Tuesday, March 06, 2012

6. A Complicated Kindness

By Miriam Toews

I was already acquainted with Toews’ second novel, The Flying Troutmans, which I quite enjoyed. Yet I was only semi-interested in reading her debut, A Complicated Kindness, uncertain whether I wanted to experience life inside an insular Mennonite community in 1970’s Manitoba.  A friend of mine highly recommended it though, saying it was way better than The Flying Troutmans, which she found rather disappointingly superficial in comparison.

In A Complicated Kindness, we see life through the eyes of Nomi Nickel as a teenager growing up in the stultifying confines of a tiny religious community known as East Village (a stand-in for Steinbach, Manitoba where the author grew up). With precision and humour, our narrator provides the reader with a quick intro to Mennonite 101 in just a few sentences:

We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland, and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking , temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.

As we get to know Nomi, we also get a fairly intimate portrait of the idiosyncrasies and contradictions inherent in  an insular community that stubbornly refuses to adapt to the modern world, or is simply incapable of change. This is evident in the non-existent bus depot and long abandoned train station, where the only outside news comes as a partially ripped page of a newspaper carried by the wind from a nearby town and the only visitors are American tourists who come in droves during the summer to see how simple, “backwards” people live in the past. And the inhabitants of East Village play up to this illusion by hiring teenagers to dress up in bonnets and aprons, churn butter, and pose for photographs.

The younger Nomi starts off as a devout Mennonite and gradually becomes a kind of rebel without a cause, as she tries to look after her father and deal with being abandoned by her mother, Trudie (Gertrude), and older sister, Tash (Natasha). Her best friend, Lids (Lydia), a good Mennonite girl, is at the hospital wasting away from some unknown condition.  Full of misplaced anger and confusion, yet somehow able to express herself with clever phrases and poignant observations (ie. "Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing").  Nomi is nevertheless still too young to figure out what to do with her situation in life.

As the novel progressed, it became more and more difficult to fully engage with our clever yet naive protagonist.  Probably the biggest problem for me was how the novel was structured. The first person narrative is told in a very rambling, nonlinear style that is meant to mimic the thought processes of Nomi, as she recounts the collapse of her family after Trudie and Tash become excommunicated from the community.  We get the sense that Nomi is slowly growing up, but when I finally found out the reason behind Trudie's excommunication, it was like a non-event.  Nomi makes so many clever observations, but when it really matters to know how she really feels about her Mom, or whether she suspects that her dad plans to commit suicide, Toews seems to cop out emotionally.

Toews is great at making wry observations about life, and there's no doubt she's a talented writer.  Unfortunately, she is not as skilled at structuring her narrative, at least in ACK. Sometimes the writing resonates, other times it feels like the author is trying too hard and the writing falls flat. Or key passages that should build on story or character developement are missing.  Ultimately the structure was uneven, even messy. I think if the novel was more strongly edited, it would have succeeded much better.

This thoughtful review explains much more articulately what I thought worked and didn’t work in the book. Basically:

Throughout the book, Nomi's search for an ending becomes a kind of leitmotif. Teachers and parents tell her that endings often find themselves once a story has begun and at a certain point there is little control the author has over their story's outcome. Would that were true, but the book's climax comes too little too late and the repercussions of it aren't dealt with to satisfaction.

Like many contemporary authors, Toews strives to imitate the styles of her pillared predecessors. Salinger and Nabokov are referenced directly in the text and float around with a self-conscious awareness that is not quite stealing and not quite homage but rather something that wavers uncomfortably in the middle. Though A Complicated Kindness would benefit from it, it's impossible to judge books as though they were in a vacuum. One must acknowledge the influences and relationships to other very similar works and then ask if it is done well enough to be considered separately. To put it plainly, A Complicated Kindness is derivative, but it is derivation well-done.

I agree with my friend that A Complicated Kindness is a more emotionally complex novel than The Flying Troutmans, but because the stakes are higher, ACK is also a much more flawed work than TFT.

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