Evan Bauer, BFR Editor

AMPS paperback cover BFR Blog Post image

Design and Illustration by Sunra Thompson, Courtesy of McSweeny’s Publishing

If you’re fortunate enough to have been one of my victims over the past few months, you’ll already be aware that I’ve been occupying my time with an incessant rampage of recommending All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews to anything with eyeballs and a pulse.

Every now and then, I’ll read a book so magnificently heartbreaking that it seems like the only logical response is to—with tears of hope in my eyes—vehemently campaign for its author’s ascendance to the presidency. And given the current political climate in the US, electing Toews president seems like just the kind of radical intervention we need. (Toews—pronounced “Taves”—is, to the detriment of my cause, Canadian, but I’m sure we can work something out.)

My infatuation with All My Puny Sorrows began (apropos to BFR Managing Editor Clare Suffern’s recent blog post) with the cover. Upon completing an internship with McSweeney’s Publishing in San Francisco last spring, I was given free rein to choose a stack of their titles from the bookshelves—titles I had eyed covetously each time I walked through the office. If I were to take the liberty of claiming the existence of a core tenet for some sort of underlying philosophy universal to the team at McSweeney’s, it would be that books, with all their potential to be beautiful, should invariably be just that: beautiful, in everything from content to cover design, typography to spine width, and even the type of paper used in printing. And to me, the paperback edition of All My Puny Sorrows represents the pinnacle of McSweeney’s adherence to beautiful design, so last spring, I knew exactly which book to pull off the shelf first.

The cover—designed by the brilliant Sunra Thompson—depicts a bird’s-eye view of a landscape composed of pastel oranges, purples, and metallic gold accents. Scattered throughout this landscape are tiny, stylized humans going about their various enterprises. Closer inspection reveals that this landscape transcends temporal boundaries, for each orange-skinned figure represents a character from the novel; those two boys carrying a golden kayak, those imposing men in suits and ties standing outside their cars, the two old women arm-in-arm looking out over the river—all of these human miniatures receive hands and facial features over the course of the novel.

Thompson depicts the novel’s two main characters, sisters Yolandi (striped shirt, light hair) and Elfrieda (white shirt, dark hair), multiple times on the cover. Elf is depicted in various positions with slouched posture, hiding, it seems, underneath her cascade of dark hair, and she never has anything in her hands. Yoli, by contrast, is drawn in motion, holding a grocery bag or riding a bicycle. The one instance of Yoli standing still with nothing in her hands features her in the lower left corner, arms slung straight at her sides, looking back on the title of the book and the surrounding landscape. Something about the squiggly font of the title, the scraggly branches of the purple trees dotting the landscape, these handless orange humans all enmeshed in their own toils and ruminations—it all betrays an undercurrent of melancholy and existential dread, yet simultaneously communicates an air of bewilderment. So as viewers, before even acquiring an inkling of what the novel is about, we are inclined to empathize with Yoli in the lower left corner as she looks back and tries to make sense of this beautiful, forlorn landscape and her slouched, despondent sister sitting in the center of the title. By nailing this balance between absurdity and despair, the cover serves as a visual taste-test of the most striking aspect of Toews’ fiction: her use of humor as a gateway into difficult material.

At this point, it would be useful for readers to acquire the aforementioned inkling of what this book is about, so I’ll steal from the back cover: “When Elf, a world-renowned concert pianist, attempts suicide just before an international tour, her sister Yoli must keep their family from falling apart while facing a profound question: what do you do for a loved one who truly wants to die?”

With what wisp of a plot there is revolving around a hospital bed and a family member’s sincere wish to die, it’s easy to wonder how this book could be anything but depressing. But thanks to Toews’ keen imagination and knack for self-deprecation, the novel’s frequent bouts of humor serve as a kind of old-fashioned scuba suit for readers to slip on before diving into subject matter perhaps otherwise too suffocatingly tragic.

One instance of such humor (taken from a long list in my phone of page numbers on which this book made me laugh or cry) comes at a point in the novel when Yoli is visiting Elf in the hospital, away from her kids in Toronto, and grappling with the question of whether or not to help her sister access legally assisted suicide in Switzerland. She receives a call from a man with whom she is loosely romantically involved back in Toronto. He asks if there is anything he can do for her. Yoli replies: “I asked him to drive past my apartment in Toronto and see if there were signs of life from Nora and Will and maybe he could knock on the door and ask them if they were okay and why Nora wasn’t answering her phone. Although I already knew why. It was because she had poisoned Will and dragged his body into a closet and was having unprotected sex all over the house with her fifteen-year-old Swedish dancer boyfriend and she didn’t have the time or inclination to talk to her sad old disapproving mother in the midst of it all. Consider it done, he said.”

In an interview for The Guardian, Toews said of her choice to bring so much humor into the equation: “I wanted people to not be afraid of the subject matter, to get the tone right, right off the top, and get the readers’ trust, so we could come out together in some other, less dark place.”

A natural concern with such a strategy is that the comedic moments might, in some way, diminish the legitimacy or forcefulness of a story’s sorrow. In my own writing, I know that a particular sadness can feel so precious that to juxtapose it with humor would be to fail in giving it a faithful representation. However, when done well (and it is hard to do well—thank god we have writers like Miriam Toews), moments of comic relief can, curiously, have the opposite effect. Rather than diminish it, these moments can actually amplify the reader’s experience of a story’s sadness. In reading All My Puny Sorrows, we get the sense that the characters—particularly Yoli—are utilizing humor as a defense against tragedy; by surrendering themselves to the bafflement of navigating human sorrow, they refuse to let it break them. The characters then feel more human and relatable, which makes us feel the weight of their grief all the more.

Another writer (featured in our most recent issue of BFR) who toes this line between tragedy and comedy well is Jonathan Plombon in his gloriously titled short story “Dismantling Modern Residential Architecture Inside the Patriarchal Family Structure: A Proper, Expedited Disposal Technique of a Broken Home and Its Contents, for Fathers Who Have Somewhere Better to Be and Couldn’t Give a Damn, Anyway.” Across twenty-six short (and equally gloriously) individually-titled segments, Plombon’s narrator details a childhood spent in a broken home and a subsequent encounter with a mysterious plant-woman. Unlike Toews, however, Plombon’s humor relies largely on surrealist exaggerations and clever twists on familiar phrases. In section seventeen— “Babies and Ladders Don’t Come with Instruction Manuals”—the narrator exclaims: “I wanted my mother to use me as a crutch… She never clung to my arm, but I detached mine anyway, tying it together with crutches, bars, stools, and a strange man’s shoulders.” The tone of the story is removed from the narrator’s internal strife—emotionless, almost—so somehow this image of him taking off his arm and tying it up in an absurd contraption to prop up his mother impacts the reader even more (and by “the reader,” I mean me).

So what to do with all this? Pick up a copy of All My Puny Sorrows. Pick up a copy of BFR. Let Toews and Plombon slice you open then stitch you back together. Write your own magical-realist tragicomic story about a country-bumpkin-turned-city-slicker old man who wants only to look upon his childhood farm once more but can’t, for the life of him, remember where he misplaced the cord to his rechargeable eyeballs. The world is your miserable, hysterically laughing oyster.

Sophia Zepeda, BFR Editorial Staff

The first time River Valentina Hernandez watched The Wizard of Oz, she didn’t understand Dorothy’s desperate desire to return to Kansas. The madness of a land over the rainbow had to be better than the sepia existence of the farm.  This came to mind as River walked out of the downstairs bathroom with her head held high, displaying her newly bleached hair. At the beauty supply store, she had trouble deciding between black and platinum blond, but ultimately chose bleach blond as it was the color most likely to aggravate her mother. It was distinctly not natural and would appeal the least to a new age hippy.  Upon entering the living room, her mother looked up from her seat on the couch. Mom had covered the coffee table with newspaper and was attempting to mend a chipped vase with glue and intense determination. River’s father won the vase at a boardwalk carnival game and gave it to her mother ages before he abandoned them for a massage therapist named Frieda.  The vase was shaped like a mermaid and had always been dear to her mother.  It fit right into their hippy home. At the sight of River, her mother narrowed her eyes and said, “River, again? Your natural color is so beautiful.”

This was the response River expected, feeling a mix of irritation and satisfaction. Her mother, Claire Hernandez, who had not changed her last name after the divorce, held the belief that the only way to truly live was to subscribe to a life of holistic remedies and natural substances. River, who made it her mission to become the exact opposite of her mother, wore only the latest fashions and followed the most popular style and makeup blogs on YouTube in an effort to show her mother how ridiculous it was to shun everything but tofu and hemp.

“Everyone’s doing it, Mom,” River replied, “besides you’ll only have to look at it for a week.”

“Are you sure you still want to visit your Aunt and Uncle? I don’t think you’re going to enjoy yourself as much as you think. Los Angeles isn’t anything like Santa Cruz.”

“And that’s why I’m going,” River said, walking to her room to repack the suitcase she had already repacked multiple times that week.

River had not seen her Aunt Rosa, her father’s sister, since her father left, and the only distinct memories she had of her were finely manicured French-tipped nails and highly-perfumed hugs that lasted longer than necessary. Spending the summer with her Aunt Rosa and Uncle Luis in Los Angeles would be a welcome escape from the commune-like environment in which her mother forced her to live. Claire had a bad habit of picking up stray people and allowing them to live in the house, something River had been protesting for years. In Los Angeles, River could tour the universities to which she had applied and immerse herself in a life of glamor and freedom. Her land over the rainbow was just 350 miles and a plane ride away.

River found herself unable to sleep the night before her flight. She spent the drive to the airport ignoring her mother, and the hour-long flight listening to music in order to distract herself from her nervousness. As River walked down the stairs to the airport baggage claim, she saw her Aunt and Uncle standing side-by-side waving at her.

Mija!” her Aunt exclaimed, “It’s been too long since we’ve seen you.” Her Aunt commenced to hug her for a period approaching a full minute, smothering River against her bosom while rocking her from side to side. Her Uncle, who stood off to the side, briefly wrapped one arm around her, told her she had grown into a beautiful young woman, and then disengaged.

They did not live in Los Angeles proper as River had thought.  In the long car ride to their house in a suburban town called Whittier—which was most famous for housing a college of the same name—her Uncle Luis explained the rules of the house. These included no staying up past 10 PM, church on Sunday morning, dinner at 6:30 PM everyday with no exceptions, and no back-talking any adult visitors.  River, who had never lived in a house with such strict rules, thought them ridiculous, but promised she would follow them to the best of her abilities.

Their house was a beige cookie-cutter two-story affair with a typical walkway leading to the front door. It blended in with all the other houses in the neighborhood and was nothing like her mother’s forest green old Victorian. River’s Uncle walked her to the beige room in which she would be staying; it was spartanly furnished with only a bed, desk, and a small dresser. Then, he told her to put her things away and get ready for dinner. In the room, River began to unpack and think about her plans for the month she would be there. First, she would go to the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the one that had the hand and footprints of all the stars imprinted in concrete. Then, she would walk down Rodeo Drive, exploring all the shops that sold items she couldn’t afford yet, wearing her most expensive clothes and movie-star sun glasses in an effort to blend in. She also had plans to sunbathe on Venice Beach and take a picture next to the Hollywood sign, all with the sole intention of making her friends jealous.

However, within two weeks, River concluded that she would not be seeing any of the tourist sites she planned on visiting. The only places she toured were a local church and the University of California in Los Angeles. Her Aunt planned to take her to the University of Southern California the following Saturday. When River asked if they could at least drive down Hollywood Boulevard at some point, her Aunt replied that they didn’t have time for that sort of thing but perhaps they could squeeze it in later in the week.

Living with her Aunt and Uncle proved to be nothing like she expected. Her Aunt, who took over two hours to get ready each morning, seemed to naturally accept that hair, clothes, and makeup were meant to consume vast chunks of one’s day (and everyone’s else’s for that matter) while her Uncle, who never smiled, watched hours of Fox News every night after dinner, as religiously as they attended Sunday mass. When River mentioned that her best friend was gay, they gave her a two-hour lecture on hating the sin but not the sinner and not associating oneself with such unscrupulous people. This was not the only lecture River received. On the Monday of her third week living there, her Aunt told her to change her shirt because it was indecent to have her bra straps showing. On Tuesday, they sat her down and asked why she hadn’t brushed her hair, as it was already lunchtime. On Thursday, her Uncle took forty-five minutes to explain why she couldn’t wear slippers outside the house to get the mail because someone might see her, and what would they think of them as a family? By Friday, River officially had had enough and she began to count down the days until her return home.

Sunday, before church, Aunt Rosa asked River to go in the garage and help her retrieve a vase from a topmost shelf. Aunt Rosa explained that Great Aunt Anita was going to be visiting after church, and she had bought Aunt Rosa the vase for Christmas last year. It needed to be put on the side table in the foyer before Aunt Anita arrived.

“I hate it,” Aunt Rosa said, “It doesn’t match the house. Who buys someone a vase that doesn’t match the house?”

“Then why are you displaying it?” asked River.

Aunt Rosa looked at River in disbelief, “Because she needs to think I like it. What will she think of me if she knows it is hidden away in the garage?”

River stood on a stool and reached for the vase and as she turned to give it to her Aunt, the vase fell from River’s grasp and crashed to the floor. Aunt Rosa screamed and dropped to her knees, attempting to pick up the pieces.

“What have you done?” Aunt Rosa yelled, “You’re so careless!”

“I’m so sorry,” River said, “but at least you don’t have to display it anymore.”

“No!” yelled Aunt Rosa, “We have to go to the mall to replace it. I think she got it at Macy’s.”

“That’s ridiculous!” River said, “It was an accident, she’ll understand.”

“No, we need to go now. I’ll tell Anita we couldn’t make it to church because you’re sick,” Aunt Rosa said, as she pulled River to the front door.

As River sat in the car staring out the window at the passing scenery, she contemplated her current situation. Instead of driving down Rodeo Drive, here she sat in the passenger seat of her Aunt’s Jeep Cherokee on the way to the mall to watch her Aunt buy a vase she didn’t even want. It didn’t make any sense to River why her Aunt cared so much about what another person thought. The entire trip wasn’t necessary; Aunt Anita probably wouldn’t even remember the vase.

At the mall, Aunt Rosa was pleased to discover that the vase was marked down for clearance in Macy’s Home Decor department for only $200, apparently $100 less than what Great Aunt Anita paid. The vase stood 15 inches tall with zebras and arrows garishly accented in 24K gold, all of which was set on a black Italian glass surface. In the dark of the garage River had not fully seen the vase. Standing in Macy’s, looking at the ugly prancing zebra’s, River contemplated destroying this one too. All she had to do was lean over the table and lightly brush the vase with her hand and it would crash to the floor.

“Aunt Rosa, you can’t buy this,” River pleaded. “It’s even more hideous in broad daylight. Why are you going to spend money on something you don’t even like?”

Aunt Rosa clucked her tongue at River, “Don’t you care what Great Aunt Anita thinks of you?” Then she exhaled a large breath and headed to the cash register.

“No I don’t!” River said as she grabbed her Aunt, “You’re being stupid. Nobody cares!”

“I care and you should too,” Aunt Rose huffed, “This entire week you’ve done nothing but embarrass me and your uncle and I’m ashamed at your behavior.”

A heavy weight descended into the pit of River’s stomach as she watched her Aunt walk to the register. Slowly, River followed her.

After paying for the vase, Aunt Rosa walked to the car, clutching the vase to her chest as if it were an ailing infant.

“When we get home,” Aunt Rosa told River, “I want you to sit down and not touch anything until Aunt Anita arrives. You’ve done enough damage.”

River watched television until she heard the doorbell ring. Her Aunt opened the door for Great Aunt Anita who immediately looked at the foyer table.

“Ah, it’s beautiful. I knew you would love it,” Aunt Anita said.

“Of course!” Rosa replied as she walked with Anita to the couch, “It’s perfect.”

“Unbelievable,” River mumbled.

Great Aunt Anita raked River with her hawk-like gaze, turned toward Aunt Rosa and said, “Charming,” before sitting herself carefully on the couch.

River watched as the two women began to discuss, with great disapproval, the strapless dress that cousin Benita Gonzalez’s daughter, Lupe, had worn to church that morning. River retreated to her room, took out her cellphone and called her mother who picked up on the first ring.

“River, honey, how’s everything going?” Her mother asked.

“I’m ready to come home.”

“Already? You sure?”

There were several seconds of silence. “Yes,” River finally replied, “Los Angeles is great, and I’ve visited both universities, but there’s just no point to staying any longer. Mom, I really want to come home”

“Okay, I’ll book your flight right away, honey,” Claire responded, “See you in a couple of days.”

“Thanks mom,” River hung up and hastily packed a day bag. Then, she looked up the directions to downtown Los Angeles on her cell phone, jotted down a few notes, grabbed a jacket and her bag, and headed for the front door.  As River passed Aunt Rosa and Great Aunt Anita, who were still seated on the sofa but now complaining about another family member, she paused and executed an old fashioned curtsy.

“Mother trusts me, I trust me, and I trust the bus and light rail system of your fine metropolis.”

Aunt Rosa managed a “What?” while Great Aunt Anita simply looked confused.

River continued, “I appreciate everything you have done for me. I won’t be back until after dinner. I’ll give your regards to Hollywood.”

With that she strode out the door. She expected to catch hell when she got back. She thought she had better call her Mom soon and explain to her what she had just done. Later she might even check in with Aunt Rosa. But at that moment, she had a bus to catch and a city to explore. In a few days she’d be back at her mother’s home. And for the first time in years that idea was okay with her. Her mother’s home wasn’t here and it wasn’t forever. She shook her full head of bleached blond hair in the bright Southern California sunlight and laughed a loud and welcoming laugh at whatever lay ahead.