FOR A WRITER whose work deals with the darkest of subjects — suicide — and who has lost two immediate family members to it, Miriam Toews (rhymes with waves) laughs a lot. In Toews’s world, comedy and sorrow coexist; even her first novel, about the hardscrabble existence of two mothers on welfare in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was shortlisted for a Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.
In 2010, Toews’s beloved sister Marjorie, whose suicide she’d spent years trying to prevent, stepped in front of a train, almost 12 years to the day that their father had done the same. (Miriam’s memoir about his life, Swing Low, is a sensitive portrait of bipolar disease and her attempt to reckon with her father’s decision to end his life.)
After Marjorie’s death, Toews wasn’t sure she’d ever write again — but she did. Her new novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is a darkly comedic reinvention of that tragedy: the loving, self-deprecating novelist Yoli attempts to prevent her brilliant concert-pianist sister from killing herself. As Yoli tries to solve the despair that plagues her sister, All My Puny Sorrows moves toward the place where laughter and tears intersect, in recognition of all that is chaotic, absurd, unbearable, and yet beautiful in life.
Toews recently spoke with fellow Canadian Christine Fischer Guy for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
CHRISTINE FISCHER GUY: Yoli stumbles through the business of trying to keep her sister alive while at the same time trying to respect her sister’s desires and philosophies. It’s exhausting for Yoli, that constant oppositional tension, and it sets up the central conflict of the book.
MIRIAM TOEWS: Yoli realizes that it is about love, and she asks herself, how can I best love this person? The conventional wisdom is, obviously, that we try to keep the people we love alive. Elfrieda wants nothing more than to die, and she’s hoping that Yoli will understand this, and help her to die. Of course Yoli is resistant to this. The bulk of the book is Yoli trying to figure out what she’s supposed to do, which comes to that central question: how do I best love my sister?
In the opening scene of the novel, the family watches as their house disappears down the road (it’s being moved). You’ve been candid about the autobiographical roots of the novel. When you lost your sister, was it a loss of home, too?
Certainly a part of home, because home can be represented by the people that we love. Wherever she was, I felt at home. We were close because she was my sister and she made me feel at home. So when she died, there’s nobody else that I can talk to, remember with. Of course I can talk to my mom, who’s still alive, but it’s not the same as talking to a sister.
In your acknowledgments, you call Marjorie a "comic genius." In the novel, the undercurrent of humor is always present, even in the darkest moments: Elf gives Yoli the middle finger from a hospital stretcher; Yoli researches the "suicide gene" and tends to a sister who is determined to die while fielding text messages from her daughter about belly-button piercings, ant invasions, and perfume-tester wars. What’s the connection between sorrow and laughter?
That juxtaposition of comedy right up against the darker stuff, that friction and clash, is interesting to me. It creates energy that I like to use in my writing and that I like to read. That comes from my own experience. This book is so close to the bone, the most autobiographical book that I’ve written. When we were going through all of this, my sister and I and my mother and my kids and my ex and my sister’s partner, there was a lot of laughter, a lot of gallows humor at some points, zany ridiculous humor at some other points. You know how it is when you get to be a certain age, and if you have kids as well as older people in your life, you go from banal domestic concerns to life-and-death crises. It all seems to be mixed together. One day you’re shopping for groceries, and the next you’re trying to save somebody’s life. I wanted to capture that all-at-once kind chaos of emotion.
As a reader, I feel I came to know your fierce and brilliant and loving sister, at least a little bit. The flip side of that, then: Does the book help you relive your life with her? Was that something you hoped that writing it would do?
In a sense, yes, talking about the book does help me keep my sister alive and helps me to relive my life with her. But talking about AMPS, conversely, also helps me to let her go peacefully, to sort of “redo” her death. Her leave-taking. I can process it, think about it, draw it out, and cushion the shock. I’m not sure I hoped for that to happen, by writing this book, but I’m grateful that it did, or does.
Is there a suicide gene?
There are certain scientists who say that the suicide gene is present in the brain, that it is something that can be inherited. Not everybody in one family is going to commit suicide, but it is something that runs in families. Certainly that seems to be the case in mine.
Is there any connection to trauma in previous generations?
That’s a theory that other people have written about and that I mention in the book, this idea that if previous generations have suffered, it is something you can pass down in your DNA and that your kids can inherit.
When I was a kid I had a recurring nightmare. I was trapped in an underground parking lot, and there were these individuals coming after me. Just when I was able to get away from them I would look and see that there were flames blocking the entrance. It was a kind of typical nightmare, feeling trapped and anxious, with a kind of hell involved because of my religious background. I hadn’t told anyone about this dream, certainly not my children, because why would I tell them about horrific nightmares? Then one day my son told me about a dream that he had; it was exactly the same as the recurring nightmare that haunted me when I was a kid. It seems plausible to me that we can carry this stuff in our hearts and minds and souls and bodies.
Your characters balance on the knife’s edge between laughter and pain, and, as the book progresses, this emotional state becomes a new kind of normal. From this state you seem to evince a kind of acceptance of loss while also making a vigorous argument against accepting loss.
That’s interesting. Maybe it’s a way of not minimalizing loss, but normalizing loss, so we can get to the place that we can understand that life is suffering, that life is hard. So much of our energy is spent grieving the things that we’ve lost, even if we may not necessarily know it, or anticipating loss. I have to work at that in a big way, because of the particular losses I’ve had in my life. Not to anticipate another one requires a huge amount of psychic energy. It does become a way, for me as the writer, to offer a comfort or consolation to the reader. To really confront loss means confronting mortality and our fears around mortality. When we do that, we can start to live more lightly.
It’s not a very Christian idea, is it? I was raised Catholic, and you were raised Mennonite. I studied Buddhism for a few years when I was learning to meditate to address terrible insomnia. The first "noble truth" of Buddhism, Life is Suffering, has been a constant consolation to me. In some way that seems the opposite to what Christianity teaches, that the suffering is something you have to pay to get something better.
Or that the suffering is a test, God’s test, to see with what dignity, or what courage, you can handle suffering. It’s far more comforting to know that life is suffering. It’s far more comforting to know the facts than to think, Hey, maybe I can get to the place in life where everything is going to be great and smooth and easy. That will never happen, not for any length of time anyway. When I write I have this jade Buddha beside me, reminding me that life is suffering according to Buddhism and that none of us escapes it.
You also seem to erase boundaries between past and present. Even as Elf begs Yoli to stay in the present, the book moves fluidly between past and present as though time was really, after all, an illusion.
Certainly the idea of time is something I was thinking about. When we’re in the present and we’re in the hospital with Elfrieda and she’s talking about wanting to die, the scene seemed to me heavy and a little bit unbearable. For the reader’s sake and mine too I needed to shift and go back to something that happened in the past that was over and not so grim. Not that all the anecdotes from the past are cheerful, but they are over. These things had either been enjoyed, which was something to remember, or had been survived. And also I could show the idea that Elf is an intelligent, competent, multifaceted human being who is suffering. Her desire to die isn’t the only thing that she is.
I was thinking about the Hippocratic Oath and the "primum non nocere" maxim (first, do no harm) as I read this novel. You take the notion of life preservation and turn it on its head. Keeping Elf alive prolongs, doesn’t alleviate, her suffering. It’s a terrible conundrum for doctors and nurses: embedded in contemporary health policy seems to be a profound discomfort with mortality. The book was originally called Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying). Is any such thing possible in a society that routinely prolongs life beyond reason?
I think there are doctors and nurses ending lives all the time; they are doing these things secretly and discreetly. These are acts of compassion. But often what happens for them is that the human being disappears and they only see an illness. How can we make this better, how can we make this go away? It’s a challenge if you’re a doctor. That’s what you do; you want to cure.
Now that we have patient rights we have a dialogue. I think doctors are slowly realizing this is something we need to think about. It’s changing. As for my sister, I think if she had this option of assisted suicide, which they do in other countries, she wouldn’t have had to have died alone and violently.
Yoli’s friend says, about the idea of going to Switzerland to help Elf die, "Just because something’s legal doesn’t make it right." That’s another core question of this novel, I think. What are your thoughts on the historic "right to die" legislation recently passed in Quebec? Does it go as far as some of the policies in Europe, such as Switzerland?
I think that it’s a really good idea that it exists. It seems like a civilized and forward thing. I think it will happen. I think Switzerland is far more comprehensive than the “right to die” legislation in Quebec because it includes this “weariness of life” clause that is mentioned in the book, this idea that it doesn’t matter what you’re suffering from, if you want to die you have every right to choose that for yourself in a safe environment where you can be with people you love.
Your book made me think of John Keats’s idea of "negative capability":
"that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." In an interview about Bright Star, her film about the life of Keats, Jane Campion likened this to the Buddhist idea that one can "inhabit a space of mystery without searching after reason, that the desire of the mind to know, to work everything out, is a kind of low thinking." All My Puny Sorrows also felt like a book-length koan, a paradoxical riddle used in Zen Buddhism meant to be unanswerable, to encourage novices to abandon reason for a more intuitive response.
Martin Amis once said, “Failure is the story.” That’s always stuck with me. I could have written a book that atoned for my own shortcomings, where I have my character do the right thing. But I thought that would be too … pedantic. And easy. Also it wouldn’t be true to my life. The idea of the uncertainty, the unknowingness, I feel that is a place that the novelist, the poet, and the philosopher can inhabit.
In Disturbing the Peace, Václav Havel wrote, "Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren’t in fact the sad guardians of the meaning of life." In The Great Code, Northrop Frye wrote, "The bedrock of doubt is the total nothingness of death. Death is a leveler, not because everybody dies, but because nobody understands what death means."
I like that way of thinking about it. It’s a positive way of thinking about it, as opposed to the horror, we’re all going to die. We’re all just kind of confused, a little worried, a little resigned, no understanding of it.
The only real response to the randomness and the difficulty and pain and suffering of life is that we all lose and feel shame and suffer. Camus said it’s the only question. (“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy.” The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942.) One thing that is difficult for me sometimes is that two people, two intelligent people who were role models in my life, caregivers, mentors, people who loved me more than anybody, they both took their own lives. It makes you feel, sometimes, like, Hmm … what do they know that I don’t know? You could say that these decisions were made for them; that the degree of suffering, the despair, the illness, it was a natural result that they ended it in the only way they knew how. We all try and end our pain. So then you can think of it in those terms. There are so many ways of thinking about suicide.
What have you read on the subject? What have you liked?
I read Al Alvarez’s The Savage God because he’s exploring the lives of artists and writers, Sylvia Plath, for instance. I’ve read a lot of accounts of depression and suicide by various people, William Styron and Andrew Solomon, and Sylvia Plath, Fernando Pessoa. I really want to read the biography of Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter, who was a strong feminist thinker, did all sorts of things, and then committed suicide in her 40s. It was a real shock to people who knew her because she was so strong, it seemed. But she suffered a lot, had horrible relationships and betrayals. Everything piled up.
When an 11-year-old Yoli asks Europe-bound Elf "what’s so hot about the piano?," Elf talks about the decision a classical musician makes while playing a piece — whether to "return to tenderness, even briefly, glancingly, or continue on with the truth, the violence, the pain, the tragedy, to the very end." Can both be true? Could you hold them both?
I think so — maybe not literally at the same time, but one comes naturally from the other. If you end whatever it is that you’re doing on a violent, crashing note (and I’m not just talking about music), it’s so extreme that it makes you think of the other, like word association. When you look at a baby, so fragile and pure, it’s hard not to think of all the danger and violence and sadness that this perfect, beautiful, protected creature is going to experience.
After Marjorie died, you’ve said that you weren’t sure you’d ever write again. In an interview for The Irish Times, you gave this advice to aspiring writers: "Ignore all advice about writing. Leave your blood on every page. Every page!"
That was advice given to me by Carlos Reygadas, a filmmaker who made the film Silent Light that I had a role in. He’s a very honest, direct guy. He had read my previous book, Irma Voth, and said he liked it. He also said, “Next time, I think it’s really important that you bleed. You really have to bleed on every page.” That has stuck with me.
I wondered how I’d interpret that: how do I bleed on every page? I knew that while I couldn’t back away from the hard truth and the details, the page couldn’t be soaked in blood. [Laughs] Because then you can’t read it! It was like a mathematical equation. How much blood? Where to put it? How much blood can I lose and still stay alive? How much can I expect my readers to bleed? Because this is a conversation. We’re bleeding together. We’re in this barroom brawl together.