Kennedy, A.L. (1998), Original Bliss, Vintage
A.L. Kennedy is one of my favorite writers, quite possibly my favorite living prose writer, but that ranking of writers is a shadowy business at best, anyway. I have been an avid and admiring reader of Kennedy’s work for years now, and my favorites among her books continue to shift. As a new collection of stories is about to be published, I took the opportunity of rereading one of her old ones. While Indelible Acts is my favorite collection of short stories of hers, Original Bliss, published in 1996, s not far behind. As much of Kennedy’s work, this book, too, explores the alleys and byways of human relationships; this time, she stresses the role of sex in all of this, the things we do, the lengths we go to in order to attain and maintain physical relationships with another human being, as well as the ways that our own psychological state influences and indeed often determines our performance in the arena of sexuality. Performance here does not, of course, mean the quality of one’s participation in the sexual act, the sexual prowess, so to say. No, it’s rather question as how much, for example, the sexual act has to do with intimacy, what physical contact with a different human being means to you. The answers that Original Bliss suggests to these questions are sometimes moving, sometimes disturbing or at least irritating. A.L. Kennedy has an uncanny knack for exploring the cracks in people’s perceptions of themselves and others. Although quite a lot happens in Original Bliss, perception is the true pivot for her masterful stories.
In Kennedy’s work, there are certain constants, obsessions, images that recur. She is a very funny writer, and she keeps writing about fundamentally dire situations or setups, but she never abandons her characters there. Her work is imbued by a warmth, a light; Kennedy understands her characters, she doesn’t present us their stories as anomalies to stare at: she gives her characters an opportunity to raise their voices. In my favorite novel of hers (keep in mind, as of today, I haven’t read Day yet), the wondrous, marvelous Everything You Need, this principle becomes the major topic of the book, which is as much about writing, that is: about finding and losing your voice, as it is about father-daughter relationships and other connections between friends, family and total strangers. Kennedy almost always opts for a personal narrator, because that offers her the opportunity to let her characters speak for themselves and not letting the whole thing veer off into confessional sob stories. The skill with which Kennedy navigates between objectivity or rather: restraint, on the one hand and subjectivity on the other, is remarkable. And you can’t usually tie her down to one mood or technique. As a writer of short prose, she’s extraordinarily inventive (within the constraints of what she considers worth telling). Her story collections usually glitter with moods and formal games, as well. In this sense, Original Bliss is very different. The whole book has a strongly claustrophobic feel to it, it is very concentrated upon its issue and its manifestations in different situations. It’s also Kennedy’s longest collection of short fiction so far, mostly because it not only contains ten short stories but also a novella (“Original Bliss”). Take care: the American edition of Original Bliss (and the German translation Gleissendes Glück) contains only the novella, for whatever barmy reason.
The ten stories function, intentionally or not, as a preparation of sorts for the novella which is uncharacteristically dark for a book of Kennedy’s. The first story, “Rockaway and the Draw” introduces many of the novella’s topics, but with a humorous twist, a lighter tone, which becomes obvious in passages such as this one:
At other times and in another country, that space had been her cunt. Ben called it his beaver. She supposed beaver was a nicer word than cunt. Ben’s beaver. She didn’t mind it being a beaver, she only found it odd that it wasn’t hers. Ben’s own genitals were quite attractive, but nothing on which she would stake a claim.
Suzanne, the story’s protagonist, keeps having dreams and visions of “a place called Rockaway where there is nothing but an old gas station and a man who waits.” For Suzanne, the sexual act does not mean or cause intimacy, it’s a “mutually agreeable overhaul”, actually well done on the part of Ben, who appears to do everything right that a partner should. He’s sensitive, intelligent, he listens to her and “[e]very single thing she liked: he remembered them all.” None of this, however, translates into intimacy for Suzanne, whose dreams and visions are often violent, and are marked by a desire to be elsewhere. We see how she’s, in her relations with Ben, alienated, distanced. Neither sexual acts nor what is commonly accepted as communication are helpful. Ben fails to break through to her inside, into her thinking process. Worried, he tells her “You think more than anyone I know” and she answers “I really can’t help it. That’s how I am.” Sexuality as immediate experience is juxtaposed with thinking and dreaming; her behavior as learn-able, perceivable, in other words: her performance is in conflict with her inner truth. Suzanne suffers from a divide between spiritual and carnal needs, which is at heart a split into two truths, none of which is privileged over the other; that conflict creates the unhappiness that pervades this collection. Most of the stories that follow and the novella, as well, evoke these two areas and place their characters’ needs and problems on one of them.
Suzanne’s lack of intimacy despite being physically intimate with someone is iterated in the next story, “Animal” which is about a TV actor who drops out of his TV show. The story shows him talking to the woman who’s responsible for wardrobe and make-up, talking to her for the last time, minutes before his last appearance on the set of the show. The animal of the title is the TV show and the apparatus that powers it:
I always think it looks as if the booms and cranes and cameras are all part of…I don’t know…an animal and sometimes it lets people inside amongst itself so they can play. It’s very beautiful.
Playing, assuming roles, performing, these are wildly important elements of human interaction as we know, and in Kennedy’s stories, these actions are tied up with sexual performance (or the lack of it). Thus, she can make pertinent observations about a very specific aspect of our everyday lives, without getting caught up in the nooks and crannies of sex. In “Rockaway and the Draw”, Ben, Suzanne’s beau, can only react to her visible performance, but her perception of her own self, which manifests itself in her dreams, is hidden from Ben and, presumably, from the rest of the world. This closes her off to intimacy, as I maintained earlier. Mark, the actor in “Animal”, is similarly hiding from the world; he, too, presents a performance of himself; a false one that does not correspond to his self-perception. He does not have any sex, but this is not the problem. Just like Suzanne he cannot really open his truth to others, he’s somehow closed off. In a way, his onscreen sex as Dr. Barber (that’s what his role is called) is the equivalent to Suzanne’s competent but ultimately empty sex life. Between these two stories, Kennedy has shifted the particulars by making the performance part an actual performance, but has kept the basic parameters without creating cliché characters. Both Mark and Suzanne are highly believable characters, thanks to her masterful use of their voices.
We witness a complete change in a different story, which is called “Groucho’s Moustache”, the story of an extremely gullible woman, who admits to her flaw without resentment. It’s just who she is. She cannot see through other people’s truths, for her, the performance is all there is. She appears to be incapable of seeing a role as a role, a lie as a lie; at the same time, this devalues truth for her, because she is well aware of her problem. She knows that what she thinks is a truth might well be a lie, even a transparent lie. Her distance is the opposite of Suzanne’s – it’s the spiritual side of things that’s somewhat shady, as far as she’s concerned; while Suzanne tries to get closer to her spiritual truths through her dreams and visions, the main character in “Groucho’s Moustache” needs the fixed, touchable truths of physical contacts. As she becomes enmeshed in an affair, she tells the man she’s with, “I want”,
And for one complete moment, ‘I want’ was the absolute truth.
And she’s far from being the only one in Original Bliss who hunts for physical truths. In “Breaking Sugar”, arguably the single most tender and beautiful story in the collection, breaking a sugar cube with a hammer in the darkness, in order to release a violet burst of light, is used as a metaphor for sex, for reasonably violent physical contact, which releases a different kind of truth than the standard, spiritual, kind. In the story that moved me most, “Far Gone”, a man travels to New York to pursue a woman he loves. He travels to NY in order to have sex with her. As the story progresses we learn that she’s taken, married, even, but he persists, he knows about her husband but he still comes over. He has absolute, complete faith in their future as a couple, there’s not a second of doubt; at the same time, he has already projected the anticipated sex act as a full success, which, in turn casts doubt upon his ‘knowledge’ of their future. His is a hunt for physical truths because he looks for sex to close the deal, to disperse her doubts, or to even convert her, so to say. He wants sex to transmit to her that which he holds to be true, his inner truth, sex is his means of opening up, of performing that inner truth; but here’s the kick: within the story, he never actually has sex, we just follow him on his journey, we don’t follow him to his destination, thus everything that pertains to the physical aspect remains within the realm of dreams, of his inner truth, including his resolve to really proposition her once he arrives.
I could go on this way for ages, since there are a few more stories I haven’t even mentioned. Kennedy’s nuanced and complex writing merits more than the quick readings, heavy on catchphrases, I have just offered. I cannot, however, talk about the book and not talk about the novella. As I said, the stories, in many more ways than I sketched above, feel like preparation for the novella, or rather: the novella appears to sum up many themes in the preceding stories and provide, at the book’s end, a kind of synthesis. The plot is as simple as it is weird. Mrs Brindle, a housewife, thoroughly unhappy at home, loses her ‘Original Bliss’, her ability to believe in God; this loss hits her like the loss of a close relative would. Devastated, in mourning, she comes upon the self-help books of Edward E. Gluck, a self-help guru, who tours the world, sells millions of books and may even be in the running for the Nobel prize. On a whim she travels to Stuttgart, where he’s having a talk. Their complicated relationship that develops from this is the topic of the novella. These two are both, in a way, in search of spiritual and bodily fulfillment, but they come from different situations. Bodily contact helps her free repressed portions of her self (à la Reich!), whereas contact with her spirit helps Gluck tackle his porno addiction. Gluck is completely desensitized, he’s thoroughly in thrall of the vices and temptations of the physical world.
These two strange characters subsequently attempt to help each other; the novella charts their successes and failures in this undertaking. It’s mostly dark, and powerful, full of twists and turns; all its events are basically pushed forward by the woman’s quest for happiness, or rather: bliss. It chronicles is a quest for regaining her capacities of belief, her original bliss. Kennedy’s spare writing and her wry humor do their utmost to convey the urgency of Mrs Brindle’s search. Neither Mrs Brindle nor A.L. Kennedy opt for easy solutions, which is one of the many strengths of Original Bliss. Kennedy creates completely believable characters in strange situations; unhappy characters who sometimes opt for strange solutions to their problems. Many of them just want to believe. In love, in friendship, in God. They crave that original bliss, that Urvertrauen. So they enter their respective stage, trying to find a role that works for them. Some manage, some don’t. Original Bliss, which offers us their stories and voices, always manages to find the right pitch, the right phrase, to make their stories work. If it is more claustrophobic than her other collections of stories, it’s because its even more coherent thematically than her already very coherent and rounded other collections, more passionately pursuing answers to basic questions, focusing on one aspect rather than on a buffet of human melancholy. Who are we? Why do we love? Who are we when we love? This is an extraordinary book.