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The Beautiful Children

by Michael Kenyon

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 stand-alone 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.