently: Yoli and Elf’s mother is one of the only two surviving siblings of a vast family, and there won’t be even two by the time the book’s finished; the girls’ father also committed suicide, kneeling in front of an oncoming train; the family is Mennonite, and there is a sense of one vast cultural death swooping over the Mennonite community, whose horror of, among other things, Elf’s prodigious piano-playing and “indiscreet longing to leave the community” marks it out as not long for this modern world. Yoli’s mother sings songs in Plautdietsch, a language known only to Mennonites and dying out as its last remaining speakers do. It’s almost remarkable, given the deathward lean of so much in this book, that Yoli herself isn’t also drawn to death.
It also contains the funniest funeral scene in literature
It also contains the funniest funeral scene in literature, in which farcical events are somehow funnier – as many things are – because they take place in a setting where laughter is direly inappropriate, and so almost irresistible (this involves a toddler and an urnful of cremains, and you would have to be one of the “perpetual disapprovers” at whom Yoli scowls not to howl at it).
The large cast and the kookiness of the characters make this book somewhat reminiscent of A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven, whose narrator assembles for himself a sort of “fake family” of friends and dependents, bound not by blood but by odder, more fleeting associations. Unlike Homes, who has given herself over more or less completely to tooth-jangling schmaltz in her last few books, Toews knows that characters whose quirks go unballasted by darkness can become irritating in their unreality. That said, I did find my hackles rising a little bit as one character after another professes love for one another (sister for sister, child for parent, aunt for niece, and so on, in every permutation) – but that’s mitigated somewhat by the vast swoop of darkness that is this novel’s arc, and by the sense that, helpless in the face of so much death, these well-worn, even puny words are all the family has left to comfort one another. There’s a very careful calibration at work here: quirkiness, sadness, and a sort of slightly corny down-home wholesomeness are set in opposition, and largely it works. That said, I could have done without what felt like a somewhat bolted-on subplot in which Yoli, the author of a series of rodeo-themed children’s books, worries about whether she’ll be able to sell the “proper book” she has written (which she carries around, talismanic, in a Safeway bag) whose plot inevitably turns into a kind of metaphor for the events of All My Puny Sorrows. It seemed like an odd misstep – suggestive of some uncertainty on Toews’s part – for a book that’s otherwise so blazingly confident. It does, however, yield one line that meant I had to put the book down for a while until I’d finished laughing, in which (to spoil it) one character compares writing books to time he’s spent working for a septic tank drainage company.
If it is an engine designed to make you cry, it’s an endearingly clunky one
Because I’m both susceptible to and suspicious of naked emotional manipulation, I did also wonder how much of my very visceral response to AMPS was down to a string-pulling on the part of the author. How hard-hearted would a reader be not to be moved by a book about such emotive stuff? I think time is the test: Yoli and Elf remain vivid in the imagination long after you finish this novel and, unlike (the example which springs to mind) the titular character in A Prayer for Owen Meany, that memory is unsullied by a suspicion that as reader you’ve almost been hoodwinked. John Irving’s novel is a honed, undoubtedly effective mechanism for drawing tears from the reader; Toews’s book is shaggier, sillier, truer. If it is an engine designed to make you cry, it’s an endearingly clunky one.
Put through the emotional wringer, yet still coming out smiling, the reader is in for one last blow, in a coda that is so understatedly powerful and, by the rules of the book, unexpected that it turns the brain inside out once more. I had to put the book down again – for different reasons this time. C