new Mennonite Life logo    June 2005     vol. 60 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

A Complicated Kindness: Learning, Lies, and Stories

by Jeff Gundy

Jeff Gundy is professor of English at Bluffton University and author of 'Walker in the Fog: On Mennonite Writing' (2005).

(Warning: This piece contains spoilers and more or less assumes that readers have read the book.)

Why did I find reading Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness—a book justly heaped with prizes and praise—so uncomfortable? I'm among those who insist that writers should say what they have to say, whether it's nice or not. I feel no need to defend Mennonite communities who treat their members badly. Still, the story of Nomi Nickel, ensnared in a Manitoba Mennonite village unremittingly hostile to those like her who refuse to surrender to the group order, tested my principles. I found myself worrying, however predictably and weakly, that the ignorant masses will read this book and conclude that they now know about Mennonites. And while Nomi has a sharp wit and the book is filled with the sort of dark humor that usually appeals to me, I got so caught up in wanting to help her that I could hardly stand it that nobody else in the book seemed willing or able to throw her a lifeline.

Maybe it's my general uneasiness around realistic literary fiction, a genre that I confess to approaching the same way I do eating fish, knowing it's supposed to be good for me but rarely finding pure delight in the experience. Mary Rose O'Reilley once remarked that she had reached a point in her life when "Most fiction seemed the product of extremities I no longer wished to visit." I mainly feel that way, though I claim no virtue in this attitude. By and large I prefer poetry or science fiction for recreational reading, at least when I'm feeling self-indulgent, which is most of the time. It's not that I mind sad stories or bleak subjects—all the great poems are sad, and a lot of science fiction is bleak—it's something about the conventions, the way realistic fiction must operate as though it's, well, real.

Still, when it comes to Mennonite fiction I make exceptions, and Miriam Toews is quite apparently a gifted writer, whose earlier work Swing Low (a memoir about her father's depression and suicide) I liked a good deal. So it bothered me that despite all of Nomi's pluck and wit in the face of a desperately difficult environment, despite all the skill of the writing, I didn't much "enjoy" this book. That's no big deal either, in itself; God knows how much of my life I've spent trying to convince undergraduates that whether or not they "like" a text is not an adequate measure of its merits.

But while I found myself "liking" Nomi, I just about couldn't bear her sustained misery, and the radical failure of those around her to ease her way. It was sort of like reading Othello, and wanting to yell at him all the way through: You're being an idiot, man, wise up! Besides the obvious error of confusing literary characters with actual human beings, though, Othello is a grown man, while Nomi's just fifteen-turning-sixteen, far too young to be judged so harshly. It was everyone else in the book I found myself wanting to yell at, just about without exception, even the ones it seemed I was meant to find sympathetic.

The way I see it, Nomi's community fails at many things. For one, it fails to educate her—what she thinks she knows about Menno Simons and Mennonites in general is wildly anachronistic and partial, though funny enough: "Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock'n'roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewelry, going to cities, or staying up past nine o'clock. That was Menno. Thanks a lot, Menno."

I must grant that this description is mostly true of her dysfunctional church, whose bizarrely empowered patriarchs would be more at home beheading troublemakers in Münster than slipping into the hidden church in Pingjum with the peaceable followers of Menno. "That I belong within the frightful fresco of this man's dream unnerves me," Nomi says (6), meaning Menno, but the cruelly twisted version of Menno's dream she inhabits is created by the denizens of East Village, who seem to have learned all the lessons about discipline but none about love or grace. Even their practice of the ban is pointless, hapless, and disconnected from anything resembling communal discipline in the name of Jesus.

Nomi's parents—her free-spirited mother has fled somewhere after being placed under the ban, and her straight-laced, gentle father seems at least as depressed as Nomi herself is—didn't impress me much more than the church. They aren't mean, but they can muster only the weakest resistance to the excesses of the church (which is dominated by Nomi's uncle Hans, whom she calls The Mouth) and only vague and incompetent attempts at raising their children to be alert and open human beings.

Functional communities, and functional parents, find ways to stay in some kind of contact with their young ones while they work through their often harsh discoveries of just how radically imperfect the world is. It's difficult, and sometimes impossible, to provide the comfort and solace and hope that adolescents need, and the best and luckiest of us do imperfect and partial jobs. But in East Village there seem to be no functional adults, let alone real followers of Jesus, only victims and victimizers. Nomi is offered no future besides a lifetime of slaughtering chickens and listening to The Mouth's hellfire sermons. As his nickname suggests, he is purely self-righteous and mean, a character so flat that he can be defined by a body part, which he apparently uses only to issue pronouncements and to binge on ice cream late at night.

Nomi's critique of East Village is devastating and complete, and I will leave the question of the relation of this fictionalized disaster zone to the real Steinbach, Manitoba, to those who know it better than I do. In the world of this book, the church is the enemy of every sort of human feeling, every effort toward humane existence. The only possible stances toward it are dehumanized, silenced submission, a la the mute Aunt Gonad, The Mouth's wife, or flight, a la all the Nickel family with the possible exception of Nomi, or vengeful enforcement of its vicious doctrines for the rare ones empowered by it, e.g. The Mouth. But (and this is the most perplexing, frustrating thing about the book) somehow the church also makes it impossible for the Nickels to be a family, to help each other or to escape together. Instead it gradually but surely breaks them apart as well.

With church and family no help, Nomi turns predictably to what used to be called the counterculture, where she bonds with her sometime boyfriend Travis over the right musicians (Air Supply, never; Emerson, Lake and Palmer, doubtful; Lou Reed, absolutely) and some dope. Nomi thinks he is "way cooler" than she is—he plays the guitar and dresses hippie/punk—but underneath he's a thoroughly conventional, mediocre, and distractable young rebel, far from being capable of the rescue she needs. He loses interest in her right about the time she yields up her virginity.

Who else does Nomi have? Her mother and sister have already fled for parts unknown. Her friend Lydia is in the hospital with some mysterious ailment that makes her unbearably sensitive to everything; by the end of the book, her exasperated parents have shipped her off for shock treatments. Nomi's kindly but distant and ineffectual father refuses to call things or people by their right names and pours all his energy into projects like building an elaborate hutch for the garbage. He cares for her but has no clue as to how to be of real use. Her bullying high school English teacher, Mr. Quiring, keeps demanding that she get her work done, but sneers at everything she actually produces—and turns out to have betrayed her in other ways as well.

In such a context Nomi can be forgiven for thinking that she's got it tough, and only rarely does her self-absorption threaten to slip into self-pity. She oscillates between cataloging the current miseries of her life, remembering her only slightly less dismal past, and dreaming vaguely of escape. She blows off school and her job, hanging out with Travis and doing whatever drugs they can afford while they wait for her birth control pills to kick in. While Nomi shaves her head and becomes ever more visibly dissociated from the local culture, her father takes long, aimless drives, watches a gospel choir perform on television, and sells off the furniture, in what seems an act of resistance parallel to Nomi's and only slightly more lucid.

Most of the way through the book, as Nomi spiraled through a series of small and medium-sized disasters, it dawned on me that two elements missing from her life got me through my own similarly though less radically unsettled youth. First was the presence of adults whose sustained and mainly benign interest in me was impossible to overlook. Some were relatives, some members of my local congregation; after I went off to college, the most important were professors. Some never said more than a few words to me directly, but they made it difficult to absolutize my youthful binary thinking and made it dimly possible to imagine becoming an adult someday without giving up every trace of hope.

The second was the possibility of escape. Even in my most disaffected high school years I knew that I could get away, because my cousins and the other older kids in the church had done so—many to go to Mennonite colleges. Not all prospered, but those who came back to visit, some with long hair and some with stories about trips and projects, let us know that the world out there was complicated but not impossible to navigate, and that leaving was not necessarily betrayal.

But Nomi is stuck. She can't imagine staying, but she has no real idea of how to leave, or how to live outside East Village—especially on her own. She's sixteen, after all. "[P]eople around here are forced to [leave] if they aren't strong enough to live without some kind of faith or strong enough to make a stand and change an entire system or overthrow a church. And who of us are that strong anyway? Not the Nickels, that's for sure." (241)

I've been teaching college students for 25 years, and some of my favorites have been much like Nomi, smart and troubled, filled with questions they have every right to ask and angers they have every right to feel. Knowing it was impossible, I found myself wanting to tell Nomi something like this: Come hang out here for a while. You can do whatever you want with your hair, and I'll try to pretend it doesn't seem weird to me. I don't know the answers to any of your questions—most of them are still my questions too. I hope you'll grow out of the Sweet Caps some day, but never mind for now. I won't read the first page of your story and throw it back with a demand that you rewrite it to suit me. I won't talk about hell or deny that I love this world too, weird and horrible as it often is.

Near the end Nomi says "Love is the greatest of these" (244). She believes it. Mennonite Christians have failed her, but her underlying ethos is still Christian, though it remains folded up within her, waiting to flower. But she has no experience of love not being overwhelmed by convention, fear, and patriarchy. I kept waiting for some instance of a really tough, smart, sacrificial love in this book, for someone to try at least to act as Jesus might have. But it doesn't happen, unless we accept that Nomi's father has really sold off all the furniture and then walked off somewhere with nothing but her best interests in mind, that his note explaining how to sell the house was really sufficient. That's a brave interpretation, but it's hard for me to buy. If he really loved her, I think, he would have said, Listen, Nomi, I've had enough of these people. Pack your stuff, we're moving to Winnipeg.

In the last pages Nomi muses about the importance of story—something any good Mennonite should appreciate. The book's frame is in fact her attempt to write a story (with a "triggering point, a climax, and a conclusion" as Mr. Quiring has instructed her[223]). But though she knows some things by the end —about her mother's affair with Mr. Quiring, for example—she still doesn't know much. Where did her sister, her mother, and then her father go? Nomi constructs optimistic stories: that her father left so that she also could leave, that her mother is a courier in Tel Aviv. She knows these may well be fictions at the same time as she sees believing them as her only "chance at redemption": "I've learned, from living in this town, that stories are what matter, and that if we can believe them, I mean really believe them, we have a chance at redemption. . . . Is it wrong to believe in a beautiful lie if it helps you get through life?" (245)

This question might be answered many ways, but one would be that the town and the church's problem in this novel is precisely this. They are built on lies they have chosen to think beautiful, and they have built such a twisted and perverse version of a Christian community that Nomi—one of their own children—is treated more tenderly by the dope dealer who trades her drugs for sex than by the minister who excommunicates her. At least he touches her gently, and says something nice to her afterwards. In his predatory way the Golden Comb, as Nomi calls him, is more honest and not much less abusive than those who have taught her a whole series of lies about her tradition, what it ought to mean, and what resources for living it can provide.

The book ends bravely and certainly unsentimentally. Who can not admire Nomi's perseverance in the face of abandonment by absolutely everyone she loves? Who by this point hasn't succumbed, as I obviously have, to thinking of Nomi as a real young woman, not a literary character, and isn't (in one way or another) trying to figure out some way to save her? Probably it is best, despite my grabbling after explanations here, first of all to attend carefully to such stories, to recognize the truth of the fiction without trying to explain it away or solve things on paper that need attention in the world of living beings. Those of us lucky enough to have been born into less pernicious environments, or to have escaped ones like Nomi's, should count our blessings and remind ourselves how little we did to deserve it. And all of us should attend to the Nomis among us, who deserve more than to be left alone in empty houses, clutching desperately at beautiful lies.