I have very mixed feelings about The Travelers but I’m glad I read it nonetheless because it does not look like anything I’ve read so far, and I always like a new reading experience. It would be difficult to sum up the story as, by way of a plot, the narration follows the lives of several members of four families that are more or less loosely intertwined. The temporality of the story isn’t always easy to follow (truth be told, I just stopped trying to know which year we were in!), but this story’s main asset lies in the writer’s talent for voices. Regina Porter was a playwright before she wrote The Travelers, which is her first novel. Her characters have very distinctive voices, and it almost feels that you can hear them and their intonations. The musicality of the writing was one of my favourite aspects of this novel.
Now for the structure: The Travelers is complex and layered, so that in the same way as in a play, we have a cast of characters at the beginning of the novel, and you will most likely find yourself constantly referring to it. Each chapter is devoted to a particular period of the life of one character, so that the connexions between them appear progressively. Regina Porter is a demanding writer and she compels you to pay attention to details if you don’t want to miss out key elements of the plot. Because the cast of characters is so extended, not all of them meet one another, so remembering their sometimes very distant connections is challenging. The effect is curious: on the one hand, we feel a certain satisfaction when one part of the plot in a character’s chapter is clarified, and on the other, the fact that there are “only” about 40-ish characters and that they allhave a relation with one or two others creates the illusion of an uncannily small world, populated with those 40-ish characters only. While I really enjoyed the structure divided in chapters and characters, I found that some chapters contained overlong passages with nothing very interesting and nothing explaining other elements in the novel. Some chapters focusing on white, cis-gender males seemed boring compared to the intensity of chapters devoted to a young black man living with PTSD after his experience in the Vietnam war; or the chapters telling the life of a strong-headed Black lesbian who got a pilot’s license, worked in the intelligence of the American army, and never recovered from her first love. I guess that the originality of this structure has its negative counterpoint in the fact that we tend to look for significant clues everywhere, so that when something isn’t relevant for the whole plot, we may be disappointed.
Yet this structure offers a diversity in tones and voices that is stimulating. Regina Porter writes classical third-person narratives, blurry stream-of-consciousness, sharp slang, childish theatre, moving epistolary exchanges… You could never get bored. And yet, there were times when I found passages dragging on, I didn’t know where some chapters were going and found they were going nowhere, some characters seemed dull to me, their inner contradictions not always convincing and rarely forgivable. Towards the end, the story tightens around Eloise, the lesbian pilot and Agnes, her first love, abandoning the other characters without much of a conclusion, which I found very frustrating. Many connexions that were evoked during the novel were left at that: distant connexions, failed encounters, wasted opportunities. The novel only scratched the surface of what could have been truly memorable literary moments.
I choose to leave this novel remembering some beautiful pages, the ones about the trials of being young, poor and Black, or woman, Black and lesbian (you’ll notice how ‘Black’ is a recurring cause of hardships), or child, colour-blind and stifled by the casual and not-so-casual-racism of your father. Although it suffers from an uneven pace and some insipid characters, there are passages that are worth reading, voices that need to be heard, thoughts that we need to listen to.