The latest from Miriam Toews
Miriam Toews’s eighth novel, Fight Night, takes the form of a long letter penned by nine-year-old Swiv to her absent father — whose whereabouts and motivations for leaving are, at least to her, mysterious. Swiv has been expelled for fighting and now spends her days in the school of life presided over by her grandmother, a frail though free-spirited iconoclast. Her mother, an actor, is frequently busy with rehearsals. Swiv is often embarrassed by her grandma’s eccentric behaviour, with a texture of aggravation specific to children on the brink of growing up. “I don’t understand adults,” she fumes. “I hate them.” Underneath the preadolescent veneer, though, is the deep love that binds these three generations.
Men are usually background figures in Toews’s books, although their abuses loom large. Some of her best-known works deal with the violence and trauma perpetrated by patriarchal Mennonite societies. A Complicated Kindness, which won a 2004 Governor General’s Award and established Toews’s place on the Canadian A‑list, was set in the ultra-religious town of East Village (modelled on Toews’s native Steinbach, Manitoba). A more recent title, Women Talking, fictionalized a horrific true crime, the drugging and rapes of more than 130 women in a small Bolivian colony.
As it’s been in her earlier work, the theme of survival is a backdrop to this latest novel. Swiv’s mother and grandmother have escaped to Toronto from a place that sounds a lot like East Village. From them, Swiv learns of the tyrannical patriarch and the conniving brothers who disinherited the women of her family. They have evaded the clutches of their abusers, but not without scars. Many members of her grandmother’s generation have been lost to suicide, and her mother has her own stories, now all too familiar, of harassment and coercive behaviour at the hands of directors. She has also returned from a film shoot pregnant with a baby of indeterminate sex, whom they call “Gord.”
In a 2019 New Yorker profile, Toews revealed that when a foreign publisher rejected one of her novels for a “fatal lack of plot,” she suggested that the phrase could be used for a cover blurb. It could adorn the cover of this book too. But where Women Talking was propelled by the furtive conversations of traumatized women, Fight Night ’s unlikely duo crash brazenly through life (at one point, straight into an airport Body Shop display, which, in a hilarious bit of physical comedy, explodes baroquely when Swiv loses control of her grandmother’s wheelchair).
The first half of the narrative takes place over a few weeks, as the pair gambol around Toronto, completing quixotic lessons that include Math Class (calculating how many more days someone needs to stay alive to complete a 2,000-piece puzzle), How to Dig a Winter Grave (which necessitates a call to the North Dakota Board of Funerals), and Boggle (self-explanatory). In the second half, the two take a trip to Fresno, California —“Raisin Capital of the World!”—
to visit family, but the excursion is cut short when the grandmother’s health takes a turn for the worse.
The book may not be elaborately plotted, but the story is an armature for accomplished comedic character sketches. Like Heather O’Neill and Eden Robinson — two contemporaries with similar gifts for creating believable young voices — Toews deftly conjures her preteen protagonist.
Swiv is a gender nonconforming and possibly neurodivergent math whiz who is perennially constipated and horrified by talk of sexual or bodily matters, which is unfortunate given her relatives’ conversational predilections. She narrates in a sardonic, anxiously observational style laden with the world-weariness of a child who has been thrust into an adult role (the psychological term is “parentified”). “It’s a good thing I can’t go to school anymore,” she muses. “I have all day for picking up everybody’s shit.” Swiv is being literal here: her grandma’s tendency to drop things on the floor is another bit of physical comedy. But the young narrator also sees herself as the calm centre of the familial hurricane, as she tries to instill order by micromanaging her grandmother’s medications and presiding over weekly “editorial meetings,” in which she gives the older women writing assignments.
Despite her pretensions to adulthood, Swiv still has a lot to learn about the world, and her grandmother — feisty, garrulous, and brimming with practical advice — is the ultimate teacher. Wise female elders are another hallmark of Toews’s imagination; they make appearances throughout her novels and have qualities, the author has explained in past interviews, that are modelled on her own mother, Elvira. The matriarch of Fight Night has a deep kinship with the underdog; she makes friends wherever she goes and, at one point, even gives her pants to a man in need. She has an equal disdain for petty authority figures, insouciantly spraying cops with the garden hose as they drive by. The grandma delivers her most important piece of advice while shouting at the underperforming Raptors (her favourite team) on TV: “That’s a terrible, terrible way to lose, by not trying and not fighting. You play hard to the end, Swiv. To the buzzer. There is no alternative.” Variations on this statement are a constant refrain. “We’re all fighters,” Swiv’s mother affirms. “Our whole family.”
Stories of the bonds between women are culturally ascendant right now, particularly in television shows like Insecure, Mare of Easttown, and Hacks. The latter two are notable for the powerful performances of Jean Smart — who is carving out important space for older women within a pathologically sexist, youth-obsessed industry — and for the intergenerational ties they depict. Similarly, Fight Night is animated by the relationship between Swiv and her grandmother, whose familial love is a progressive alternative to the tired marriage plot. The dynamic gains additional poignancy against the backdrop of the pandemic, with the hard evidence it has provided of our society’s contempt for seniors. (Canada has had the highest number of nursing home deaths per capita of all wealthy nations.) Toews offers a salutary corrective to mainstream culture’s shameful ageism.
The novel ends with a recognizably Toewsian blend of tragedy and comedy that, as Swiv’s grandmother would affirm, is the ultimate expression of resilience. “They took all those things and replaced them with evil and with guilt,” she reflects. “Ah, but we’ll slay their hypocrisy with our jokes.”
Within contemporary discourse, a lot of attention has been paid to the scholar Sara Ahmed’s trope of the “feminist killjoy,” the dissident who disrupts the status quo by calling out inequities. Toews has similar politics but a very different sensibility. Although her books deal with topics like sexual violence and trauma, her writing is suffused with joy and humour. It’s a reminder that in the continued fight against oppression, love and laughter can be weapons too.