Sep 21, 2008

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews - review

The Flying Troutmans
Miriam Toews
Knopf Canada, 288 pages

If, along the way, something is gained, then something will also be lost. Those words were emblazoned on Min's bedroom wall, burned into the wallpaer with a charred wine-bottle cork. Our parents dismissed them as psuedo-profound, angsty-adolescent babble, but they haunted me. Why should that be? I wondered. How did she know that? Did she really believe it, or did she just like the way those words looked in burnt cork?
- from The Flying Troutmans

Let's make an analogy between books and buildings. Some books, like some buildings, are mammoth in scope, appearance, and construction. You can smell the sweat of the author on the pages. You can see the mortar in the cracks. You stare at it, and are amazed.
Infinite Jest. Against the Day. Underworld. Books that demand your attention not only for their overall quality, but for the effort as well.

And there's nothing wrong with this. A well-built edifice can be a thing of beauty.
Underworld is a spectacular skyscraper of a novel.

But such monuments may serve to denigrate the 'simpler' buildings. Buildings of equal care and precision, and certainly of equal effort, as their more elaborate counterparts, but buildings that don't show off. Like a house that offers its residents a sense of peace and acceptance, obscuring the work that went into its construction. Or a book that quietly leads its readers along a journey, offering multitudes of pleasures, only upon reflection revealing the immense craft that went into its manufacture. Alice Munro is a grand master of such writing. And Miriam Toews is no slouch.

The Flying Troutmans, Toews' first release since her monstrously successful (and damned good) A Complicated Kindness. Like her previous output, the simplicity of Toews' writing belies the artistry which lies underneath. You enjoy the work, but she makes it appear so effortless that subconsciously you may not appreciate how artful an author Toews really is. It requires monumental skill to write in such a fashion that you don't notice the author's perspiration that undercoats every word.

The linchpin of Toews' tale is Min, a manic-depressive who has undergone complete mental collapse. Picking up the pieces of Min's life is Hattie, Min's sister and Troutmans' narrator. Hattie had always watched over her older sister, but had taken the step of moving to Paris, fleeing "Min's dark planet for the City of Lights." Now, Hattie has had to return to care for Min's children;
Thebes, an eleven-year-old daughter prone to speaking in gansta slang, and Logan, a fifiteen-year-old son unwillingly thrust into responsibility too soon. And before you can say "Hollywood road movie," she's loaded up the family and headed south in search of the children's long-absent father.

As I rather dismissively wrote above, the trappings of The Flying Troutmans is a road trip, that classic staple of Hollywood quirk. It goes without saying that the reader will be reminded strongly of films such as Little Miss Sunshine and The Daytrippers, although it is quite unfair to simply lump Troutmans in as yet another 'weird family' road movie. The travelogue may have become co-opted and popularized by the cinema, but it has its roots in literature, and as Troutmans ably proves, there's life in the genre yet (alongside Michael Winter's recent triumph The Architects Are Here). A good road trip narrative understands that - and here comes another old reliable stand-by - it's not the destination that's important, but the journey. 

Toews' great strength as an artist is complete empathy for her characters, combined with a subtle wit and a genuine flair for imagery. Her narrative careens from past memories to current events with nary a misstep. Her tour of the American heartland is warm and funny, complete with reliable standbys such as people who confuse Manitoba with California, and the realization that the Grand Canyon is simply an enormous hole.

In the end, it's simply a great story, wonderfully told. Sometimes, as we bounce around the post-modern world, we forget just how important and rare a skill that is.


Remi said...

I wasn't totally sold on A Complicated Kindness, but this book sounded fun. I'm definitely going to read it.

Wanda said...

Totally convincing review! I just received "A Complicated Kindness" as a late b-day gift from my daughter last night. Looks like Miriam Toews will be hanging out in my head for a good bit of time in the near future.

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