Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

It is typical of the way that argument goes, of why argument is very rarely ever productive, when essayist Stephen Henighan responds to reviewer Nigel Beale's assertion of "the market as a determinant of literary quality" by pushing the argument towards it most illogical conclusion: "So the great novelists of our time are Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling?" Because no, of course they aren't, but there is definitely something to Beale's argument (which I believe was in reference to Ian McEwen.) That sometimes a writer's popularity can eclipse their literary merit can be demonstrated by Miriam Toews.

Not to suggest that Toews is in need of defending, of any assistance-- her first novel Summer of My Amazing Luck was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, A Boy of Good Breeding and the memoir Swing Low: A Life were both McNally Robinson Books of the Year, A Complicated Kindness was a Giller Prize Finalist and won the Governor General's Award in 2005. But all this acclaim may have made Canadian Literature critics forget how fine a writer she really is, how good her writing truly is.

I say this because her work is the epitome of everything I hear critics calling for more of in Canadian literature (including Henighan): much of her fiction is utterly contemporary instead of backward-looking, she makes remarkable the lives of impoverished people who live in cities (and Winnipeg, no less), she has fun with language, colloquialism and the vernacular, pulling it all into pieces and then slapping it back together again. She addresses depression, drug addiction, poverty etc. but not as "issues", these are stories. She does "gritty" but it sparkles, and though I believe Toews is one of the most exceptional writers we have working Canada today, she rarely gets such critical response, however much she is popular and racks up the awards (which I would argue, as most people would, are not quite the same as "critical response").

Her latest novel The Flying Troutmans begins, "Yeah, so things have fallen apart." The narrator Hattie Troutman returning home from a life in Paris that was unraveling anyway, in order to care for her nephew and niece. Her sister Min has been hospitalized with depression once again, and it becomes clear that Min's problems have taken a toll on her kids-- fifteen year-old Logan has been expelled from school for gang ties, and Thebes at eleven has ceased bathing, displays a manic chatter belying deeper problems and fears inside.

So they go on a road trip, driving across America in search of Logan and Thebes's father. Because Hattie knows the kids need her, but she can't cope with them on her own, or cope with them at all, she thinks, and there is no one else she can turn to. Min is back home in the hospital, "hooked on blue torpedoes" and last time Hattie had called the hospital, the nurse had told her Min didn't even remember she had kids.

"But, said Logan, a fifteen-year old could technically live on his own, right?... No, a fifteen-year old cannot live on his own, I said./ Pippi Longstockings wasn't even fifteen, said Thebes, and she--/ Yeah, but she was a character in a book, I said./ And she was Swedish, said Logan./ So there would have been a solid safety net of social programs to keep her afloat, I said. It doesn't work here."

And it doesn't. These kids are all alone and they know it, and they know their mother wants to kill herself too. In fact they've exhausted themselves for months trying to keep her from doing so, and there is no safety net, solid or otherwise. How do you even be a kid in a world such as this one? How do you be a figure of stability to kids who know well there is no such thing.

"He asked me if I thought all this stuff was happening for a reason. /No, I said. I don't think so."

But yeah, just like Pippi, these people are characters in a book too, and because this is a book by Toews, this terrible reality is underlined always with humour. So that the book is a joy to read, however disturbing and awful. The Flying Troutmans is touching but without compromise, and only a really great writer could do that.

One of Toews greatest strengths is voice, perfectly capturing the dry tones of her narrator Hattie, Thebes's unceasing banter from the backseat, the unexpected breaks in Logan's teenage reticence. Toew's dialogue is fast paced, rich and real, and she is a kind of ventriloquist to create these different characters. And a sort of juggler or an acrobat (I'm not sure, someone who can do something awkward but with verve) to put these characters altogether and to make out of it a story so perfectly formed.

The Flying Troutmans represents real development since Summer of My Amazing Luck, which also had a road trip at its very heart and is a fine novel, but Toews has gotten so much better, which is the ideal. Her ending here a perfect balance between happy and real, known and unknown, resolved and otherwise. Here is a novel that is a road trip to somewhere, which is more than enough to ask of a book.