Travellers May Still Return

Ormsby Review, September 6, 2020

Setting stock in evolution: Travellers May Still Return

Reviewed by William New

Two things to know: (1) Michael Kenyon is a poet as well as a fiction writer, with another eleven remarkable books to his name, and (2) when this new book was in progress it was referred to online as “novellas” but in print it is called (and once only, on the cover) “stories,” a change I applaud. Both these observations are relevant to reading Travellers May Still Return: the first because Kenyon’s lyrical style asks a reader to respond to the prose as if it were poetry, to fasten on rhythms and images rather than on conventional narrative line and character development; the second because “novellas” would have suggested a category of form, whereas Kenyon asks his readers here to listen to the making of story, to follow the actions of telling (and what they tell us) rather than wait for conventional action or prescriptive resolution. Evolution yes; plot no. Easy closure, as it were, is off limits.

The three stories — “The Prehistory of Jesse Green,” “No One But Himself,” and “Mistress of Horses, Mistress of the Sea” — interconnect, but not obviously or superficially. The first reveals a young couple (he’s 17, she’s 18) who leave home in BC for an adventure, landing in a Panama jungle and stranded among people with more power than they may have imagined beforehand. The second concerns a couple (Charles and Emma) whose memories hint at the life they’ve led (losing a daughter, separating from a son, distancing over time). The third imagines Charles Darwin observing the disappearance of a village in a (BC-like) landscape, positing explanations, probing origins — and claiming neutrality while doing so, perhaps hoping for something better.
Is this the Charles Darwin who took notes on the Amazon and wrote The Origin of Species? The man whose wife Emma (Wedgwood), his cousin, gave birth to ten children, including Anne and George, two that are critical here? Yes. And also no. It’s that kind of book. It doesn’t tell you everything. Instead, it takes you in and lets you think about what you hear and see — and maybe make up your mind about how you are living now. Or will live from now on. Travellers, says the title, may yet return. After what? After adventure, discovery, exclusion, dispossession. After birth and death, suppositions and mistakes. After learning to withdraw. And what might they return to? It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that reminds me a little of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook. Fascinating.

The elliptical character of the prose — and the quick shifts of scene in the stories — may prove challenging for a reader seeking simple chronological sequence. There is a chronology of sorts, but it shows up through inferences and asides rather than in clock-time, and it isn’t fixed. Attentive readers will be rewarded by Kenyon’s insights into human behaviour, the dismantling of human assumptions, and the narrative promise (despite all that may go “wrong” in individual lives) of human possibility.

Readers need not drift, however; Kenyon’s skill at nuance and his detailed observations offer narrative guides, sometimes even openly. In “Mistress,” for example, the narrator — Charles-the-writer in older age (it’s hard not to hear a self-reflexive Kenyon-the-writer here) — muses “I wish I had a simpler voice. I had one once, when I was young. My thoughts have too many angles now.” Then Charles continues, reflecting on his career, on stories he has written (those with “a clean line”) and on his old notebooks:

now I find myself looking over the village. . ., still witnessing stunningly vivid people. . ., and yet my longhand copy of these people and their affairs seems a dead thing. . . Have my tools become blunt or is my approach obsolete? Would another looking at my notebooks find all well… and simply finished, complete, perfect? Am I finished? Or is the problem in the village — am I the witness to a discontinuity that is not translatable by means I’ve used before? Am I aware of continuity behind the discontinuity for the first time? I have set my stock in evolution and seen it everywhere around me. . . If evolution is just one story, if time and space don’t hold, what then?

One answer is dream. Another lies in the poetry of the prose, the way images recur but change (dragon, snake, wall, whistle, fox, wheel, horse, sea. . .), shaping their own lines of continuity and understanding. They interweave. As the disturbingly beautiful close of the middle story, “No One But Himself,” exemplifies, Charles-the-writer affirms that “Every story is beginningless and it’s not necessary to know the end, just the meanders”:

don’t forget the milk, there are children in the house. But not for long. The hub divided into centuries when we could say centuries before we knew things took millennia to change. Olives in brine. Now there’s no one to take one and none to offer and no one to listen and the wheel was a story once, the rust quick on the tongue. Be still. There’s no one to listen. What might I say? Summer, yes, fall, yes. One by one the spokes forget who they are next to.

This self-preoccupation, too, is only a momentary recognition. As elsewhere, memory and dream construct alternatives to what passes for history; and (however paradoxically) these alternatives have also to be read for the way they invest history with life.

The three stories in this book, in short, together reveal stages in life: in a particular life perhaps, or any life in general. The first probes the predicaments that Jesse Green and Kenneth Doblin find themselves in. He is hurt, but appears to be recovering; she is being sexually abused by a local village thug, though she thinks she’s the person in control; and Sucre, the thug, is in turn running afraid of powers that even he cannot manage. The young people take meth and get high on weed; New York City is being bombed; other characters appear and disappear with threat and warning. This Panama is a confusion, a seeming chaos (primordial?), in which Kenneth recalls the world he has left behind, “where all things might be variations, everything a version of the same ripple,” a state of boring familiarity that he has wanted to escape. His escape, however, appears to be both impulse and illusion. This is “prehistory,” as the story’s title advises: a mindset that perhaps shapes what follows (“history,” for instance?) or is perhaps countered by it.

The two later stories allude to young people who flee what has been their home, but they focus more on the way “a development” (time? history?) can incrementally take home away from the young. They focus on the commonalities of age and death, encounter and separation, but (while being observed) these lead again to desire, and then again to flight. Recurrence, but difference. Is there an end? On the last page of the book, a character named Kata — a “chorus” figure in “Mistress” — says “People expect an end, Charles.” Not so fast: the book ends not with a completed sentence but with a fragment: no verb, and only a sound.

In its way, then, Travellers May Still Return narrates a kind of natural history of human evolution — from youth to adulthood to old age — one that we’re invited not so much to watch or interpret or judge as to experience along with the characters, from when they burst on the scene on an archeological site (“Tell me what’s been found. Who has been here?”) to when, later, they disappear into their own future. This is a beautiful and provocative book, not utopian or apocalyptic but sad and celebratory, stylistically alive.

—William New

Sask Books REVIEWS, November 2019
by Juliana Rupchan

Travellers May Still Return is a collection of three fiction pieces: two novella-length stories, bridged by a third, shorter piece. Michael Kenyon is based out of Victoria, but the collection is published by Saskatoon’s Thistledown Press, known for publishing literary poetry and fiction. Kenyon’s previous work includes five books of poetry, four chapbooks, and seven books of fiction, including The Beautiful Children, which won the 2010 ReLit Award for best novel.

This extensive cross-genre experience shines through in Travellers May Still Return. The stories have the tension and smoothly crafted characters of a practiced fiction writer, woven through vivid imagery and existential questions that evoke a poetic practice. South and Central America are the main settings, and a strong sense of place as well as a tension of displacement are powerful forces in the longer novellas. While the narrative is not always easy to follow, Kenyon has created striking stories with just the enough mystery to stick in a reader’s mind, like a vivid dream half-remembered.

The first novella, “The Prehistory of Jesse Green”, does an excellent job of sketching the central characters, and explores desire and power at many angles. There is a feverish quality to the piece mirrored in the narrator’s own physical state, and what one might expect to be the climactic action of the piece unravels in favour of the character’s philosophic journey; no directions the piece takes are expected.

The shorter middle piece, “No One But Himself” is the most experimental part of the book, covering a lifetime from the central figure’s birth to the loss of his own child. The first chapters are especially unusual, with all of the experiences of early childhood condensed to specific and unexpected snapshots. There are times when the piece can feel a bit stilted, especially in the later half, which leans heavily on pared-back dialogue. But the same figures carry over into the final novella, and the prologue this piece provides pays off in further character development.

The third piece, “Mistress of Horses, Mistress of Sea” is the longest story, and the strongest for it. The point of view is scattered between many characters, which can make it difficult to pick out the main thread of the story for the first few chapters, but as the piece goes on, clear obstacles and strong personalities emerge, along with vivid symbolic projects and quests. The reader’s understanding of the characters grows as their obstacles become more insurmountable, into a slow unravelling of their world.

Throughout the collection, Kenyon wields the strange magic of ambiguity to form stories that move between the vivid detail and broad scope of a poet’s novel, and the conflicts and character tensions of narrative fiction. While there is a sense that this book has many layers to unravel, even a more casual reader could appreciate the vitality of the world and characters, and the endless questions of what it is to be human — not least, of what we lose when our personal concerns collide with the full force of the modern world.

— Juliana Rupchan