Steps in the Dark: Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows


we had to go back and retrace our steps in the dark which I suppose is the meaning of life.

Miriam Toews’s conspicuously autobiographical novel All My Puny Sorrows is the story of two sisters, Elfrieda and Yolandi — from a Mennonite community, like Toews, and with a father who, like Toews’s, committed suicide. Elfrieda, like Toews’s sister, is a pianist; the novel is narrated by Yolandi, who (like Toews) has dealt for much of her life with  her sister’s depression and suicide attempts. Because Yoli’s perspective necessarily dominates, we never understand Elf’s feelings as clearly as we do Yoli’s rage and grief and love and baffled desperation. But this seems right in any case, since Elf’s point of view and feelings are, almost by definition, not neatly explicable: if they were, she wouldn’t be so tormented, not to mention so frequently hospitalized, medicated, and restrained.

Yoli is dedicated to saving Elfrieda from her “weariness of life.” But does saving Elf mean keeping her alive or letting her die — or even helping her find a way to die? Much of the novel turns on Yoli’s deliberations about whether and how she might do the latter: sneaking away to Mexico for a final toxic cocktail by the beach, or going boldly to Switzerland, where “mentally ill people … have the same rights as anybody else who wants to die.” “The core of the argument for [suicide],” Yoli explains to a friend, “is maximizing individual autonomy and minimizing human suffering,” but she herself remains irresolute about whether it’s better for Elf to live or die, or about whose choice that is to make, and ultimately she is saved from decisive action by the unwitting intervention of other characters. The ending hints that Yoli would have decided for Switzerland, but it’s suggestive, not definitive: it may be that she is just wishfully comparing the orderly Swiss process she imagines to the jarring reality.

Toews does Yoli’s voice well: by the end I definitely felt as if I’d been up close and personal with her trauma. The novel is not all crisis all the time, though: something else Toews does well is mix in humor, sometimes to nicely ironic effect — which can certainly happen when we’re dealing with sad or scary things in real life too. The family members and friends are vivid and lifelike, with their eccentricities and tensions and intertwined histories, and there’s tenderness, too, along with the laughter, as they do their best, as we all must, to get from one day to the next. But the colloquial first-person narration was ultimately too chatty and artless for me: Yoli / Toews is neither a great writer nor a great thinker, so not only is the prose mostly quite pedestrian but the novel does not expand beyond Yoli and Elf to explore the abstract problem their conflict dramatizes. To me, the novel ended up feeling small, even confined, as a result, even though it deals with some of the biggest questions there are. I would have liked to learn something, to have been offered some illumination, something to take away from the novel beyond description at the level of “this is what it felt like for me” — and while “for me” officially means “me, Yoli,” it’s hard not to think it also means “me, Miriam.” There’s a pleasing humility in sticking so close to home, and so close to one’s own heart, but there’s also something unambitious, even unimaginative, about it. Toews does a good job at “write what you know,” but All My Puny Sorrows also shows the limitations of that precept: as a reader, you get to know her, but not a lot else.

But why isn’t that enough? I realize that I am criticizing Toews not for failing at what she set out to do (because she doesn’t) but for not setting out to do something different — something less personal but broader and more ambitiously philosophical, something less intimate and colloquial and more stylish. (One of my marginal notes asks whether coming up with good one-liners really counts as having a style. She does get in some good ones: as a long-time user of the product, I chuckled especially at her observation that Vaseline Intensive Care lotion has been renamed “Vaseline Intensive Rescue lotion,” “to reflect the emergency atmosphere of current life on earth.”) I’ve been struggling for a couple of days to explain (or maybe justify) my lack of enthusiasm, especially when there are other small-scale novels I like very much — most of Anne Tyler’s, for example.

It’s possible that my dissatisfaction with All My Puny Sorrows is a side-effect of reading it right after King Hereafter, which is not just large in its scope but deep in its inquiries, not to mention challenging, and thus exhilarating, to read. (For a book about suicide, All My Puny Sorrows really skips right along.) But I think that another reason for my impatience is, a bit paradoxically, that the situation of the novel is in some ways quite familiar to me. For years a very close friend of mine struggled with serious and suicidal depression, so Toews’s novel brought back a lot of memories, of anxious waiting, of difficult, sometimes frantic, phone calls, and of many, many hospital visits — during all of which I had no power or responsibility except just to be there as much as I could and keep on being her friend. Because I was not family, I had less say and, in a way, less at stake than Yoli does in Elf’s care and future. It was an intense and pretty challenging experience nonetheless, and the novel’s focus on the supporter’s perspective rather than the patient’s had a particular resonance for me.

Shouldn’t that personal connection have made All My Puny Sorrows more, not less, meaningful to me, though? Why, with that experience of my own to think back on, did I find myself resisting Toews’s novel rather than appreciating it all the more? My theory is that it’s because her story is precisely not mine, and so the similarities between them only become really interesting if we go to a higher level of abstraction. She can tell her story, and I can tell mine (though I decided not to do so in more detail here, since in so many ways it is someone else’s story more than mine — which for me raises further questions about Toews’s strategy of making art out of her sister’s death). Unless there’s more to it than that, though, the result is just an accumulation of anecdotes. I don’t deliberately seek out literature that I expect to reflect my own life back at me, but because in this case I did find myself prompted to retrace my steps through some very dark territory indeed, I would have liked to do so in the company of someone who had more to say about the meaning of it all than I can manage on my own.

I have an uneasy feeling that I’m selling All My Puny Sorrows short. Lots of people have really, really liked it — including readers whose judgment I greatly respect. I’m not even sure that I’ve figured out my own reaction: all I know is that I wanted something from it that I didn’t get. I look forward to discussing it with my book club tomorrow night. At this point my favorite thing about the novel is that it included Philip Larkin’s “Days,” which inspired me to spend a sunny hour on the deck yesterday reading through his collected poems.