Miriam Toews' latest novel offers ardent, funny lessons in staying and fighting
In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Canadian writer Miriam Toews explained that she thinks of all of her novels as "one big book. Every protagonist is some version of me and there's always some version of my sister, some version of my mother, just some version of the people in my world."
Toews has, again and again, mined the oppressive patriarchy and repressive religion of the Mennonite community she left behind. She peppers her novels with Plautdietsch dialect, punctuates them with absurdity that deflates sanctimony, and centers them on the perspectives of strong women who have suffered much but are determined to persevere. At the heart of Toews's "one big book" are the central traumas of her life — the depressions and suicides of both her father and sister — which she kaleidoscopically parses, considering what it means to trudge forward after catastrophic loss.
Her last novel, 2018's Women Talking, introduced a variation into this pattern, exploring the lives of people Toews does not know personally, but to whom she is distantly related. Women Talking is "an act of female imagination" responding to the men of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia who serially drugged and raped their women and girls for years. The result is a Greek chorus of eight women who meet in a hay loft to discuss what they should do in response to the attacks. They have three options: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.
Toews's latest, Fight Night, brings the thread of her "one big book" back home and broadens what it means to stay and fight. Fight Night once again explores multigenerational female relationships, but this time zeroes in on one Toronto family: nine-year-old Swiv, who has been expelled from school for fighting; Mooshie, Swiv's mother, an actor who is heavily pregnant; and Elvira, Mooshie's effervescent and sui generis mother and the stand-in for Toews's mother, whose name is also Elvira. Mooshie — preoccupied with her third trimester, the play she's rehearsing, her sister's suicide, and her husband's walking out — relies on Elvira to watch Swiv. Elvira — her heart petering out, dependent on nitroglycerin spray — relies on Swiv to help her bathe, accompany her around the city, and saw her whodunnits into slenderer (and thus easier to hold) volumes. In return, Swiv receives lessons in how to fight, and how to survive.
Fight Night is narrated by Swiv, in the form of a letter to her missing father — a pair of risks that (mostly) pay off. Toews is a master of voice, and Swiv's, with its mix of precocious parroting of Mooshie and Elvira and exasperation with them, is one that I could read forever. In the opening pages, we get such gems as, "Mom is having a complete nervous breakdown and a geriatric pregnancy which doesn't mean she's going to push an old geezer out of her vag, it means she's too old to be up the stump and is so exhausted." And while the first half of the book is light on plot — like Women Talking, this is a novel driven mostly by women talking — it is carried by Swiv's transcriptions of Elvira's routine antics. In Toews's hands, mundanity teems with comic detail:
When she drops pills on the floor accidentally, if she notices she drops them, she says Bombs away, Swiv! ... I come running and drop down onto the floor and scramble around by her feet picking them up and also picking up hearing aid batteries and conchigliettes and pieces from her Amish farm puzzle.
Fight Night's Elvira shares much with Elvira Toews: they both love the Raptors, suffer chronic heart conditions, and have left what Swiv calls the "town of escaped Russians." They've both lost a husband and daughter to suicide, and in the aftermath have grappled with how to keep living. For both Elviras, the answer to surviving grief is to ask "Who can I help?" The Elvira of Fight Night has moved in with Mooshie to help her through her "fear and anxiety and rage" borne of her sudden single motherhood, pregnancy, grief, and terror of inherited mental illness.
The fight is for survival in a hostile world: The women in 'Fight Night' have fought off their demons.
Helping Mooshie means helping Swiv, who's been reacting to mother's "scorched earth" moods and her father's absence by fighting to point that she comes home from school "with dried blood on [her] face." What Swiv is really worried about is death and bereavement — that her mother will go the way of her aunt and grandfather, that her grandma's heart will give out, that her father will never return. It is in these conversations that Toews distills the meaning of staying and fighting. The fight is for survival in a hostile world: The women in Fight Night have fought off their demons; the "pompous, authoritarian, insecure" leader of their Mennonite village and his similarly endowed male followers, "doucherocket" directors, an alcoholic husband looking for an excuse to leave, and a bloodline filled with depression telling the lie that leaving is the best option. For these women, fighting is pushing against the currents of despair and remembering, as Elvira puts it, that "we're here! We are all here now."
Swiv begins to comprehend this meaning of fighting in the second half of the novel, when she accompanies Elvira on a trip to visit her nephews in Fresno before the baby comes and while her heart will allow it. Amid the slapstick routines of negotiating airport travel, ill-advised dance moves at a nursing home, and a lurching lesson in driving a stick shift, Swiv finally learns what Mooshie — who is largely an absence in the book — has truly been fighting through in the past year. As Toews shifts the narration to Elvira, who for once stops laughing to be frank with Swiv, Fight Night delves into the abyss of despair, betrayal, stolen agency and stolen joy.
The journey to this dark place is brief, and part of me wished for more dwelling in the hardest parts of these women's lives — a kind of reflection that a nine-year-old, even one who has seen as much as Swiv, cannot provide. But, as Elvira says, "To be alive means full body contact with the absurd. Still, we can be happy." This is an apt mission statement for Toews's body of work. Fight Night makes an ardent, hilarious, and moving addition.
Kristen Martin's writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.
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