DETECTING quartz in the granite rocks that litter the twisting vale of tears that is AL Kennedy’s via dolorosa of modern fiction has long been a penitential pleasure for her hard-core addicts.
All The Rage
Jonathan Cape, £16.99
She is the god of her own godless world. Her prose moves in more mysterious ways than mere comprehension will allow, with its discontinuity of clauses, sub-clauses, thoughts; she parses her characters’ emotions, inclinations, confusions and needs.
So, it is to the quartz, the originality of expression, we Kennedy readers tend to look, those turns of phrase, those glancing angles of fierce inward scrutiny that she brings to the task of unveiling loss and muted discontent. Don’t look for narrative completion or satisfaction. When it occurs, it is all the more welcome and unexpected, as in this collection’s title tale, which at 45 pages is compressed to a diamond glint, unfailingly inward, as is the shorter and more straightforward Run Catch Run, about a boy, Simon, and his dog, a spaniel who makes big eyes at him. He adores her in return. Until he kicks her. Instant remorse. Thus, by marking her, she belongs to him. Those fickle twins, love and possession – sometimes separate in these stories – are essential to the bond (the bind) Simon finds himself in, just as Mark in All The Rage lashes out at Emily his lover with a belt: “He didn’t want to hit her, he simply couldn’t shake his desperation to leave her marked… his statement of love.” His stamp of possession.
Love and possession, as linking themes, are sometimes eclipsed by the characters’ driven need for connectedness. Like shadows reaching out to brush fellow shadows, fearful of contact, like hollow beings breathing in yet not breathing out, in so many stories their direst anxieties arise, their crippled ability to metaphorically and literally make contact becomes their hallmark.
Lonesome Mike, in Takes You Home, is unfit for adulthood. Alone, he stares balefully over the room, “the whole situation rendered more dismal by the yellowish frown of an eco-friendly light bulb”. There is a terse, sardonic smile in that final phrase. Even the bulb aspires to mirror the downbeat tenor of Kennedy’s world.
In The Practice Of Mercy the pro-tagonist, on holiday abroad, confronts her predictable hotel breakfast: “eggs, sausages, bacon, hash browns… harbingers of obesity and doom”.
At the start of All The Rage, Mark, waiting alongside his wife on a railway platform for a train that may never arrive, considers his life, remembers his mother: “hands worried… with knitting or sewing” and has the suspicion that “he wasn’t where he thought, maybe over the bridge would be that other, original shithole and his place in it waiting for him, irrevocable”.
Mark bucks the trend in this collection. He is married. He finds a lover. They connect. He lies to his wife, while his lover possesses him. It is Mark she wants, we discover, not his love. Kennedy renders his floundering life in its fitful confusion and self-despite. As he rips his mediocre existence into fragments and lets it rain over him, it is his wife’s benighted life which—largely unwritten in Kennedy’s telling—seems the more tragic.
But things could be worse. In This Man, set by the Thames, a pall of inertia hangs over and permeates every sentence, so inwardly tortuous is its depiction of a couple meeting for lunch. Failing to find in either party much sign of sympathetic life – you’re left to wonder when or why they first came together, and why they are meeting.
But there is the quartz, there are spiky phrases, even jokes, amounting sometimes to riffs of comedy. Doug, in These Small Pieces, seeks out warmth in a London church. In the subsequent reading from the Bible, God orders Abraham to slay Isaac: “‘Kill your son for me.” “All right then.” Soon, in Doug’s mind, there’s a comic dialogue in spate, in the style of American comic Bob Newhart.
The comedy crescendos in Baby Blue, when the narrator goes into a shop and finds “fake vaginas”, electric-powered penises, flavoured condoms. “I don’t feel my experience of oral sex is intended to be primarily culinary,” she says.
She is talking to someone missing. Someone abandoned. “I’m the one who took… your shelter.” The narrative darkens. “I can’t drag down the cold to hurt you.” After the laughter, the vale of tears. “If I could see you, I would say this.” Kennedy’s pay-off is softly potent. Far more potent than in the tales of serial gloom. The lesson is obvious. Contrast works. n