Monday, September 20, 2010
Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness
Last Sunday I finished re-reading Miriam Toews' GG's award-winning novel A Complicated Kindness. I almost never re-read a book; there are just too many books and too few hours. But this one I remember enjoying so much that I wanted to get my own copy and I wanted to check to see whether the conclusion by others in the book club made any more sense to me now. Some members, knowing the writer's family history, suggested that the novel is about the suicide of a major character but I didn't get that. Was I being a Pollyanna? Was I in denial? I am happy to report that, after a second go-through, I still do not accept that interpretation, although it is certainly one of the options that the distraught teen narrator Nomi posits. I think the inconclusive ending is intentional, meant to highlight the mystery of what we know and what we cannot know about the lives of others. If there is no hard evidence in the text, it has not happened. There is no simple explanation, as the title stresses; it's complicated.
Another thing I tell myself is that, at my age, I've read enough coming-of-age stories. Not that there's anything wrong with coming-of-age, but I want the themes to touch me personally and I want the novel to hint at social commentary and to engage me with its literary style. So, a book has to be more than a YA to get my votes. It has to say something relevant to readers with more life experience as well as to younger fans.
ACK satisfies me on all these levels. Nomi is a completely credible fully realized teenager caught in that holding pattern between finishing her Grade 12 and trying to start a real life while feeling trapped in the small town in which she has grown up. Nomi's child-woman's voice is both endearing and gripping. And she has the added appeal for me of being from a recognizable Canadian community (a town in Manitoba famous for its pioneer village museum with windmill, its many car dealerships, and its many many churches, with the city lights of Winnipeg in the distance). The work ethic, the successful embrace of capitalism including the tourist industry, and the hold the Mennonite culture still has, especially on Nomi's family, make the setting an integral part of the novel. Nomi both suffers from and kicks against the religious constraints. The constant driving, the closeness to "the Line," pushers and pit parties, church and Hymn Sing capture the teen restlessness and the schizoid world she inhabits.
ACK compares favourably with J. D. Salinger's The Catcher In the Rye, with its teenage narrator Holden Caulfield railing against the "phonies" and all the absent adults who are not there when he needs them. Holden, who has been expelled from several private schools, lives in an unfriendly New York City in the 1950s, with few connections outside his truncated nuclear family--a much younger sister, the elevator operator, a former teacher, an ex-roommate. Nomi Nickel, on the other hand, in the 1980s, suffers from too much community. Her best friend is dying, her boyfriend is withdrawing, her sister and mother have already abandoned her, and her father continues to prepare for the end of the school year by selling off the furniture and handing Nomi the keys to the family car. And other adults, her uncle the church leader and her English teacher, have failed her in more dramatic ways. Yet both these iconic teen characters are dealing first and foremost with grief, the memory of lost loved ones, with the feelings of anger and abandonment which accompany grief, and the acting out that inevitably follows. In the same way that Holden affects a deerstalker hat, Toews shows, with Nomi's shaved head and army boots, how costume and hairstyle communicate, sometimes in screams. The sad thing is that nothing seems to have improved for troubled teens from dysfunctional families in the fifty years between the publication of the two novels. The sadder thing is that the world has not changed enough to allow a book this honest, this brave--which hints that teenagers may smoke cigarettes or pot, do drugs or drink, skip school, have sex, seek out birth control--on to the school curriculum where young readers could experience trauma vicariously and discuss choices with objective adults.
Nomi and Holden both deliver condemnations of their respective cultures which fail them in their times of need. Of course, Salinger is not the last writer to tackle this theme, and Toews is not the first writer to look with an honest eye at a Mennonite community in western Canada (related to but not the same as Old Order Amish Ontario Mennonites or Pennsylvania Dutch). If you haven't already, you must read: Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many; Patrick Friesen's The Shunning; Armin Wiebe's comic Schneppa Kjnals PI novels, to name only three great Canadian writers. Toews' indictment is harsh on the personal level of holier-than-thou flawed characters and on the socio-cultural level of the conflict between kinds of love, especially the love of a faith which demands that believers put their church before their families. Is it caritas to shun and excommunicate spouses and parents, with the assertion that the future heavenly world trumps the present temporal reality? Yet with the sea of faith retreating, the question becomes: Who will choose the darkling plain and who the distant city lights?
To me, there is not one false note. I love Nomi; I love AKC. They evoke words like tour de force and exceptional. I am both hesitant to start and looking forward to The Flying Troutmans. It cannot possibly be as good, but what if it is?