Fight Night by Miriam Toews
“We need tragedy, which is the need to love and the need … not just the need, the imperative, the human imperative … to experience joy. To find joy and to create joy. All through the night. The fight night.”
Swiv, the child narrator of Miriam Toews’ most recent novel, Fight Night, gives what could be a rather sad and simple story a wonderfully absurd perspective. The book is absolutely hilarious, with farcical images of hearing aid batteries served up alongside conchigliettes for dinner. But this humor (often as in life) works to dilute and conceal barely hidden pain. Fight Night proves that just because something is funny doesn’t mean it isn’t profound, important, and a little bit tragic.
Swiv’s perspective on the world is one of constant and unspoken anxiety – and considering what’s actually going on in her life, it’s no wonder. She cares for her ailing grandmother Elvira, barely protecting her from her own lackadaisical approach to her health while mourning the loss of her aunt and grandfather to suicide. Her own father is MIA while an inconvenient and physically demanding geriatric pregnancy largely takes up her mom’s attention.
The universe of the book is largely manless, and Fight Night works as a study of female resilience across three generations. The strength of the three generations of women here, though, isn’t hard and tough. It’s about love – fierce, stubborn, even angry love. The call to arms Elvira constantly references is this fight to love and experience joy against all odds.
Femininity in Fight Night is shown to be far grosser than in traditional perspectives. All three generations curse, shout, display anger, and hold a fascination with the inner workings of the human body. Mucus and bowel movements are almost extra family members in Swiv’s home. “Grandma loves to talk about the body. She loves everything about the body, every nook and cranny.” These women are unpretentious and dysfunctional, and yet some of the most unconditionally loveable characters I’ve ever read.
The focus on the body in Fight Night is also what keeps characters connected to the real world. “To be alive means full body contact with the absurd. Still, we can be happy.” Birth, death, sickness, and pain are all at the forefront of the novel but the ailing nature of the body (best depicted by the elderly Elvira) doesn’t mean submission to the difficulties of the world. “What makes a tragedy bearable and unbearable is the same thing, which is that life goes on.”Elvira (who is named after Towes’ beloved real-life grandmother) has led a life beset by tragedy and is, in the novel, trapped in a body that no longer works properly. But she does not give up, striving always to live a life built on pleasure, joy, and love. “Joy, said Grandma, is resistance. Oh, I said. To what? Then she was off laughing again and there was nothing anybody could do about it.”
Annie Walton Doyle is a 20-something writer based in Manchester, UK. She typically writes about beauty and other “personal aesthetics,” with a healthy dose of both social commentary and stupidity. When not touching makeup or reading books, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature, and mysteries.