“All My Puny Sorrows” is a novel about suicide, a 320-page contemplation of the point of human existence that asks why we bother slogging through our inevitable suffering when we have the choice to end it all. The book contains little plot, an abundance of obscure poetry and the untimely death of three protagonists.
Sounds tedious, yes? But somehow it’s not. Instead, thanks to the prodigious talent of author Miriam Toews, “All My Puny Sorrows” is an off-kilter, frequently funny and begrudgingly life-affirming romp through, well, death.
The story, to extent to which there is one, is about the relationship between sisters Yolandi and Elfreida Von Riesen, the children of free-thinking Mennonites who chafe against and ultimately escape their constricting religious community just before their father, a “quiet depressive,” kills himself by jumping in front of a train. Now, in their middle years, Elf is a rich and celebrated concert pianist who like their father is resolutely suicidal, while Yoli is a broke writer of “rodeo romances” who is failing at both love and life and yet forges enthusiastically ahead.
“All My Puny Sorrows” starts with Elf in the hospital for her latest suicide attempt as Yoli tries to talk her out of doing it again — “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other” — and continues in this vein until the suicide question is finally resolved once and for all. In between, Yoli sleeps with assorted lovers and gets stoned with old friends and haphazardly parents her fiercely independent teenage children from afar.
Mostly, though, she thinks about what makes life worth living, vacillating among understanding her sister’s pain and being furious at her for wanting to end it all, agreeing to fly her sister to Switzerland for the assisted suicide Elf longs for and concocting outrageous solutions like parachuting her sister into “a strange and brutal place like Mogadishu or North Korea where she’d be forced to survive on her own in ways like never before.”
“People ask: but how does this happen?” muses Yoli. “To think that even with all the security measures we employ these days to keep things out — fences and motion detectors and cameras and sunscreen and vitamins and deadbolts and chains and bike helmets and spinning classes and guards and gates — we can have secret killers lurking within us? … Who wants to think about that…?”
Toews does, clearly. Which makes sense, when you consider Toews’ autobiographical source material: Toews grew up in a Mennonite society, and her father and sister committed suicide. The greatness in “All My Puny Sorrows” comes from Toews’ ability to make the reader want to think about that too.
Her losses are the reader’s gain: Only an author with an intimate relationship with suicide could have written a novel with such wincingly painful honesty and mordant humor.
The book is not without its flaws. Characters, although always entertaining and sharply drawn, occasionally feel more like a collection of outrageous quirks than plausible human beings. Readers who haven’t earned a master’s in Comp-Lit will also spend a lot of time on Wikipedia looking up the mind-boggling number of intellectuals that Toews’ characters casually quote in conversation. (A partial list: Cesare Pavese, D.H. Lawrence, Nellie McClung, Al Alvarez, Madame de Staël, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Chateaubriand, Fernando Pessoa, Paul Valery and Goethe.)
But if the book occasionally feels like an existential debate, it is not without a healthy dollop of self-awareness. (At one point, Elf and Yoli’s mother complains of a novel, “We get it, we know what sad is, and then the whole book is basically a description of the million and one ways in which our protagonist is sad. Gimme a break! Get on with it!”) Instead, Toews keeps readers off-balance, undercutting a somber Mennonite funeral with a toddler placidly munching on the ashes of his great-grandmother.
In between the antics and observations, “All My Puny Sorrows” offers a sharp indictment of the healthcare industry — its doctors and nurses and psychiatrists are portrayed as useless narcissists, more interested in freeing up beds than helping their patients. (As Toews puts it in one epic rant, “Elf was up in arms, gnashing her teeth against the smarmy self-help racket that exists only to sell books and anaesthetize the vulnerable and allow the so-called ‘helping’ profession to bask in self-congratulations for having done what they could. They’d make lists! They’d set goals! They’d encourage their patients to do one ‘fun’ thing a day!”)
It’s also a clear-eyed debate about assisted suicide, a movement that is gaining steam thanks to the “right-to-death” campaign of cancer victim Brittany Maynard. Should that right be extended to someone not just physically ill but mentally ill? Here Yoli comes out, somewhat reluctantly, in favor: “It sounded naïve to me now and selfish and fearful to say you must live, you must want to live, you have to live. That’s your one imperative, the single rule of the universe.”
This is a curious observation to come out of a book with such a vibrant joie de vivre, but Toews’ great strength lies in her ability to see both sides of this argument and portray them with equal empathy.
Brown is the author of “This Is Where We Live.”
All My Puny Sorrows
McSweeneys: 320 pp., $24