Breaking the Cycle of Innocence in Michael Kenyon's The Beautiful Children
Michael Kenyon's The Beautiful Children captures madness in both literary form and content, creating a visceral experience that both tantalizes and disturbs the reader. With short, stream-of-consciousness prose decorated in poetic flourishes, Kenyon bombards the reader with images and unsettling language that destabilizes the typical beauty of romantic description. This is not a love story, but it reads like one in all its insanity and confusion.
The plot of the novel centres on Sapporo, a man who wakes a hospitalized amnesiac. Unable to remember his former life, wife, or family, Sapporo quickly deteriorates, wandering though a magic-realist landscape of stray children, snow capped mountains, and seemingly ubiquitous eggs. With the repetition of plot from both Sapporo and his first son Starling's perspectives, the reader is subjected to the madness of a circular, continual tragedy of deplorable parenting, violence, and delinquent street children.
To facilitate the destabilization of common human behaviour, Kenyon turns to the animal world. Sapporo is described in animalistic terms as he traipses across the landscape: a "hunter" (58) eating eggs and growing "paws" (55). Children are constantly compared to birds and eggs are symbols of innocence. It appears that once the "birds" are released into the world (once they are hatched) they become corruptible, just as the innocence of children is at risk once they are born. One consequence of Kenyon's comparison of children to animals, however, is that it promotes the primitivism of these children and works against the reader's sympathies toward young characters. The children's innocence is damaged by an animalistic juxtaposition in contrast to Thistledown's description of The Beautiful Children as an "elegy upon innocence."
Kenyon's description of the street gang resembles the sporadic motion of a flock of birds as they weave and dip between the horizon (or perhaps a more juvenile gang of "droogs"). The "gang of birds" (69) is not innocent in action: the children kill, rape, deal and use drugs, are prostitutes and thieves. While these actions are necessary for the children to survive without parental support, more attention is placed by Kenyon on the ferocious nature of these children than creating sympathy in the reader's mind for their abandonment. In effect, these are not beautiful children at all, rather a depiction of children abused by the absence of parental guidance.
It is dangerous, of course, to view The Beautiful Children (or any fictional literature for that matter) as a parental guidebook; however, in portraying the complex relationship between children and adults, it is difficult to ignore Kenyon's advocacy for the presence of parents in the lives of children. When Sapporo is present with his son's "arms holding the bat got stronger every time we played and he seldom missed the ball" (29) the value of parental involvement is clear. In the parent's absence Starling is left to run rampant in the streets, drawn into prostitution and thievery to survive. The physicality of the characters is enforced through the direct discussion of how the body changes in relation to intimate contact of loved ones. Just as the text threads a course through the abstract and the physical affecting the reader's body in stomach turning child abuse details, such as child pornography (84), the characters themselves experience the world's intensity through the body as they "vomit and shit at the same time" (60) or "flapped and soared over the city, dealing and holding and shooting up" (83). This is a physical book, one that attempts to bridge the mind and body of the reader to that of the characters with substantial success.
Although the novel threatens toward a clichéd cyclical resolution, Kenyon resists this temptation and breaks the pattern. It is in this breaking of the cyclical convention that Kenyon finds his greatest innovation in the text, refusing to allow the reader a settled conclusion. If the reader is in search of closure in Kenyon's novel, it may be a futile affair. The Beautiful Children is not a book that breeds contentment or resolution once the final words are read. It is a struggle through imagery and disturbing content, a journey that may end in missed opportunity - but it is a valuable journey nonetheless.