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All My Puny Sorrows: What Do We Mean When We Say “A National Conversation” (About Assisted Suicide and Mental Illness)?

Screen-Shot-2012-10-15-at-13.38.53You’ve heard it before. The refrain that “it’s time to have a national conversation about _______.” The call from pundits, activists and politicians to engage the nation in a discussion about race, or poverty, or legalizing marijuana, or smoking, or texting-while-driving. Or assisted suicide. What is less often said is what we mean when we say “a national conversation.”

Imagine it. Imagine the nation (once you’ve sorted out what you mean by that) engaged in a conversation. How would it happen? Where would it happen? Who would be invited to bring their voice and their perspective? How would it shift beyond you presenting your point of view, me presenting mine a little bit louder, you returning with yours, louder still? How, in an era of social media feeds filled with identical opinions to our own, would we ever escape our own existing political and social persuasions? With the decline (disappearance?) of shared, public social spaces that invite the free interaction of people of different social, political and economic backgrounds, how do we have a national conversation beyond the echo chamber of ourselves?

Oh I know you’ve already sorted it out. You’ve realized this is a book blog and I’m an earnest (if irritatingly one-tuned) champion for the power of novels to make our individual and collective lives better. Yep. I think one of the few ways we have a national conversation about a particular subject is to read about it in a shared literature. And then talk about it with friends, at book clubs, in libraries and with strangers.

Picture me: I’ve just finished Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. It’s a book about sisters, art, love, mental illness and assisted suicide. Our protagonist, Yolandi, summarizes the central problem of the novel:”She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” In effect her sister, Elf, wants to die, and Yolandi wants to stop her from dying (or to make her want to live) (and these two things are different). Until Yolandi isn’t sure if she wants to stop her, or to make her. Maybe she wants to honour Elf’s deep, desperate, sincere and considered desire to end her life.

So I’ve just finished the book and I’m feeling very much like this is a book I need to talk about. And I’m in a bakery in little town and the woman behind the counter notices I’m carrying a book. She asks me about it, and I tell her “meh, it’s just okay, but I just finished an incredible book, All My Puny Sorrows, about [see the summary above]”. And we spend ten minutes (not that long really, but long enough – try it) talking about the central problem of the novel. She presents her view – one shaped by a Christian faith, her own experience with anxiety and a concern about abuse. I present mine – deep confusion, worry that ‘allowing’ assisted suicide for mental illness entrenches ideas of mental illness as an irrecoverable state, a committed belief in the importance of respecting individual’s choices (and, indeed, contributing to contexts where individuals might make their own choices). We talk and we listen and neither of us leave the conversation any more sure about anything.

I admit this experience is rare. Short of teaching novels (ah! another way we have a national conversation: the classroom!), I don’t often go around talking to other people about the books I’m reading (okay, you’re right, this blog definitely counts as me talking to other people about the books I’m reading). But I can’t put it any other way: All My Puny Sorrows demands discussion.

It is not an easy book. Other reviews have pointed out moments of humour, but I admit I missed these – or perhaps I just didn’t recognize them as moments of levity – caught up as I was in the… impossible (perplexing seems too small a word) experience of Elf, Yolandi and their family. I suppose the closest approximate to its humour would be the viral comedy set by Tig Notaro that layers tragedy upon tragedy until the sheer weight of the suffering can only be hilarious because otherwise would be to succumb.

Of course I’m reducing the book by saying it’s about assisted suicide and mental illness. It’s about a whole lot more. Questions of familial loyalty (what would you be willing to give for your family member?), the relationship between art/genius and suffering (that old trope), the ‘treatment’ (both in the clinical sense and the representational) of mental illness. The affiliative (friends, brothers-in-law and lovers) and filiative (sisters, mothers, father) relationships that not only shape our identity, but gather up the pieces of it in both hands and sort of cluster-squeeze us back together when we crumble apart.

One of the other questions that threads the novel is to what extent we inherit our suffering. The novel does not dispute the inheritance of mental illness, but it asks a different kind of question about inheritance of suffering. Instead of associating suffering in a one-to-one relationship with mental illness, the novel asks whether the psychological and physical pain of mental illness might be one kind of suffering that is passed on through genes, while another sort of suffering – that of loneliness, or alienation, or loss – might be another kind of suffering we – inadvertently – give to our children. The suffering in this novel is, then, both related to mental illness and much larger than mental illness. It is much larger than Elf, and lived by the other characters. It acknowledges and creates space for Yolandi’s suffering, her mother’s, Elf’s husband, and ours as readers.

It becomes a question then of when we – you and me as individuals – find our suffering (whatever its cause) to be so great that we do not want to live with it any longer. The novel asks us to stop and fully consider: What do we owe one another in these moments – these enduring moments that become a lifetime?

Miriam Toews has brought a compelling voice to the national conversation about assisted suicide. As we head into a federal election, we’re presented with another occasion to engage in national conversations. We can use elections as an opportunity to ask ourselves and our neighbours about what we want for and from our national government, and what we are willing to do and give to make this happen. You could do worse than to read All My Puny Sorrows and then talk to someone else about it. We might just end up having a national conversation.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

On Reading

I read novels as a way to think about my responsibilities without having to think about my responsibilities. I read novels about characters who create new identities for themselves, or who question the dangers of too much compromise, or who contemplate the brevity of life and the challenge of making meaning in a world of such surplus and scarcity, a world of such disparity. While reading these novels I think that I understand the questions the author is asking. I pause after a poignant paragraph, I write essays on completion of the novel that summarize my impressions of the narrative, I emphatically recommend books to anyone who will listen and enthusiastically agree with the declaration that such and such a book is just incredible. I don’t do these things without sincerity; in each moment I attend to the narrative itself I am committed to being with and in the narrative.

I tell people – family, friends, colleagues – that the value of reading Literature is its capacity for changing perceptions, for inviting questions, for provocation, challenge and for altering the way readers look at everyday life. I passionately argue for an engaged readership that sees novels as a way to explore societal ills and potential solutions, as a space to wrestle with historical and contemporary grievances and injuries, and as a conversation about who we are as people, what we value and what defines us as (ir)rational, meaning-making, meaning-seeking beings.

Any regular reader will know that what I’ve written so far can only be followed by a “but,” because this is not an era of sincerity and we are not inclined to the optimistic observations about simplistic goods. My but is not dependent on an admission of the failings of fiction, far from it; I remain earnest in my stated beliefs about the power of novels. But. For all my acclamation of beauty, power and potential, I, myself, refuse these opportunities for sustained reflection. I make routine resolutions to sit quietly with my thoughts and to ask myself what I value, what my purpose might be, what makes for a meaningful relationship. I run, I swim, I cycle and each moment I’m engaged in these expressions of body – these intense experiences of breath, heat, movement – I remind myself that I should be thinking about the Big Questions (and that I should be writing my own novel while I’m at it). In the moments on transit when each rider fills the car with their separate, silent dialogues I think I should be thinking right now. I see my days as moments when I should be thinking about myself and my community, but I instead fill my mental landscape with headphone music, cellphone conversations, internet television, food, radio, sex and sleep. This admission is not intended as an indictment of “modern society” and its ills of isolation; this admission is meant only as confession.

I confess that I do not know how to spend time with my own thoughts. I do not want to ask the questions I read in novels. I do not want to know how little substance I have available to shape an answer. I will avoid the risk of inevitable silence by cramming my mental space with all manner of other distractions, not the least of which are novels.

I read because I do not want to think about myself, my complicity in inequality, my failure to meet my own expectations of citizen engagement, my frustration with my friends, family and colleagues, my dissatisfaction with the promises made and undelivered, my hurt and loneliness, my secret belief that I’m destined for great things.

Am I sad? Do I want to quit my job? Do I love my partner enough? What are my responsibilities to my family? What do I owe my community? Why do I get paid as well as I do? How can I live in a country that denies health care to refugees and exploits the environment for economic gain? I can’t answer these questions because I won’t answer them. I won’t give up the mental real estate required to be sad. To be hurt by injustice, by my selfishness, by exclusion. Instead I’ll read stories that let me feel just a little bit, just enough to assure myself that I’m engaged and that I’m politically active. I will read novels that grant me the self-assurance to say “oh this is an important question” and to flag it as such when I present the story to someone else. As if I can take credit for the thematic heft by identifying its existence. As if I can claim depth by knowing where the deep end lies.

I read, still. I love reading because I love feeling like I’m doing something.  I’m asking the questions, but only to you. After I finish this sentence I’ll close my thoughts, pick up a book, and let someone else take responsibility for giving the answers.

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