Review: The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews

Sometimes I think my sense of humor is broken. Take something like The Royal Tenenbaums, which most everyone seems to think is hilarious with a capital H. (Query: When saying something is [adjective] with a capital [A], should [adjective] be capped, or does that make the “with a capital [A]” superfluous?) I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in high school or so, and it just made me feel sad. How is it funny? It’s not funny! It’s sad! Their lives are just sad!

So when I read a review of a dysfunctional-family book that claims it’s soooo funny, just a laugh a minute, I am always rather suspicious. In The Flying Troutmans, Hattie Troutman comes back from France, following a break-up with her pretentious boyfriend, to find her sister Min in a state of collapse. (Min has been suicidal, and very occasionally homicidal, ever since Hattie’s birth.) Unable to decide what to do about Min, Hattie takes Min’s two children, eleven-year-old Thebes and fifteen-year-old Logan, on a cross-country road trip to find the kids’ father, who skipped town years ago. No one is quite sure what’s going to happen when the father gets found.

Actually, The Flying Troutmans was funny. If it hadn’t done that cutesy/nauseating thing of ignoring the existence of quotation marks, I’d have been totally on board with the funny. See:

But, said Logan, a fifteen-year-old could technically live on his own, right?

Okay, bad times are gonna roll, I thought. Logan is planning to run away before we find Cherkis.

No, a fifteen-year-old cannot live on his own, I said.

Pippi Longstocking wasn’t even fifteen, said Thebes, and she–

Yeah, but she was a character in a book, I said.

And she was Swedish, said Logan.

So there would have been a solid safety net of social programs to help keep her afloat, I said. It doesn’t work here.

Heeheehee. I love Pippi Longstocking but, y’all, I desperately hate it when authors choose to eschew quotation marks. It is one of the most peevish of my pet peeves. Why would you ever not use them? Do you just not care that Jesus placed them on earth for our particular consumption? Do you sneer upon the value of correctly placed punctuation and its glorious organizational capacities? USE DAMN PUNCTUATION DAMMIT.

Damn punctuation aside, The Flying Troutmans was very funny. Logan and Thebes and Hattie were all intriguing and realistic characters, plainly fond of each other but not in a Lifetime Movie family snuggles way. That they weren’t constantly talking about their family bonds made it all the more touching when you caught a glimpse of their genuine affection for each other. I particularly loved Hattie’s conversations, or attempts at conversations, with Logan: perfect fifteen-year-old conversations.

BUT.

(I know what you’re thinking. The punctuation thing was my BUT. Whatever, I can have two problems with the same book.)

BUT, I hate an unwarrantedly optimistic ending, and The Flying Troutmans has one. As I was reading the book, I kept thinking that I couldn’t imagine any way the book could end well. Hattie’s sister Min, the kids’  mother, has been trying to kill herself since Hattie was born, and when Hattie visits her in the hospital at the start of the book, Min asks Hattie to help her die. I couldn’t see it ending well, and yet it did. I resent this from Miriam Toews even as I wish to read more of her work.

(trapunto, don’t read this. I think it would piss you off.)

Did y’all see The Royal Tenenbaums? Did you think it was funny? Would you rather have a happy ending that’s not warranted, or an unhappy ending that pays out the issues the book has raised, but makes you feel all sad and empty inside?

Other reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room (thanks for the recommendation!)
Page247
Bookopolis
Fleur Fisher in Her World
Literary License
Back to Books
Monniblog
The Writer’s Pet

Tell me if I missed yours!

  • I love The Royal Tenenbaums, but I definitely think it’s more sad than funny! And I prefer endings that make me feel all empty inside than happy ones that just feel artificial. I own this book, but it’s back home, so I’ll have to wait until I can see how I feel about it. (But only until late May! As it probably shows, I’m ridiculously excited about my recently scheduled week at home :P)

    • Oh, I agree with you. If the ending’s going to be fakey, I’d rather have a happy one than a sad one, but I’d rather have a fair sad ending than an unfair happy ending.

      I’m excited for you too! Wish I could go home in May!

  • I didn’t find The Royal Tenenbaums as funny as most other people did–and for some of the same reasons, I’m not enjoying watching episodes of Arrested Development. Some of it’s just mean and most of the rest is sad.

    If a sad ending is inevitable, I can deal with it, but there are few things I hate worse than a happy ending tacked on to a sad story. I mean, what’s the point, then? Why suffer through if it’s all been a mistake or a dream or whatever?

    • I can see the similarity between The Royal Tenenbaums and Arrested Development, now that you mention it. I liked Arrested Development though, once I figured out it was never going to be nice.

      I agree with you about the sad endings. I hate any endings tacked pointlessly on, whether they’re happy or sad. When it’s happy I feel like the author’s bought into the Disney thing, and when it’s sad I feel like the author’s in a desperate search for meaningfulness.

  • I hate it when authors don’t use standard punctuation — what are they trying to prove? That they’re extra clever? Garcia Marquez wrote an entire novel that’s one paragraph, no breaks, no chapters. There is no way I could read it.

    I saw The Royal Tenenbaums and I was not particularly impressed. I agree, it was just sad. However, unlike Jeanne, I found Arrested Development hilarious (though I still haven’t watched the third season).

    • See, I knew I didn’t like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I could never in a million years get through a book like that.

      Arrested Development IS hilarious. Portia de Rossi cracks me up whatever she’s in — have you seen Better Off Ted?

  • In French, writers don’t use quotation marks. It drives me batty, especially since I can’t read fast / well enough to automatically figure out where they should be. So I have a deep unreasonable loathing for writers in English who do that. If you’re going to be artistic about punctuation, for heaven’s sake write it in French.

    • So far I’ve only tried to read French books that I’m already pretty familiar with anyway, like Charlotte’s Web and Harry Potter. With something more complicated, the lack of quotation marks would cause me serious problems.

  • I saw The Royal Tenenbaums, and didn’t think it was funny. At all. So perhaps my sense of humor is broken too. Also, how can this book have a happy ending? When I got to the part in your review where you tell us that the mother is suicidal and homicidal, I began to be very sad, because these things just don’t’ reverse themselves for their own sake. I can’t imagine a world in which this would all work out, and to me, this sounds far from funny. I don’t think that I will be reading this one.

    • I know! How can this book have a happy ending? The answer is, it’s completely unwarranted. It feels so, so fake. I was impressed at how funny the book managed to be throughout, given its premise, but the end felt like a cheat.

  • I read this book a couple years ago and only kind of liked it. Not using quotation marks really bothered me, too. I can’t remember what I thought about the ending at this point. A Complicated Kindness by her was better, but I didn’t like that one as much as others either. I don’t think I exactly laughed out loud about this book. I found it more strange than funny at times…

    • I didn’t laugh out loud either. I smiled inside — I rarely laugh out loud with books. I was curious to read more by Toews though. Maybe I’ll try A Complicated Kindness.

  • Heh, I really liked the snippet of dialogue you pulled. Maybe I should check this out.

    I find The Royal Tanenbaums funny, but in a sad/dark way. Their lives ARE sad; I don’t think it’s supposed to be funny in the same way as, like, National Lampoons Christmas Vacation is. I think Wes Anderson’s stuff is supposed to make one feel an overall wash of melancholy at the same time one occasionally chuckles wryly at the idiosyncrasies of malfunctive humans making the best they can of a bad situation. Sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t, but it never makes me belly-laugh.

    And I guess I’m in the minority on not being bothered at all by a lack of quotation marks! In fact (dare I admit?) if I were writing a novel I would probably leave them off. I hardly ever find their absence confusing, and I like the less cluttered look of dialogue without them.

    • I guess Wes Anderson and I don’t have compatible humor. I’ve seen one or two of his films and remained unimpressed. :/

      But…Emily. Quotation marks. They are beautiful and useful, and they organize everything in nice organizational units.

  • I completely agree with you about the ending, and think I may have made a similar comment in my post (but am too lazy to check). Like Emily, I don’t mind the absence of quotation marks, although I am not completely sure what gets changed without them. Something certainly does.

    • I just find the lack of quotation marks a little affected. I can’t figure out what purpose it achieves. What’s the point of doing it?

      • I think there can be several points. Sometimes an author is consciously trying to break down the barriers between speakers—they don’t WANT those neat little organizational units, but instead something more like a stream of conversation. Others may just find them unnecessary, or find aesthetically that they clutter up the page. I mean, if you find them aesthetically pleasing, it’s only predictable that other folks might find them aesthetically DISpleasing, you know?

        I guess I’ve just encountered novels that use so many different native-grown dialog forms that it seems a little petty to insist on a particular one. I quite like the em-dash style of organizing dialogue:

              —You don’t know what you’re talking about, I said. Quotation marks are clearly the best dialogue marker.
              —I’m not so sure. What have em-dashes ever done for you?

        Then there are the wacky European sideways quotation marks, and the way the French sometimes insist on renewing the quote on every line for a long speech, not to mention that they put the dialogue descriptors, even LONG ones, inside the quotes:

        « I have a lot to say, remarked the Duchesse
        « de Rastignac, smiling sweetly as she glanced
        « at Simonet. I like to talk and talk, sometimes
        « for pages at a time. »

        Frankly, use of quotation marks is no reliable indicator of whether or not I’m likely to find dialogue confusing. Naguib Mahfouz (at least his translator) uses regular English-style quotation marks, but he uses them for thoughts as well as speech, which is pretty darn confusing. Jose Saramago doesn’t use any quotation marks, but I am hardly ever confused about who’s talking while reading him. And even if I am confused, sometimes it’s intentional – absolute clarity isn’t always what an author’s going for, and I don’t think that necessarily means they’re affected or stuck-up.

  • I’ve only read A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. It was also funny, in a sad sort of way. Does that make sense? Anyway, I liked it lots although at the moment I can’t remember if she used quotation marks in it or not.

    • It makes total sense, The Flying Troutmans was just the same. Toews writes very well, and does relationships well too. I just wish she hadn’t made the ending quite so chipper.

  • Oh, you hit one of my pet peeves, too. I hate it when authors don’t use proper punctuation. Well, it’s one thing if they are artfully using fragments or breaking the rules in a way that make sense, but arbitrarily deciding not to use something like quotation marks in a novel makes things confusing. I tried to read Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and he did the same thing in that book. My husband said he did that in No Country for Old Men, so even though I’ve not read anything else by him, I’m guessing that’s part of his style. Frankly, it prevented me from finishing the book. I need to be able to tell when people are talking. Also, Philippa Gregory uses way non-period speech and comma splices. As much as I am enjoying The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser, I will have something to say, when I reach the end, about her confusing comma lapses—sometimes I have to read a sentence several times to make sense of it when a simple comma would have clarified everything.

    • Cormac McCarthy has said he doesn’t like quotation marks. He refers to them as weird little marks cluttering up the page. That put me off Cormac McCarthy for life — that, and the apparent unrelenting misery of his books. :p

      • Jenny

        Yeah, but All the Pretty Horses was GREAT. You might try it on audio. Then the lack of quotation marks wouldn’t bug you.

  • Mumsy

    I think the kind of humor in The Royal Tennenbaums is so cruel and dark that it is, functionally, not humorous. There were a couple of funny lines, but the massive dysfunction made me feel practically paralyzed with misery for the characters. I like redemptive endings with at least a soupcon of hope…unrealistically happy endings can be so cheesy as to ruin a well-written and -plotted book, but I hate dreary hopeless endings too.

    • Did you see the whole thing? You sat and watched the whole movie? And you wouldn’t watch MirrorMask with me? What?

  • Yes’m!

    I don’t remember whether I thought Royal Tenenbaums was funny, though I liked it. I think I never asked myself that question. It wasn’t Anderson’s best. Yeah, I think I would remember if I found it funny. Probably I found *parts* of it funny. My favorite part of that movie wasn’t funny, but “awwww”-y. I like movies where the actually funny parts are set against misery and drollery and subtle character-acting (cruelty and darkness to the kinder-hearted), it’s kind of like displaying jewels on black velvet.

    Upon searching my cramped little soul: I seem to object to the idea of having to find a movie funny/unfunny, and I really, really object to being told “Oh, it’s so funny!” (even though I do this to other people) as I’m going in to it, because there is no better way to make sure that even if it is a quite funny movie, I won’t find it so. This isn’t a problem I have with funny books, thank goodness. Did someone tell you you were going to laugh your ass off at the Royal Tenenbaums?

    • I like the contrast between funny and dark — Joss Whedon does it like a champ — but I like the relationships to be there, I guess. Where everyone really loves each other and will ultimately take care of each other. Like Joss Whedon but (as I recall) not so much like Wes Anderson.

      A LOT of people have said they laughed their asses off at The Royal Tenenbaums. But I didn’t. I don’t mind being told a movie’s funny, as long as I feel free to find it funny or unfunny at my leisure.

      • It could be really fun to replace the phrase “apples to oranges” with “Joss’s to Wes’s” in certain contexts.

        The thing is, I don’t ever find Joss Whedon’s darkness truly dark, because of that safety net of background caring. And the magical/futuristic element, which always leaves open the possibility of a deus ex machina to set things right, bring a character back, reconcile arch-rivals.

  • She

    I go for the sad endings! I find them so much more satisfying than the happy endings for as a whole I find them more realistic. Or maybe to sound less pessimistic, I like more ambiguous, non-fairy-tale-ending endings.

    I don’t find that I am generally sad inside when a sad ending happens, either. I am more appreciative than anything else. I like that an author takes another route than the happy, Hollywood endings. It’s refreshing.

    • I like a sad ending. I didn’t mean I don’t like a sad ending, because I do! But I don’t like it when authors sacrifice a satisfying ending in order to be happy or sad for the sake of being happy or sad. The ending should match the rest of the book, is what I think.

  • carolwallace

    Totally agree about the punctuation. I think writers do this so they look up to date, only it’s up-to-date in a kind of 1920s way. Or the way of someone who texts too much…. could that be the problem here? No. I thought not.

  • I really like The Royal Tenenbaums, but I don’t think it’s funny, either. And I share a general dislike for authors that don’t use regular punctuation, but can get over it if it’s really good. Sounds like this book is not that great, though.

    • I liked the book a lot! I didn’t mean to imply it wasn’t a good book, because I did enjoy it. I didn’t love the ending, is all.

  • I like The Royal Tenenbaums, quotation marks and realistic endings. I, however, don’t like the post office so haven’t mailed your book yet! But I will tomorrow! Expect it next week – so sorry…

    • Don’t be sorry! It’ll be a delightful surprise whenever it arrives. 🙂

  • Jenny

    I’m always having this problem, where the blurbs on a book say it’s uproarious, and I find it fundamentally sad. Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum was like that. But I really, really like a dose of funny with my sad and a dose of sad with my funny. Pure unadulterated satire doesn’t do it for me, much, nor unambiguously cheerful endings (unless of course that’s called for, but when is it, ever?) nor relentless grimness. Leaven the loaf, people!

    • Yes! Same! I like things to be nicely mixed together. Grimness is easy to do, but it’s tricky to do an effective undercut. Again I have to say, Joss Whedon at his best is very good at undercutting grimness with humor. No wonder people like him so much.

  • Amy

    No, The Royal Tenenbaums was not funny. It’s was sad and disturbing, maybe even slightly amusing in places, but not really funny. At least I didn’t think so and I have a pretty dark and sarcastic sense of humor. You’re not the only one who wanted to be compensated for time lost after sitting through that one.

    As for endings, I’d prefer an ending that matches the story instead of a happy ending for the sake of a happy ending. If the story is sad then propping it up with a happy ending just to make it all seem OK feels fake to me. I’d rather feel satisfied that the ending was true to the characters even if it wasn’t happy.

    • Yeah, I thought that since I like black humor, The Royal Tenenbaums would be great for me. And yet it was not.

      I felt very cheated by the ending to My Sister’s Keeper, to take an example of a sad ending that didn’t feel warranted. I want the authors to pay out the problems they’ve set up throughout the novel — cheating with too much happiness or too much sadness are equally bad.

  • One of my nieces recommended it to me, as she read it, enjoyed it, and apparently it is set in Canada or by a Canadian, which is why she thought I would like it. She neglected to mention the lack of quotation marks, though, and that is one of my biggest bookish pet peeves. Seriously, what is the point?

    Anyway, it’s been sitting on my shelf now for about a year; I think she’s forgotten that she even lent it to me. I guess I need to ___ or get off the pot.

    As for the Royal Tenebaums, I do remember thinking it was funny, but more in a quirky, sad kind of way, not laugh-out-loud hilarious.

    • Oh yes, I believe Miriam Toews is Canadian, and as I recall the family in the book is Canadian. They just travel through America. Maybe if you go in prepared for no quotation marks, it’ll bug you less?

  • I am right there with you on The Royal Tenenbaums and I also hate when a story lays out some wonderfully dysfunctional pieces and then ties them up with a beautiful bow that has no place being there. Sometimes I just want the sad and empty inside.

    As for missing quotation marks, it is so annoying! My mom never eats the bread/rolls when we go out to dinner because she says it is a waste of stomach space and that is how I feel about trying to decipher a conversation without quotes. It is a waste of brain power.

    • Yep, me too. Sad and empty inside is better than totally cheated.

      I appreciate your mother’s analogy but I cannot agree about the bread. She doesn’t eat the bread at the restaurants? Even when it comes with really yummy butter, or herb and olive oil type spread? I eat tons of bread.

  • The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie that my husband and I watch probably once a month but it’s true — it isn’t very funny. There are “amusing” parts but also terribly depressing parts. All of Wes Anderson’s movies are pretty bleak for the most part and then paired with perky, folksy songs. It’s a strange combination that definitely works for some people but not everyone. But just like some people find British humor simple and stupid, others absolutely love it. Your sense of humor isn’t broken, it just isn’t sadistic like Wes Anderson’s — and you are probably a better person for it! I’m apparently not … 😉

    • No! I have sadistic humor! I do! I do! I just don’t like dysfunctional families hating each other and making each other’s lives miserable.

  • I also did not think The Royal Tenenbaums was funny. And no quotation marks bugs me, too, even though I know it’s a Thing People Do In Other Places and some People From Other Places are kind enough to at least put a dash first, like –I thought we should go to the fair, said Robert.

    Except I’m currently reading a book that doesn’t use quotation marks or dashes for flashback dialogue (current dialogue is properly punctuated), and it’s made of awesome. So apparently I can be bribed.

    A story: Miriam Toews is from Winnipeg and many, many years ago, I sold her a shirt. She was impressed I could pronounce her last name (she paid with a credit card, and we had to call people by their names if they did that), so I asked if she was, by any chance, the author. I think she was quite thrilled to be recognized. I went off and read SUMMER OF MY AMAZING LUCK after that, but still haven’t gotten around to the rest of her books. Bad Memory.