MAY 4, 2014
A.L. KENNEDY has written a collection of short stories that is both very good, and very frustrating.
For the uninitiated, Kennedy is a novelist, dramatist and essayist who has long been considered a pillar of the Scottish literary world. Most recently the winner of the Costa book prize, she is a distinguished name in the UK In the US, she has been noted, but never quite become notable. It’s our oversight — her books are marvelous works of acuity about human consciousness, full of inventive, muscular writing.
Like many literary heavyweights, she is attracted to some very grim business — her novels have dealt with sadomasochism, alcoholism, war, and the like. Her longest work, Everything You Need, is set on an island inhabited by a colony of suicidal writers. And yet she takes a certain delight in mining these dark affairs for humor. She tunnels meticulously through her characters’ secrets and regrets, but somehow she’s always popping up into the thematic equivalent of soft white light. She can be mordant and then generous in the space of a thought. She’s wry, she’s impish — that’ll draw you in — but there’s a warm, inquisitive heart at the core of her writing that works hard to find meaning in a world that so often feels constructed for the most efficient delivery of pain, loneliness, and rage.
Which is why All The Rage is a provocative title for her newest collection of short stories. None of the characters here seem particularly angry. There are no outbursts, and nothing breaks because most everyone here is already broken. We detect a glimmer of rage, and because of that, turning the page is all the more unsettling. One woman, while cooling off from a lovers’ quarrel, reminisces about a chemistry lesson that combined potassium and water:
The metal wasped back and forth on the liquid’s surface in a tiny blur of lilac flames, too angry to sink. It made Dorothy smile, then and today: the idea that every human body hid a pastel shade of outrage no one should view without safety glasses, or else protective screens.
These stories, rather than containing grand moments of catharsis, are pervaded by heavier feelings of longing and regret. It’s to Kennedy’s credit that she chooses to harness the power of restraint; she sends us off in many different directions with a cast of a dozen characters who, despite their quiet, circumscribed lives, seem dangerously close to ignition.
This may be one reason why so many of Kennedy’s characters seem to be struggling to answer one question: how did I get here? Some stories begin with the inquiry explicitly. In “Knocked,” a boy wakes up alone in a hospital bed and can’t quite work out why. In “Baby Blue,” a woman accidentally wanders into a sex-toy shop and can’t seem to escape. A widower finds himself boxing up the remains of a house that has suddenly become strange to him in “Takes You Home.” These people are cresting a necessary moment between what was and what-will-be, but they must confront the past to make their descent.
“How it came to be that he ended up here was among the many mysteries,” begins the story “These Small Pieces,” about an unbeliever who spends Christmas Eve in a pew. He wanders into a church, christens himself with a false name — Doug — and then, in the mode typical of this collection, he thinks. Everyone in this collection is in soliloquy rather than scene. Doug makes short work of the narratives of his former faith, drolly sketching a conversation between Isaac and God after Isaac’s reprieve from sacrificing his son. “He’ll not be taking voluntary country strolls with me now, God, will he? He’ll be watching the cutlery at mealtimes is what he’ll be doing.” In the next moment, considering original sin, Kennedy writes this exquisite sentence about the Fall:
The beast was only cursed to go on its belly after it gave man and woman the knowledge of how they were shaped to fit each other sweetly and, furthermore, shaped for wide, mad catalogues of other pleasure.
Here is that signature friction between Eros and Thanatos that Kennedy weaves so well into everyday thought. She’s delightfully dark in one moment, and offering her quiet poetic gifts in the next. Doug, who is still thinking, is impervious to all the pomp and cheer of Christmas until he hears a familiar carol. And then something happens: he sings, and suddenly the rage begins to melt away. He discovers in himself “some emptiness that wants to be filled,” and by the end Kennedy offers us hope that there are still small tokens of grace available for the faithless.
“These Small Pieces” is an eminent example of what is alternately satisfying and off-putting about Kennedy’s collection. The language, the playful audacity, the raw, earned wisdom: these are all an utter joy. But what we don’t know can make us dizzy in a fog of “huh?” Doug’s true identity, or why he might be suffering, or why he “ended up” at church on a rather spiritually loaded holiday, is anyone’s guess. A symbol here and a sentence there hints at past infidelities — he’s alone now after all — but the story leads us in a circle. This is important to note because it is a typical narrative mold for Kennedy. The “who” speaking, the “what” being spoken about, the Thing of Importance on which the narrative hinges is routinely held back, then divulged obliquely near the close. We’re held hostage for a second read, but, arguably, all the better for it.
With repeated reads, these stories continue to offer up rich nuances in the emotional lives of their characters — as in “Baby Blue,” when stumbling into a sex shop prompts a woman to rant hilariously on the strange intersections of the erotic and plastic. The salesclerk follows her around the boutique to point out “some further contraption with which to astonish my privacy.” Brilliant. Upon finding chocolate-flavored condoms she quips, “I don’t feel my experience of oral sex is intended to be primarily culinary.” Then,
Am I being over sensitive? Am I mistaken in thinking that when I touch the man I love, no matter where I touch the man I love, in no matter what way I touch the man I love, then the point is that I’m touching him and it’s love and the whole of him is him…
She carries on, addressing a “you” — we don’t know whom yet — until her thoughts turn to the reason she’s alone in an unfamiliar city. It becomes apparent that she has just undergone a mastectomy and also severed her relationship with her spouse. She has chosen to spare him, and herself, the pain of her disfigurement. We finally understand that the significance of this story lies in the fact that it will be the first of many she cannot share with him. The emporium of false genitalia is just one more twist of the knife. “I need no substitutes or replacements. I am lost, but not that lost,” she says. With clarity, empathy flourishes: ah, that’s how you got here.
This is the magic of Kennedy when the stories gel. But it is the very interiority that Kennedy has mastered which can sometimes become wearying. The quipping, the gloss, the commentary: it’s relentless. Our bellies are flat on the riverbed, we’re so deep in their stream-of-consciousness, which is why her distinctive style will feel intimate to eager readers and outright claustrophobic to others. The effect is only amplified with the interspersed italics that plunge us into first-person when we thought we were safely in third. Or second. Or even first. Of course, this may well be the point. If it’s wearying for us, imagine what it’s like for them.
But that logic is pushed to a breaking point. We’re meant to be drawn deep into the thinking of each character, but just as often, the italics that purport to give us access to a voice-within-a-voice only direct our attention to the artifice of character. It’s hard not to feel like a handful of the people populating Kennedy’s stories are pulling in a different direction than where Kennedy’s authorial hand is pointing. And in a collection that lives or dies on a readers’ emotional engagement with these characters, that kind of dissonance is all the more troubling.
This is apparent in “All The Rage,” the longest piece of the collection. The story is part confession, part postmortem of a love affair, and begins when an errant train strands a 40-something man and his wife on a remote platform. There is nothing to do there but wait, and in his case, contemplate suicide. Here Kennedy delivers us into the mind of a classic masochist. He ruminates on his adulteries and eventually recalls Emily, a girl half his age; Emily, the girl who finally undoes him. From the outset she offers him her total objectification, and he delights in a companion so resolutely and equally numb. He loves “that distance in her eyes where she was unreachable and at her loveliest.” He also likes to whip her.
The story winds deeper into his obsession, following them through seedy hotel rooms and finally to a “demo” — a demonstration that harkens to the events leading up to the 2011 riots, when thousands of people looted in cities and towns across England after police shot an unarmed black man during a routine traffic stop. When Emily asks the protagonist to accompany her there, he believes it is a serious portent for their future together, and for a fragile moment we do wonder if they’ll awaken one another to some better self. But before they even arrive for the demo, their tumultuous affair begins to crumble. The story marches toward its natural conclusion — he gets caught — and he abandons Emily at the very moment she needs him.
Here Kennedy offers a stark depiction of self-loathing and a chilling picture of the isolation that inevitably follows; the story is unflinching in its lack of redemption for the character. That’s what makes it good. But the narrative is an unwieldy thing, and the voice we encounter from page to page never totally transcends to become a flesh-and-blood character. We feel the author’s hand, ever present and strained, dealing out the protagonist’s pathology.
By good design, the stories that bookend this collection are both tender and nearly devoid of rage. Here the characters’ concerns are simple even if the context is complex. Love. The Thing of Importance is simply love. “Late in Life” is a poignant story about a couple wedged between the beginning of a promising relationship and the realities of age, retirement, and the busywork of mortality. They have just come from drawing up his will; her flirty banter in line at a mortgage agency betrays a hovering awareness that time is waning. They are trying to relish, in their own ways, the hope and excitement that a new beginning brings, and they are staving off the difficult truth that life is much nearer to finishing than beginning. The past in this scenario is something not to work back to, but to release.
The same goes for “This Man.” Here is a modest portrait of two people on a bad first date, told from the skewering perspective of a woman growing very tired of bad first dates. She amuses herself with her own observations as he fumbles for conversation, and in this way, she begins to invent him the way an author would invent a character. It is her talent, and her curse. The simple way she is awoken from her strident inwardness to a moment of vulnerability turns out to be the most surprising twist in the whole collection.
There is something necessary about these stories holding the rest of Kennedy’s characters in their embrace. They are the flame of hope. They show us the redeeming possibilities of reaching beyond one’s self, and it’s a lesson we’re grateful to learn. Because by the end of this collection, after we’ve been schooled in all the ways that rage becomes a poisonous compound, we’d be foolish to forget that love remains the most potent antidote.