Monday, August 06, 2007

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Some books aren't meant to be read in just one or two sittings. I think A Complicated Kindness is one of those books. I read it too quickly, and it pushed me into some sort of scarred Mennonite funk, and my head is buzzing with all the funny and apt and beautiful and poignant quotes I loved. The atmosphere of the book is absolutely oppressive. The main character, 17-year-old Nomi Nickel, talks about how silent and severe the town is, and when she says, "people here just can't wait to die," you feel it in your bones. Reading this book made me feel like I was drowning, and I kept coming up for air, but then, after a short time of reflection, or an actual "real world" conversation, I couldn't help but jump back in.

Miriam Toews is a damn good writer. She tells the story in a pretty linear way, though there is a lot of jumping around, both in terms of flashbacks and moving in and out Nomi's head, and purposefully abrupt scene switches. The bulk of the story is in the flashbacks. Right away we read this great sentence:

"Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing."

And I'm hooked. From there Nomi introduces us to her tiny and totally insular Mennonite community in Canada, where American tourists come in the summers to see how people lived centuries ago (the "simple life"). The town's industry is split between tourism (all of which is faked by teens who wear bonnets and pose knitting by old school fire places or churn butter) and Happy Family Farms, where Nomi is fated to work in an assembly line killing chickens as soon as she graduates high school.

At the time she's telling the story, Nomi is a pissed off and sarcastic teen a la Holden Caulfield. Even so, through flashbacks we meet a younger Nomi who was devoutly Mennonite and fervently prayed for her family. Through these, we see how comforting it can be to be under the wing of a belief system that puts everything in black and white. And there's a sort of Red Tent aspect to the town that's attractive. Sort of. To me at least.

The story begins with Nomi talking about her father, the only member of her immediate family she has left. We learn later that her sister Tash has run off with her boyfriend, and her mother Trudi was excommunicated, and has chosen to leave her family rather than become a "ghost" (Mennonites must shun the excommunicated, and Trudi didn't want to her husband and daughter to have to chose between her and the church). At least that's what we think. At first. To stay away from spoilers, I won't got any further. Just read this passage, which nearly broke my heart:

"The other day I found her [Trudi's] passport in her drawer when I was putting away my dad's laundered handkerchiefs. I wish I hadn't. For the purpose of my story, she should have it with her. I sat on my dad's bed and flipped through page after empty page. No stamps. No exotic locales. No travel-worn smudges or creases. Just the ID information and my mother's black-and-white photo which if it were used in a psychology textbook on the meaning of facial expressions would be labeled: Obscenely, heartbreakingly hopeful."

As the story progresses we learn more about Mennonites, which are named for Menno Simons, and called "Mennos," (at least in Nomi's head). Nomi's uncle, The Mouth, has recently taken over the church (and by extension, the town), and rules with an ultraconservative anti-fun iron fist. By the time Nomi is 17, The Mouth has shut down everything in town except the cinema, and forced all the teachers to follow his own curriculum ("our textbook could have been called Proven Theories We Decry").

Even so, Nomi manages to get a boyfriend and a tobacco addiction and wear halter tops and buy drugs from someone she calls The Comb. And we've got her voice and humor to lighten the mood. And the mood does lift, especially when she's pointing out the absurdities of what's on Menno's shit list and what isn't, and wondering what sort of douchebag names a religious movement after his first name, but promotes total humility. Nomi's voice picks up the humor in trying to hold her family - now just her and her dad Ray - together. Also, check out how Toews doesn't use quotation marks, or any kind of marker, to point out the distinction between dialog and thoughts (like Cormac McCarthy in The Road; another book that gave me the "I'm drowning" sensation) -

"That's cool though, I said thinking Jesus, let's not be the kind of family that tidies up the dump at night. The dump is the dump though Dad, I said. The central idea at work in a dump is that it's not a clean place.
Ray said: Well, yes, but I organize the garbage in a way I feel makes sense."

And then, in a blink, we're right back to heart-wrenching:

"The dump was kind of like a department store for Ray, but even more like a holy cemetery where he could organize abandoned dreams and wreaked things into families, in a way, that stayed together."

Overall, A Complicated Kindness is fairly light on the complications, and on the kindness. It's a rather straight forward condemnation of religious fundamentalism. The church completely wreaks Nomi's family. Ray seems to be the only one who's left with his faith somewhat intact, and he's a very quiet character. I would have liked to have heard more from him.

Instead, the bulk of the complicated feelings are expressed by Nomi and her mother. Toews does a wonderful job of balancing when they are being sarcastic, or criticizing, and when they are being sincere. Someone once told me that no one loses their religion for intellectual reasons, and at the heart of every apostate is a much more personal and emotional beef. That seems right to me. Who turns their back on the comfort and order of an entire belief system just because some fossils and carbon dating techniques contradict the biblical time line? Even once Nomi is well on her way to excommunication, she can't help but pine for religious conviction, and admire those who have it:

"I wanted what she had. I wanted to know what it really felt like to think you were saving someone's life."

I took this statement to be totally lacking in sarcasm.

I got this book from Sarah, who recommended it in this post. The other night we were talking about it, and she made some really good points. It's interesting what stuck in her head as memorable, because it was stuff that I'd completely forgot. Throughout the book, Nomi keeps telling us how bad she is at endings. She writes various essays and papers for her English teacher, Mr. Quiring, and he also tells her she's lousy at endings too. Sarah asked me: "Weren't you disappointed with the ending?"

Me: "Not really. It was sort of anti-climatic, I guess." For some reason, I hadn't given the ending all that much thought. "Maybe I was mildly disappointed."

Sarah: "It seemed like the author was preparing us for a bad ending, because Nomi kept saying how bad she was at endings throughout the book."

Me: "Oh yeah." I'd forgotten about how Nomi said that, even though she said it enough that readers would take note. I'm struck silent by how smart my friends are. I mean, that was a comment for the upper-class lit discussion group. Was Miriam Toews covering her ass by making her "main character" bad at endings? Or would an author purposefully write a less-than-satisfying ending, to give her main character continuity?

I don't know. Here's what I want to know: do y'all think that some books, particularly literary fiction, are meant to be read slowly? We all know that some books are "page-turners," but are there books that are the opposite of page-turners? And I don't mean boring books, or books like Jane Eyre, that took me two months to read. I mean books that you are meant to savor over a longer period of time, like a week or two, and not because you're busy, or you're just not that into it, or because it's a textbook, but because you want to give yourself time to absorb it. Or is that an outdated idea, like the way that people read back before TV and cell phones and electricity?

Is it possible to read a book too fast?


Sarah said...

First of all, thank you for the lovely compliment. Second, I do think people can read books too fast. It's one thing to read a Mary Higgins Clark or Janet Evanovich (good lord, why are these my examples? Bear with me, I'm making a point, not coming clean about what's really on my book shelf) fast, because the point is sheer entertainment and they're not that deep. But if you want to really appreciate a book and analyze certain aspects of it, it might require breaks, even if your instinct is to keep powering through. Book Cannibal, you actually take notes in books, which is something I like because it means you can go back to those and remind yourself of the things that struck you. I want to start doing that. Not in my library books, though.

Jonathan Lyons said...

I'm more inclined to think that the issue isn't speed (unless you skim), but quality time. The more literary the book, the more necessary I think it is to read in larger blocks. Jane Eyre doesn't lend itself well to twenty minute reading increments, but Jack Higgins only takes two seconds and you're hooked.

Anonymous said...

I think 1984 is a book that should be read slower than others. I found it was nice to have time away from it to appreciate Orwell.

And I agree with Sarah, keeping notes on the books you read is a great idea!

Heidi the Hick said...

Oh my gosh, I cannot get away from this book!!!

I thought it was excellent, in terms of writing. It was all about voice and I thought Miriam Toews totally nailed it.

But, I'm Mennonite, quite happily and well adjustedly, and cringe every time I hear someone bring up the word "cultish" when describing my faith! AAgghhh!!!

I did read it more slowly than my usual ravenous pace. I think in this case the pace of the book slowed me down. It's a slow start- I feel that the reader doesn't even realize that the action's going until it's well underway. The characters are stuck in slow motion and we feel it.

I think it's a brilliant book.

(I just hope that people don't read it and assume things!)

BookCannibal9 said...

Heidi: I'm so interested in your take on the book as a Mennonite - though seemingly a more modern Mennonite than those described in the book maybe?

Was there anything particular in A COMPLICATED KINDNESS that rang really untrue to you?

Chetan said...

I enjoyed the bookm after carefully understanding the ver aspects of the book and the purpose behind it. However, are their any prefect examples of loss of innocence in a complicated kindness. I like quotes because i have quotes on how her sister and mother leave her, but i need help in figuring out the loss of inncemce in the book, like what it means? Thanx

Shivam Bagga said...

It is my EP and frankly speaking, i am too confuse just because of the order!!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have any insights into whether or not you believe Nomi to be a reliable narrator? Do you think that although the plot may be altered to fit the vision she had for her family, this gives insights into her character? These "lies" or alterations to plot help us understand Nomi in ways which would have not been possible given it she was not a "pathological liar" as Travis puts it.

darrenj said...

I read this book in college about two years ago. During the Christmas holidays, I decided to re-read it for fun. I was completely blown away. With regards to the comments on if an individual can read a book too fast, this is a perfect example. On my first read, I rushed through it (as I left myself with only two days before the test hehe), as a result, although I felt that there was something special behind the writing and character development, I most definitely missed the brilliance. However, now it is clear that this novel is absolutely incredible! It is my favourite novel of all time and I just love the way Toews ends almost every paragraph with a sentence or two that leaves such a thought provoking image in the reader's head. My favourite line is at the end of Chapter 18. "Relationships were so easy when all you had to work on was standing up together." Subtle, heartwrenching lines that close off the chapters truly set this novel apart. In one of the reviews on the novel cover (or maybe its on the back), it says that it makes you want to either laugh or cry and you're not sure which to do. I totally agree, as when I was finished reading it the second time, i shed a few tears and also smirked at the brilliance that I just witnessed. A COMPLICATED KINDNESS FTW.

Anonymous said...

I have just started to read it and i am not the biggest fan of it. Nether is my gr 11 class. its confusing. im not a big reader so when i read something you know its good but i just cant read it i dont know why i just cant iv got to chapter 7 and im still not fan of it.

steph.tinsdill said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Miriam Toews "A Complicated Kindness". What did you guys think were the main themes portrayed throughout the novel?

Anonymous said...

i am currently reading it and there are at times that i am totally with Naomi and (somewhat) able to understand her. However there are other times when she kind of turns into this whiny teenager.
What is really confusing and annoying about this book is the fact that there is no quotation marks used throughout the story.I think i got the hang of it though around the fifth chapter of when is the present and when it is a flashback.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for adding this comment years after the initial discussions. Also be warned of spoilers ahead for those who haven't read this one all the way through yet.

It is 100% possible to read a book too fast, or possibly, not enough. I equate reading this book to recalling childhood memories. All of us at one time or another have remembered things in our past that at the time seemed innocuous and normal, but much later realized that what we thought was happening couldn't be further from the truth. Things that seemed like "nothing" gain a new meaning. I find "new meanings" all over this book every time I read it.

Nomi effectively brings us into her world. There are the parts that go fast: her childhood and past up until her mother leaves, the slow miserable days of her time directly leading up until the end of the novel when Nomi is at her most rebellious and drugged-out phase and suddenly everything becomes clear and undiluted in the resolve at the end when she finally comes clean about the stuff she was pussyfooting around before, as teenagers will do from time to time.

As an exercise, do yourself a favour and re-read the entire book and see for yourself how many clues point to Trudy's affair in the novel. At first these seem like nothing, until the truth comes out right at the end of the novel.

As for the nature of the ending, I believe that the more quality time you spend with Nomi, the more fitting and happy the ending becomes. When we arrived on the scene, Nomi was explaining her bleak and depressing situation: her mother and sister had abandoned her, she couldn't bear to leave her father ( who was torn between the love for his rebellious family and the backbone of his religious community), and she was faced with the same social pressure that doomed her sister and mother years ago...she was gearing up to kill chickens for a living. At the end of the novel, we experience a catharsis after Nomi escapes her fog and decides to tell the readers what really happened.

A theme in this book is endings, leaving, and abandonment. Each character "abandons" something in their life, and through this story we learn how and when abandonment is really the much more gentle, kind option for those you love. Tash rejected the oppressive community that didn't have a place for her, Trudy rejects what she believes is a boring, commonplace life for a dangerous and thrilling affair with Mr. Quiring. When Nomi is shunned like her mother and sister, and comes to the slow realization that her family will not be reunited, she is faced with a choice of what she would like to abandon: she must either leave her father, or give up her personality to become an obedient, servile and bland Mennonite woman.

When things are at their darkest, we are met with a beautiful and enlightening realization that is enhanced by picking up on the clues that precede his actions, and Ray does something amazing and unexpected of his character. He finally chooses his family. He picks up and leaves every single thing that he has ever known, and he gives Nomi a wonderful gift: the freedom to be who she wants, where she wants, without having to abandon her father or her principles. It is my personal belief that because she leaves the community as a whole person for this reason, despite her family being broken up. After all, this story is about how something that seems awful and cruel can actually be the kindest gift anyone can get.