Saturday, December 31, 2011

Profound Disbelief: Miriam Toews’s Irma Voth

I’m beginning to wonder if Miriam Toews isn’t something of a one-hit wonder. At this point in her career she has completed five novels, including Irma Voth (Knopf Canada, 2011). So far, the only one that has wholly impressed me has been A Complicated Kindness. Toews has a knack for molding vivid characters, except this time she’s gone too far. I struggled to make sense of the title character. On one page Irma does not comprehend simple irony; on the next she is gushing about “excruciating existential dilemmas.” Irma’s background does shed some light into her cryptic character. She was raised in a conservative Mennonite community on the Canadian prairies until her family moved to Mexico several years before the novel opens. In the present tense of the novel, she works as an assistant for a leftist independent filmmaker making a movie about Mexican Mennonites. So given her eclectic background, we might expect her to have a slightly incomprehensible personality. But even though I agree that just because someone is unsophisticated doesn’t make them incapable of sophisticated thought, I don’t think Toews creates a very convincing case for Irma Voth.

There are other points about the plot of Irma Voth that I find equally troubling. The events around Irma’s baby sister, Ximena, are especially incredulous. The centrifugal moment in the plot is when Irma decides to leave her abusive and controlling father and take her younger sister, Aggie, with her. Her mother insists that they also take her newborn baby girl. I know that desperate times can call for desperate measures, but I still find it difficult to believe that a mother would give a one-day-old baby to two resourceless vagabonds running for their lives, even if they are her daughters and her husband is a maniac. I realize I don’t have the range of experience to comprehend what actually motivates these characters’ decisions, but again Toews does not do the novelist’s job of convincing me. My disbelief grew as Irma and Aggie leave their baby sister unattended with various strangers such as an unknown cab driver and a random teenage girl.

The misogynistic elements of the Mennonite lifestyle (at least the one depicted in this novel) will take many readers by surprise. Their way of life may be antiquated, and although some aspects deserve respect, others break my heart. If I had to choose an alternate title for this novel, it would be The Problems of Waking Life (there is a character in the novel who is reading a book of a similar name, but it must be a made-up book – or a true hidden gem – as I can’t locate it anywhere on the Internet). Irma has her fair share of problems. The problems themselves are enough to fill a book, but Irma’s methods for coping with and understanding them are Irma Voth’s main redeeming qualities. Through a notebook that one of the film crew gives her, she begins to validate herself through the written word. For a girl who was raised without mirrors and pictures, it’s amazingly self-affirming to be able to see your words take form on the page. This notebook is critical for Irma’s development and authentication. Particularly in the second half of the novel, we see Irma trying to work through the baggage of her childhood. Using the notebook and the lists and ideas she collects therein, she acquires the gumption to take control of her life, meet new people, get a job, and provide for her sisters.

author Miriam Toews
One of my favorite scenes in the novel is when Irma tries to use a payphone for the first time. She has no clue how it works and an old lady has to show her how to use it. Irma attempts to reach her estranged husband, Jorge, but to no avail. Instead of dissolving into her emotions, Irma says “Well, now I know how a payphone works.” As she turns around from the phone, she meets Jeronimo, who has the name of his ex-wife, Esther, tattooed across his throat. Their conversation reveals that he’s grown to appreciate this name imprinted on his body as a reminder of “this treacherous world.” Unlike other parts of Irma Voth, this scene is elegantly done. Via her own experience and mirrored by the experience of Jeronimo, Irma learns that life teaches lessons in the most convoluted ways. Later, the return to the family homestead at the end of the novel reinforces all the lessons Irma has discovered. She is strong, worldly, and confident enough to respectfully stand up to her father.

Irma Voth is a violent novel – not graphically, but emotionally so. Family is supposed to be about safety, but the safety of domesticity has been perfectly perverted in Irma Voth. Irma takes this to heart, psychologically assuming the responsibility for the deaths of both her sister and her husband. She is legitimately responsible for neither – her sister, Katie, was killed by her father and her husband, Jorge, was killed in a drug-related showdown. It is true that Irma’s decisions may have led to the death of both Katie and Jorge, but does causation imply liability? This is just one of the difficult questions Irma tries to figure out in this modern Bildungsroman.

– Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

1 comment:

  1. Just finished Irma Voth so I’m surfing around looking at reviews and I find this thing, which I really feel like I can’t let pass without commentary, especially your opening line. “One hit wonder”? What does that mean? Are we talking about pop songs here? You say you’ve read all five of her novels, and your favorite was A Complicated Kindness. So how does your personal preference for one novel make the author of that book a one hit wonder?

    I’ve only read three Toews books but for me Irma Voth is the best. It’s got more darkness and weightiness than Complicated Kindness. I loved Flying Troutmans too, but structurally it wasn’t quite on the level. I admit that at first I was reminded of Complicated Kindness, and sort of distracted by that, but then Irma’s world became so vivid and I was completely transported as she began to find her feet and to discover the way society works. The scene in the cinema at the end of the book was a surprising and daring move in the course of the narrative, and it really ties up the themes developed through the course of the book, especially the idea of art as redeeming and instructive power. Irma is not just a Mennonite, she’s an adolescent, and it’s pretty easy to identify with her. On the other hand, her relative unworldliness and naivite give her a special openness and an penetrating understanding of other people’s motivations, while at the same time she imparts good intentions upon them. It’s a major source of comedy in the book. She’s definitely not “unsophisticated.” That IS her sophistication. She's not “incomprehensible” either. Also, can I just point out that incredulity does not qualify as critique? (by the way, events cannot be incredulous). I personally felt no disbelief around the handing over of the baby. Given what’s happened (Katie, etc.), it’s perfectly plausible that a long-suffering, obedient, sheltered Mennonite housewife would give her blessing to a daughter who wants to brave the world outside the farm, and perfectly plausible that she’d hand off the newborn. It's a spontaneous act of rebellion. After all, one of her daughters has already been killed by her husband.

    Irma goes into the world full of trust and faith, that’s what makes her such an amazing character. Why wouldn’t she leave a baby with a stranger? She’s lived a secluded existence, she’s not a jaded teenager from the urban backstreets. You also claim the book has passages that lack elegance, without being at all specific. Toews’ very strength is style, consistency of tone, and elegance, and these things don’t mysteriously lapse every few pages as you imply. I'd guess her editors agree. I’ve written more here than I meant to, but it’s irritating to read a sloppy review of a book you love. Sometimes the proper function of the reader is to save the tale from the blogger who critiqued it.