Monday, February 28, 2005

A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews elicits a complicated reader response

In my young adulthood, I worked as a counselor at a "Bible camp" in the Canadian Shield. The majority of its curriculum didn't differ much from its secular counterpart -- archery, leather-craft, canoeing, etc. -- but this was buttressed with daily chapel services and cabin Bible studies. The close of the week concluded with a fireside ritual. We lounged around the campfire, sang emotional worship songs, then quieted down and waited for the waterworks to begin.

By summer's end most counselors had moved to extreme ends of the faith spectrum: some had become exceedingly earnest, while others were coolly cynical. A few sat uncomfortably between the two extremes, and we were all exhausted. Our pubescent campers stood up and took turns stating the expected "I gave/rededicated my life to Christ," with variations that included expressions of gratitude for counselors or cabin-mates. I sighed, and settled down for my very last campfire ceremony. I'd spent the entire summer silently playing by the rules; I figured I'd about heard it all, and was ready to call it a day. But I was in for a surprise.

A 12-year-old girl stood up, and took a deep breath. "I'm writing a novel," she said. I shifted to get a better look at her. She was a nice kid, someone I hadn't paid much attention to -- until now. "Some of you will be uncomfortable with what I write," she continued; "In fact, a lot of you will. But I have to do this. I'm going to tell the truth -- I have no choice."

This was cause for some amusement. She didn't realize several of her counselors were up to similar mischief: a novel-in-progress about a readily identifiable Bible camp that played host to one outrageous scenario after another. We were dreaming up wild sexual orgies, exotic pagan rituals held deep in the woods, religious factions secretly arming their own militias, and an explosive conclusion that reduced the entire camp to blood and cinders. We wrote a few rough outlines, colored in some of the more scurrilous details, and frivolously fiddled with this grand "project," adhering stringently to the one aspect that finally doomed it: the entire book was to be written by committee, to guarantee that no single person involved could be inadvertently damned by a telling personal detail.

This camper, however, was up to genuine trouble. A solo project, telling the truth? What if a senior counselor named, say, "Wes K. Prediger" came off looking like a horse's ass? Fortunately for us, she was still a kid. A novel is a lot of pages, and most 12-year-olds don't have the stamina to craft that much truthful prose.

So there you go: true story. And it's tempting to declare that this young woman grew up to be none other than the internationally lauded, multiple award winning novelist Miriam Toews. Still, despite my spirited contributions to the biliously-conceived "Bible Camp Lampoon," I happen to believe the truth counts for something. The facts are I've long forgotten the camper's name, and Miriam is a year older than I am. But I have read A Complicated Kindness, and she's telling the truth about the freaky little town she and I grew up in -- a town which supplied the majority of said Bible camp's counselors.

It took me a while to muster up the wherewithal to read it. I've read some of her earlier stuff -- shorter magazine pieces, her novelized memoir of her father, snippets from her two previous novels. Her prose varies somewhat in quality and power, but there is no denying she is a writer of certain ability and perspicacity. Her sense of humor is cultivated and sly; readers either love it or are put off by it, and I must confess I belong to the latter category. I am, to my own great surprise, too close to the subject matter.

I'm hardly alone. I'm told our old town newspaper has devoted reams of press to correcting her supposedly misanthropic portrait of the place, particularly as it is presented in A Complicated Kindness -- a wildly misdirected effort if ever there was one. The imp in me wonders if I shouldn't step forward and offer to be the town's "Kramer," setting up literary tours to the various landmarks she mentions by name (owners of The Trampoline House should consider this a forewarning: I expect a cut of the profits). Pilgrims would likely be as affected seeing these modest locales as Dylanologists are when confronted with the Zimmerman house in Hibbing. Toews takes the sow's ear of small-town southern Manitoba and with her prose needlepoint stitches it into a silk purse. If her narrator's bittersweet take on the place seems at times too bitter, readers should bear in mind the inherent unreliability of the narrative perspective -- in this case, that of a desperate, self-aware 17-year-old girl too clever by half.

And yet, and yet ... actually knowing these places and these people creates problems for me when it comes to entering Toews' fictive dream. Her father was my sixth-grade teacher; my experience of him sits in some contrast to the man she presents in Swing Low, or in A Complicated Kindness -- indeed in all her books. It takes only the opening paragraphs, and I immediately recognize other people from Miriam's life: her mother and sister, some shared friends and neighbors, even the older carpet-laying boyfriend who left for Montreal (and, if I'm not mistaken, wrote his own discomfiting, highly experimental novel). There's no question these portraits cohere in the larger fictive picture she paints in her books. But they are also dissonant with the larger picture forever in flux in my own memory.

When Swing Low came out to national acclaim, her extended family and the small-town community was abuzz with disgruntlement. "That's not what really happened," was the general protest. I grew impatient with this line, and on more than one occasion snapped, "Then write your own damn book." This is still my official response, but A Complicated Kindness forces me to swallow hard and do a serious re-think. It reads as if it is the novel Miriam has spent her entire life working toward. It is a confidently accomplished and exquisite work that constructs an echo-chamber for complicated truths. If that makes me uncomfortable, it's hardly Miriam’s problem -- or yours for that matter. It is my own impoverishment, and you are free to consider it the result of a calcified imagination, best borne in solitude.

Until I write my own damn book, of course.

Footnote: the town's Mennonite Village Museum proudly sells Ms. Toews' entire ouevre alongside other cultural/religious staples, including Martyrs Mirror.


DarkoV said...

What a Joy/Pain it must have been to read Complicated Kindness!? Knowing some of the people discussed, did you find her take on them similar to yours? Or did she use the author's perogative of calling someone her sister, but creating that character as an amalgam of various townsfolks?

Personally, I'm a 1/4 way through. While I'm loving her style, I felt as if I'd boarded a train half way to its destination. So, I'd stopped reading Complicated, purchased Swing Low, and am halfway through. Then I'll start Complicated anew, with my ticket punched from stop #1.

And..yeah, WHEN is your book coming out? Checked Amazon, Chapters, Borders and no W. Prajer is listed as author.

DarkoV said...

ps. "My Own Damn Book" is a catchy title.

Whisky Prajer said...

Good questions, DV. Her take on people I knew frequently confirmed my own impressions. Her portraits are intimately rendered "grotesques", not dissimilar to Sherwood Anderson's citizens in Winesburg, Ohio. This is a gross over-generalization, but I found when a character had a name, I had difficulty moving beyond a direct association with an actual person. Characters like "The Mouth" or "The Comb" on the other hand, read like an amalgam of several people, or more accurately a "type" of person common to the town.

"My Own Damn Book"? Yeah, that *does* have a ring to it. I wouldn't be surprised if friends and family members aren't already calling it that. I'll keep you posted...

Tom said...

Haven't yet got the new novel by Miriam. I did read Swing Low and speaking as a former resident of that town, and a former student of the man the book was written about, I thought it was well written, and I did get some enjoyment from reading it. However, I was also struck by some of the things about the "little smoke" that she got wrong! Minor points, to be sure, so maybe it's my own memory which is faulty.

jenn see said...

growing up in north & then south jersey (um, new jersey)i've had similar experience. i always found it to be kind of a thrill, even just with fellow aspiring literaries, to see what others wrote about the things i knew.

Whisky Prajer said...

Tom - the older and more addled I become, the less I trust my memory (this also coincides with increasing demonstrations of my daughters' steel-trap memories). *However* those of us who lived in "the little smoke" can take some comfort in Miriam's admission to playing with the storyline her life handed her (well evidenced by the overarching narrative in all four of her published books). But unless you write your own damn book, Tom, hers will become the public record!

jenn see - the thrill you mention is what I enjoyed so much about the Beats. All those shaggy and vivid perspectives on so many of the same events and landmarks: San Francisco, Mexico, Tangiers. It surprised me to learn from Ann Charters, some years after I'd immersed myself in their writing, that more than a few Beats had an axe to grind with Kerouac, their most widely recognized member - including Neal Cassady. Ah well: it's all grist for the mill, I suppose.

DarkoV said...

Apropos of nothing except WP's comment about "the older and more addled I become, the less I trust my memory (this also coincides with increasing demonstrations of my daughters' steel-trap memories)",

I find myself taking on traits of our most recent dead president (no, not THE Dead Presidents), Ronald Reagan. Didn't vote for him in either election. Couldn't stand him. And now...empathy is creeping in along with the years. All those times he adapted (unknowingly) old movie scripts into stories he was convinced he'd lived through? I'm there now; it's almost a (Gabriel Garcia) Marquezian experience reliving my past that never happened. But, daughters (who gently guide their dads back onto Reality Road) are luckily there to humorously kick the old man in the backside. Ronny & me, who woulda thunk it.....

Whisky Prajer said...

Interesting - it strikes me that Miriam is performing this role of dutiful daughter, first of all as the official corrector to the collective memory that has become of her late father, but secondly as the kick to the backside of the Faith Of Our Fathers which (kinda sorta) runs the town.