Thomas King’s latest novel is a jaunty picaresque that contains within it an incisive character study. Each page of the novel offers the reader the author’s blend of humour and awareness of emotional layers – positive and negative – that exist behind the laughter. When Bird, the narrator of Indians on Vacation, is diagnosed with a rheumatological disease affecting primarily Asian and Indigenous men – rather than the terminal pancreatic cancer everyone assumed he must have had – his wife, Mimi, says, “See […] being Native is lucky after all.” Moments like this are sharply funny yet gently cutting. While tending toward the sardonic, not to say depressive, King’s novel is not lacking in the sharp vision underpinning his other works.
Indians on Vacation follows the married Indigenous couple on a trip through Europe. Bird unwinds his story in small chunks as he and Mimi follow the trail set out in a series of postcards sent by Mimi’s Uncle Leroy.
Bird and Mimi talk – much of the novel is developed through dialogue between this middle-aged couple – but, as Bird points out, they don’t really talk. On their first night in the Czech Republic, Bird notes that both he and his wife have forgotten to bring along the novels they usually read in restaurants while waiting for their meals to arrive. Bird thinks, “Now we’re faced with the real possibility of having to talk to one another.” And yet, over the course of the meal, this never transpires. At other times, they circle around each other in conversations about subjects like how to find their way through nighttime fog in a strange city or the infinite sadness of dogs in cages at the Humane Society shelter. In both cases, the conversations lead to brief anecdotes about colonial Canada’s residential schools. The couple’s talk doesn’t lead to resolution or reconciliation or anything of the sort. At the conclusion of one of these conversations, Bird asks, “And that’s the end of the story?” To which Mimi responds, “Those stories never end.”
The short sections that make up Indians on Vacation often meander, apparently building toward nothing and without any conclusion. Sections frequently open with some variation on the refrain, “So we’re in Prague.” There is a repetitive nature to much of the storytelling that highlights the unchanging surroundings: “The room is still hot. The air conditioner is still making encouraging noises. The spiders are still on the ceiling.”
The novel contains numerous postmodern flourishes that focus on authenticity or metatextual elements in the story. When Mimi’s guidebook tells her that most of the statues on the Charles Bridge in Prague are replicas, she says, “This is disappointing.” Like King himself, Bird’s heritage is Greek and Cherokee – another kind of nod toward the postmodernist destabilization of the real and the fictional. While postmodernism is falling out of favour with contemporary writers as we move onward in this new century, King’s novel harkens back to an earlier mode of storytelling.
As is typical of many postmodern novels, Indians on Vacation also disrupts chronology, moving freely between past and present. It continues to point readers in the direction of Uncle Leroy and his mysterious “Crow bundle,” though as we progress through the book it somehow feels as though we’re getting further away from the central purpose of the protagonists’ trip. Paradoxically, it is this discombobulation that drives the novel. At one point, as Bird reflects on Mimi recounting the story of Uncle Leroy, Mimi’s mother breaks into the narrative to admonish her daughter: “Stop getting ahead of the story. I raised you better than that.” In these moments, King is winking at us. This is the pleasure of reading Indians on Vacation: those moments that find the reader smiling, laughing, and simultaneously encountering some deeper truth or profundity.
Throughout the novel, death stalks Bird. In Europe, he is confronted with reminders of death, not least his own inevitable mortality. In a pan-Native-themed pizzeria, Bird muses, “Most of the people in the restaurant are young, but then pizza is a young person’s dish. Grease doesn’t slow them down. Molten cheese doesn’t plug them up. Processed meat doesn’t clog their arteries. Immortal. You have to be immortal to eat pizza.”
Bird struggles with many demons; Mimi has named all of them. There’s Eugene and Kitty – who represent self-loathing and catastrophizing – and the twins Didi and Desi – depression and despair. This conceit is simultaneously funny and deeply serious. As Mimi says to her husband, “If you had more friends, maybe you wouldn’t spend so much time with your demons.” For his part, Bird proves highly sensitive to the anthropomorphizing of his inner turmoil: “It was bad enough when my demons were just shapeless emotions and unpredictable moods, but as soon as Mimi named them, they began to take physical form.”
For Mimi, travel is an escape, a way to arrest time. For Bird, the trip is “exhausting.” This dichotomy, as much as anything else, makes Bird and Mimi characters worth following. They are the engine driving this funny and deeply sensitive novel. Indians on Vacation presses sharply against the world with humour and heart – personalized demons and all.