The Beautiful Children

Prairie Fire, April 16, 2010

The Beautiful Children is a novel about innocence and experience, children and the monsters that shape their lives, injury and loss, and how these plights are unwittingly visited upon the children. Poetically written, with images that arise simultaneously from interior and exterior landscapes, this book haunts us with the poignancy of nightmares.

The novel opens with a man, Sapporo, waking up in a hospital, all memory of his previous existence wiped from his consciousness. He absently notices a hole in the ground outside his hospital window and a tree whose roots are wrapped in burlap — the hole providing an objective correlative for the man's memory loss and the uprooted tree for his lost ancestry. Under "misty lights" gardeners unload the tree in this Garden of Eden variant. The tree may have just been uprooted, or the hole prepared for the tree, significantly "in bud," to be planted. Equally cryptically, the gardeners "seemed concerned about what they were doing yet helpless," a state of mind that reflects Sapporo's own. While watching this scene he hears a "loud crack, as of bone on stone," and an alternative way of regarding the scene as, not one of tree-planting and redemption but of injury, arises:

And although I was the sole witness, leaning forward, taking it all in, I had the feeling this was happening for someone else. A person who'd fallen backward into a hole. A man falling while behind him an old woman and an old man slowly danced. (14)

This opening scene is psychologically powerful and allows us both to enter Sapporo's disturbed consciousness and to encounter a poetic iconography that is picked up later in the novel. Near the end, three trees appear to represent a Third World environment: one is charred by fire, another is in the process of being licked by flames on one side while remaining green on the other, and the third is pristine and in full blossom (180).

Kenyon builds ever subtler and more complicated patterns of imagery. Sapporo finds himself drawn to open mouths, whether to a man "with wild eyebrows and a reassuringly open mouth" at the therapist's clinic (23), or to the "soft mouth, cunt" of the woman who watched him and his son play baseball (29). After having walked out on his son during a rainstorm, Sapporo returns to find the boy asleep, his mouth open (27). Sapporo speculates that if he, himself, could dream, he would remember everything, and "cooped-up dreams would open [his] lips to escape." (27)

After Sapporo walks out on his son for the last time, the boy runs away from the authorities. He attempts to stay with neighbours, but their miseries of addiction drive him out to the garbage dump with the dog his father had earlier bought him.

Kenyon is a master of style and, to brilliant effect, works to re-enact the tricks of the human psyche (he is also a therapist). In an early scene, Sapporo, while putting away groceries, notes a blind man with a dog waiting at the corner. A while later Sapporo sees the blind man and dog still there, and all the seemingly random observations are reflected in the stream-of-consciousness of his thoughts:

Out in the dark couples talked, holding on to one another, marching the street and laughing, blowing smoke from open mouths; a blind man with a dog stood at the curb. I didn't know the song my son was singing. The cold glass on my palms and the light that spilled from the window over the people down in the street were veils my heart swam under. I couldn't believe that the blind man and the dog were still waiting. (30)

Sapporo becomes impatient after watching the hesitant blind man, and makes the irrational but emotionally sound decision to act by walking out on his son.

Bird imagery, in association with children and the lost generation, also comes into play. That Sapporo doesn't know the song his son is singing represents the generation gap between them. Eventually the boy, renaming himself Sparrow in the city of aliases, joins the world of "lost children." He seeks work from Dit, a dealer's girlfriend/prostitute, but she is reluctant:

"You got nothing makes me want you for nothing," Dit said.
"I got a name."
"You got a sweet prong and a sad look and you're trouble on the street."
"I can deal," he said.
"Hey hey."
"I can suck. I can run."
"You got ears?"
"What d'you want me to do?"
"Stay out of my way."
"Anything, Dit, anything you say."
"Baby, I don't even want to know your name."
"Give me a job. Tell it to me."
"You want to turn a trick, turn a trick. You want to steal a car, steal a car. I got things to do."
"Come on. People know you."
"Shit, boy. You say you can run?" (66)

The dialogue accurately captures the authenticity of speech patterns in that particular milieu, while images that have appeared earlier resurface as symbols with a dynamic multiple purpose. Sparrow's assertion "I have a name" ironically references the biblical God's awareness of each sparrow that falls.

The characters move from Japan to Africa and finally to North America, evoking old and new world settings and providing a concreteness to the theme of the "beautiful children" as lost generations. Mira, whose name evokes Miranda from The Tempest, remarks, "What a world that has such people in it!" (177), and we are struck by her generous view of humankind. She functions both as a real character and as a projection of Sapporo's Prospero-like vision as he revisits his memory in search of meaning.

The Beautiful Children is a poem of a novel, its stylistic patterns involved and intricate and ultimately convincing. I was frequently mesmerized by it, though at times also confused by the elliptical nature of the storyline. Jorge Luis Borges's essay "Tales of the Fantastic" offers guidance on how to read fantastic fiction such as this, in which the dream becomes more pertinent than reality.

Sapporo's closing words are something of a postmodern prayer: "Here comes a brand new thought all ready to polish: what I felt in my life, all my life, what I called loneliness, was nothing but smoke and oil. I regret nothing. I am tranquil. I'll begin tomorrow. It doesn't matter whether or not I finish." (189)

Gillian Harding-Russell lives, reviews, edits, teaches and writes in Regina. Her latest collection of poetry is I forgot to tell you (Thistledown Press, 2007).

The Malahat Review, issue 168, October 2009

 Michael Kenyon’s The Beautiful Children is disorientating. Intimate and precise in its set-piece scenes, the novel also makes dramatic leaps in time and space. The narrative delight—in both setting the rug down and pulling it away—creates the novel’s central tension, between the acute gaze of realism and the fragmented experimental form. What is produced is a challenging novel, replete with uncomfortable naviga­tion of textual and mental terrain.

The novel follows Sapporo, a single father who has awoken in hos­pital with no memory. Returning home, Sapporo struggles to fit into a daily routine with his young son. Despite the acquisition of a dog and attempts to socialize with neighbours, the relationship between father and son remains strained. Mealtimes provide opportunities for Kenyon to tease out Sapporo’s thoughts. In these passages, the por­trayal of silence, anguish, and the imposition of the outside world are acute: “We sat at the table and refused to look at each other while it got dark.” Another recurring set piece sees the father and son maintaining contact through a mutual love of baseball in the park. Despite these shared moments, Sapporo’s attempts at stability are undermined by his own personal turmoil. Kenyon exhibits this sharply, with Sap­poro’s attention to his son uncomfortably distracted by profanity and hints of mental instability: “The woman waved to me so I went to her and we watched my son chasing his dog. Later, in a room behind one of those windows that till then had reflected only sky, I crawled into the spaces she made for me—her soft mouth, cunt. Afterward she talked about dying. I inhaled a feather and sneezed.” These events are then revisited by an omniscient narrator, focusing on the son’s per­spective. Alone, the boy is seen as neglected, finding solace only with his dog. Even when the father is near, the boy’s behaviour is impulsive and destructive. Gradually, the boy’s sympathy with animals becomes much more disturbing and, in turn, disturbs the narrative voice. The boy’s shift to identify as Star (short for Starling) prefigures his joining a flock of street children. From there on, the roll call of events is hor­rific, as Star truly becomes feral.

Star and Sapporo both step out of regular life, but their journeys are markedly different. Sapporo leaves his son to take a mythical journey into mountains and prairie, before returning to the city. Star, mean­while, is left to live in alleys, drink, make friends, be abused, do drugs, have sex, rape, and kill—while believing he is a bird. Kenyon’s treat­ment of this life is remarkable for its relentlessness, as each brutal act comes to mean less and less. As Star becomes desensitized to the city’s depravity, so does the reader. Again, there is something of a discon­nection here, between the novel’s departure from realism, and its desire to present the all too real side of Star’s harsh life. The initial positioning of empathy with the flock of abandoned bird-children is encouraged by the highly allusive language: “One by one the others drifted in for the night, all the children of the city furling their wings.” However, Ernest Thompson Seton this is not. When the flock conduct seemingly darker work, the reader is left in a difficult position. Here the scenario is evocative of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, bundling together affinity and the abject, as it suggests the potential for an urban dystopia lurking beneath Star’s city, which is at once “every city.”

The novel’s continuation of Sapporo’s mythical journey refuses any strict boundaries of time and geography. A central section entitled “The Island” comprises sketches of life on an island, influenced seem­ingly by a mixture of Hokkaido and Vancouver Island, These sketches hint at the ancestry of Sapporo even as they refer to figures typical of Eastern fairytales. At the same time, the island and Sapporo become abstract universal concepts. These spare sections of the narrative delib­erately obstruct the reader from realistic engagement with characters, in favour of a poetic, impressionist experience:

It saddened him that his wife would not leave her city home. She said she did not trust the island. Watched by his sons, he tossed a line across the lake. A lake is water

contained by earth. An island is earth contained by water. What does it mean? He shakes his head.

Abstraction and action in these island scenes create an emotional colouring that is woven into the text through the force of the poetic prose, and is referenced through doubled words and images in the central characters’ journeys. It requires much on the reader’s part to join these nested references together. In this respect Kenyon’s struc­ture and style seems to follow in the footsteps of Robert Kroetsch’s quest narratives (and it is interesting to note the acknowledgements carry a nod to Kroetsch and the Banff Centre for the Arts). It is in Kenyon’s portrayal of Sapporo and the boy’s quests that sheer incident and larger-than-life characters meet the mythic framework of poetic allusion. All of this is then relayed to the reader in an increasingly dis­passionate, precise style.

The novel’s final section, “Home,” seems set to address serious political issues of recent African conflict. The fleeting mentions of vio­lence are shocking for their sudden and unexpected appearance. Meanwhile, the central narrative shifts in register again as it becomes a tale of heightened pursuit. Kagura, a gothic double of both Sapporo and his son, provides another narrative twist, stalking the father and his new companion, Mira. When the third section of the novel is most alive, it is focused on Mira, and attempting to find a way through the intricacies of a female voice embedded in this surreal literary world. With Kagura following Mira, and shifting between benign and adver­sarial, the echo of animalistic behaviour follows through, providing another common thread to an otherwise fragmented structure.

Perhaps the best way to think of Kenyon’s The Beautiful Children is to see the novel as a reflection of the youthful flock of urban renegades. At times the novel is poignant and political, measuring its language for maximum impact, but at other junctures it is willing to mimic the behaviour of flocks of starlings, allowing complex narrative shapes. While the structural and narrative shifts may engender disorientation, Kenyon’s language, attentive to sound and the precision of speech, provides clarity and honesty. Unlike other so-called “poet’s novels,” Kenyon’s writing never departs from content for aesthetic attention alone. The complexity of the novel could be seen as its magical realism, with its resistance to conventional codes and its invocation of myth-laden figures. The reader should prepare to be challenged, but, in turn, will be rewarded with a lucid and sparkling novel.— Will Smith

Quill & Quire, June 2009
Memory and loss are themes that run through much of the CanLit canon. In her two novels, Anne Michaels has made these twin touchstones into a kind of cottage industry. Michael Kenyon, another poet/novelist, has staked claim to similar territory in his new novel.

The Beautiful Children opens on a man in a hospital room. The only word he can remember is “Sapporo,” which might refer to the man’s name, his home, or, as one of the doctors suggests, “a kind of beer.” It becomes apparent that the man was once a flute player and that he has a young son, whom he depends on as a kind of guide through the unknown streets of the city where the two live.

Then one day, without warning, the man walks out of his life and embarks on an expressionistic journey across a series of vague landscapes, finally alighting in North Africa. His son, meanwhile, embarks on a parallel journey among the hopheads and drug dealers who people the city’s underground.

All of this is written in frankly poetic language, with repeated images and motifs (birds, islands, eggs) standing in for more recognizable descriptions and character development. The effect is not like a collage, so much as the literary equivalent of a Riopelle painting, with an elliptical surface held together by a carefully calibrated structure.

The Beautiful Children eschews the kind of naturalism that has become the default setting for most CanLit, but retains a focus on memory as a key determinant of a person’s identity. Sapporo’s endeavours to reconstruct himself involve repeated attempts to concretize fleeting images from his past. Absent this stability, he descends into a mental state that closely resembles madness.

The novel’s syntax is flayed to the bone; some readers may have difficulty orienting themselves within the expressionistic geography Kenyon has created. Sapporo travels “into a sky so large and blue above grassland so bald they must have been immediately connected,” en route to an unidentified desert. The language mirrors Sapporo’s own confusion, but readers accustomed to a more conventional form of narrative may find these sections off-putting.

The best sequence in the book, a standalone story previously anthologized in New Canadian Gothic, uses repetitive, rhythmic sentences written in the first-person plural to recapitulate the son’s experience on the streets: “We ran the show. We were sweet as candy on blue days. We knew we were being watched.” In this section, the language is tough and sinewy, a perfect marriage of form and content. The themes may be familiar, but Kenyon’s narrative style and his fidelity to a stripped-down, lucid prose sets The Beautiful Children apart from the rest of the CanLit pack.
— Steven W. Beattie, Q & Q's review editor