1258 Tourists in our own lives
by Genni Gunn
Winnipeg: Signature Editions, 2020
$19.95 / 9781773240800
Reviewed by Zoe McKenna
The final page of Permanent Tourists closes with an “ocean of ghosts,” an image simultaneously elusive and evocative. This exploration of emotion without the assumption of clear resolution underlines the entirety of Genni Gunn’s third short story collection to a fascinating effect.
Vancouver-based Genni Gunn is the author of three novels — including Giller nominated Solitaria — three short story collections, and three collections of poetry. As well, Gunn has penned travel essays, a personal memoir, and serves as a prolific translator of fiction and poetry from Italian into English.
Permanent Tourists includes eight short stories that intersect and intertwine in unexpected ways. While the contents of each story in the collection feel disparate and seemingly incongruous — ranging from the loss of an estranged, ex-rockstar father to the birth of sea turtles on a Mexican beach — the characters are linked by a sense of disconnect from themselves and each other.
Gunn’s story collection echoes sentiments from its namesake, Canadian poet P.K Page’s 1954 poem, “The Permanent Tourists.” Page’s poem, like Gunn’s short stories, investigates ideas of dislocation, dissociation, and placelessness. Page asserts that placeless people are not tourists until they enter a space that is foreign to them, and it is in this alienation that they find identity as “permanent tourists.” So, too, does Gunn investigate the influence of travel on her characters’ emotions, self-worth, and relationships.
As much as the concept of “permanent tourists” is sentimental, emotional, or even psychic, physical place remains integral to Gunn’s writing. Gunn’s globetrotting history is apparent in her capacity to vividly portray the selection of countries that provide the setting for her stories. From the “half-hidden” buildings “obscured by moss” of an old commune, to the “cumulus of faces” above a Cambodian graveyard, Gunn is sure to firmly situate the reader in time and place. Each location, no matter how near or far from Canada’s west coast, is alive with detail.
In Permanent Tourists, the various settings do not simply serve as background for the characters’ stories, but rather are alive themselves with intent and influence. History haunts the collection, with references to Cambodia’s genocide and Mussolini’s rule, and the lingering assertion that all countries are “filled with ghosts.” Despite this, when Canada serves as the setting in stories such as “Erasures,” it is dismissed as “‘too young a nation,’” one with “‘a poverty of history.’” Contrasted with the detailed descriptions of the violent past of other countries, and the ongoing question of how to overcome one’s personal “dark history,” this dismissal of Canada’s own historical and contemporary violence feels insufficient. The question of how Canada’s history influences its people lingers, unanswered, long after the collection is complete.
The avoidance of concrete answers or assertions runs throughout the collection. Ferris, a misanthropic character appearing in several of Gunn’s stories, alludes to Page’s poem while reflecting on his mother. Ferris considers that, in the face of his inability to commit to any romantic relationships, his mother might quote from Page’s poem: “‘with their empty eyes/ longing to be filled with monuments.’” Ferris cynically denounces the relevance of these lines in modern times, feeling instead that humanity’s longing has been replaced with obsessive narcissism thanks to phones and social media.
This frustration with technology punctuates Gunn’s writing. In “Bloodlines,” historian Paris surveys a library populated by “Millennials … surrounded by books, yet their eyes are constantly focused on their phones or tablets.” Paris sympathizes that it is difficult to “disconnect from the intoxication of likes and followers,” but still yearns for connection to “something that goes back generations, instead of hours.” In “Permanent Tourists,” Richard, a successful entrepreneur, is reduced to “a dupe, a foolish empty chump” by an online dating scam. While it is clear that in Gunn’s narratives, technology becomes a tangible representation of the disconnection and isolation her stories investigate, this same sense of unbelonging permeates the face-to-face interactions that all her characters participate in. As a result, the critique of technology feels inconclusive. If technology is not to blame for the lack of secure attachments to time, place, or people that Gunn’s characters suffer, then what is?
This question, like all others posed throughout the collection, is never answered. Gunn’s characters populate the pages sporadically. All eight stories are short and fast-paced, making the characters feel fleeting, imperceptible. Just as the inner workings of characters’ motivations, relationships, and histories begin to unravel, the stories end.
In the eponymous “Permanent Tourists,” several characters interact at a counselling session. All manner of characters are present: those from previous stories, those from stories later in the collection, and those who are contained to these brief paragraphs alone. The choice to nest this story in the middle of the collection yields striking results. On the one hand, the opportunity to revisit previous characters and resolve lingering questions is satisfying. Yet, being introduced to new characters in an even more transitory way than elsewhere in the collection breeds frustration and even confusion. Characters begin to blur at their edges, as a multitude of personalities populate the page. If “Permanent Tourists” had been placed at the beginning of the collection — to create intrigue — or the end — to clarify uncertainties — it would have impacted how Gunn’s characters and themes are interpreted to a far greater degree.
Clarity or comprehension in this vein would run antithetical to the issues Gunn presents. Instead, the ephemeral nature of Gunn’s characters and the way readers are asked to become comfortable with the sense of being unmoored creates an almost metatextual element to the stories. The act of reading and feeling detached from the events or characters on the page is, in itself, a form of connection to the themes and ideas so important to this collection. The strength of Permanent Tourists is that everyone encounters something difficult — readers and characters alike.
Zoe McKenna recently completed her Master of Arts from the University of Victoria and also holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vancouver Island University. Her thesis, as well as a great deal of her other reading and writing, focuses on horror writing in Canada, especially that by BIPOC authors. Her previous work has appeared in VIU’s Portal Magazine and the Quill & Quire. When not reading, writing, or reviewing, Zoe can be found hiking a local mountain or in front of a movie with her two cats, Florence and Delilah. She is always covered in cat hair and wears almost exclusively dark clothing to prove it. Find her on Twitter @zoevmckenna. Editor’s note: Zoe McKenna has also reviewed books by Penny Chamberlain, Brooke Carter, and Donalda Reid for The Ormsby Review.
The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster