All My Puny Sorrows
One of the last lines in All My Puny Sorrows is, “At first we laughed a lot, sort of nervously but eventually we both relaxed and only laughed when things were funny.” I was glad to see that line as I had already begun wondering just how to describe a reader’s reaction to this richly funny tragedy; or is it richly tragic comedy? In any event, I suspect Miriam Toews, one of Canada’s best-known novelists, must have been thinking much the same thought on behalf of her readers and so dropped in a hint. That’s a great novelist for you—they protect you even while they’re messing about in your head.
Toews’s sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows is essentially the story of two sisters: the narrator Yoli Von Riesen, who is a relatively successful writer of genre fiction, and her older sister Elfrieda/Elf Von Riesen, who is a very successful concert pianist. Despite all her success, Elf is grimly determined to commit suicide. Yoli is torn between preventing her or, eventually, assisting her. While I think Toews would agree there’s nothing funny about suicide, I think you’ll now understand why I included that quote about nervous laughter.
Through Yoli, Toews shares her own scalpel-sharp views of the ridiculous. She begins with the sisters’ childhood, where they are raised in a Mennonite village in Manitoba. The girls’ father is convinced to sell his home to a car dealer because, “East Village had originated as a godly refuge from the vices of the world but somehow these two, religion and commerce, had become inextricably linked and the wealthier the inhabitants of East Village became the more pious they also became as though religious devotion was believed to be rewarded with the growth of business and the accumulation of money, and the accumulation of money was believed to be blessed by God so that when my father objected to selling his home to the car dealer there was in the air a whiff of accusation, that perhaps by holding out my father wasn’t being a good Christian.”
That great sentence also speaks to the underlying energy of All My Puny Sorrows, which is the perhaps Pyrrhic fight of the individual in standing against machines of all sorts. What Toews has to say about conventions, religions, and the health care system will ring true to anyone who has spent any time with a loved one in that most insidious of Kafka’s nightmares.
Toew’s use of punctuation in this book is also well worth noting. Here’s a device I love in this novel: Toews does not use quotation marks. And I’m sure Toews’ editor at Knopf was reduced to loose Jell-O at the sight of conversational dialogue mashing up against narrative description with no happy little seawall of “__” there to protect one from the other. Yet what I love about it is that it is defiantly honest! Yoli is writing in the past tense, therefore everything in the story is writ from memory. Quotation marks imply a veracity that no one’s memory has.
All My Puny Sorrows is a richly observed and described comic-tragedy-comedy. It rings gong-true to reality, right down to the admirable authorial choice that Elf’s reasons for wanting to die are never perfectly wrapped up, and the notion that we never truly know anyone else.