Kennedy, A.L. (2010), What Becomes, Vintage
I deeply love and admire the work of A. L. Kennedy, the Scottish writer of short stories, novels and screenplays, as well as part-time stand-up comic. Thus, the following (enthusiastic) review may be slightly biased. However, I don’t think I overreach by calling Kennedy not just a master of her craft, but a great writer, a rare writer. There is, for example, her versatility: in her novels and stories, A. L. Kennedy consistently proves herself to be a writer interested in and adapt at using complex literary techniques, including even being able to nimbly slip into a smooth postmodern playfulness at times, but I value Kennedy most for being an emotive, direct, personal writer who keeps moving and surprising me. At her best, she is able to command a language that seems simple and direct, almost autobiographical, but is actually the product of a writer in full control of her craft. If we compare her work at the sentence level in her most recent collection What Becomes with other contemporary short story writers, for example Bonnie Jo Campbell, finalist for the 2009 National Book Award with her collection American Salvage, we quickly see how unerring Kennedy’s syntactic precision is. There are very few living writers who can boast of writing so simple, so seemingly indulgent and emotional sentences, that nevertheless are anything but indulgent. Their craft isn’t obvious in the sense of simple musicality or strong stylistic oddities, it’s the way Kennedy adjusts and tucks at her syntax sentence after sentence, length, music, slipping from hypotactic into terse, punning paratactic sentences and back, whatever she does, everything is just right, everything seems intentional and careful, while writers like Campbell work with slabs of language, leaving a rough, muddy surface.
But language does not take center stage in Kennedy’s stories, the stories and the characters within them do. And here’s where her success is most visible: she almost always manages to completely inhibit her characters, no matter how different they are. Her writing is a writing from inside, a writing that does not use her characters’ particulars to hang a moral tale from them, she doesn’t present them on a literary platter so they’ll be of use them as objects judged and portrayed from the outside. Kennedy writes from within, and she does it with humor, and a quiet understanding. Of course, on the other hand, she doesn’t just serve up some random slice of life. Like most writers, Kennedy, too, has very specific obsessions, and a very specific slant on life, art and writing. Although the exact focus of her obsessions varies from book to book, all her work is united by a very distinct literary vision, and she has managed to improve upon her expression of this vision as her work slowly grew and started to develop a voice of its own. More and more, Kennedy has moved from expansive books like the magnificent Everything You Need, which took up too many issues to be perfectly successful in all of them, to far more precise collections like Indelible Acts, which focuses explicitly upon bodies and the acts (or rather: performances) we subject them to. Then, her previous novel Paradise looked on dependencies, alcoholism and the unraveling of a life in an unraveling of social relationships, just as her next novel, Day, was concerned with memory and violence. Reading Kennedy today is reading a writer who knows what she can do with language, and is perfectly comfortable in her own literary idiom.
That idiom includes idiosyncrasies that might bother first time readers, yet both they and veteran readers of Kennedy’s work will likely see that there’s a writer at work in What Becomes who is able to blend a vast variety of voices and devices into stories that feel extremely natural and direct, whether they are narrated by men or women. Kennedy is a writer of the interior, thoroughly, untiringly exploring the horribleness of empty contemporary lives. Or rather: lives that are commonly viewed and narrated as empty. The characters in What Becomes are filled with life, with hope and with dreams. Let down by partners, friends or down on their luck, they nevertheless try (and retry) to connect, to work things out. They get lost in the mechanics and particulars of the mundane, the cast reality of the objects that surround us, the objects that complement us. In the story “Confectioner’s Gold” (one of the collection’s best) there is a couple on the brink of failure, who get together one night, and gorge themselves on a lavish, decadent meal. They don’t enjoy themselves, they don’t eat because they love eating or spending time with one another, they eat because eating means not talking. This story is partly narrated by the husband, who, as we learned earlier in the story, in an unusually plain fashion, identifies with blind people he sees passing in front of his house. He ‘feels’ blind, although he isn’t. An angry man, angry with life, angry with his situation as a man, a husband, as a white person, he runs on entitlement, and we get the impression (though it is never spelled out) that the loss of privilege that progress forces on him makes him angry. There is no space in him to consider other people’s predicaments, people who are really handicapped. He represents the norm and his anger feels justified to him.
People like that husband, and disintegrating relationships like his, are, as in his case, created as a consummate mixture of interior and exterior explanations and visions. “Confectioner’s Gold” is a great story to use as example, because it is quite explicit about issues that are part of the underpinnings of Kennedy’s writing, and of the way it is connected to literary and cultural contexts. On the one hand, there are objects that are made to serve as extensions of the failing, miserable bodies of Kennedy’s protagonists. On the other hand, there is the city, the treatment if which sometimes seems to refer directly to writers like Walter Benjamin, and his theories (e.g. about the flâneur and his role in comprehending metropolitan reality). Benjamin is also important in his treatment of history, and his doubts about the veracity of accounts of the past, or rather: their reliability when dissociated from the present. What Becomes is very much about the future, as its title (which alludes to Jimmy Ruffin’s hit single “What becomes of the broken hearted” or rather the idiomatic expression that has been spun from it) demonstrates unequivocally. Although all of the stories have an uneasy but important link to the past, whether it is some unspoken, but still menacing falling-out, as in “Confectioner’s Gold”, or a past relationship, as in the title story, or an episode from childhood as in “Saturday Teatime”: the past is never quite confronted, except through the shambles it has made of the present. Sometimes, Kennedy’s characters try and cope with the past without confronting it at all, sometimes they try to mend it, sometimes it just ambushes them in a quiet moment of self-reflection. The central question of all these stories, in the face of a threatening, dark, unspeakable past, is: what now? How do I behave once my life has been broken by those once dear to me, or by myself? What will I do?
In all her work Kennedy has never asked this question so clearly, so urgently, and in many ways: this, I think, makes What Becomes her most old-fashioned work (and, incidentally, the book of hers that is least concerned with death.). In the tradition of ancient philosophy, this collection of stories take a look at the ars bene vivendi or the ars vitae, the art of how to live, the art of life. Now, this is a common theme in literature, and many writers focus on this aspect, but the concentration and precision of A. L. Kennedy’s new collection is note- and praiseworthy. The answer to the question of ‘What now?’ turns out, often as not, to be a question of whether or not to confront the past as represented by people we once knew and loved, people who let us down or whom we let down. Some people do both, as the protagonist in the title story, who confronts his former wife in her kitchen, cooking a meal, trying to persevere, to rekindle a flame long gone. On the other hand, once he starts to really comprehend that their marriage has failed, that they really are no longer an item, he flees into the obscure embrace of a cinema, preferring to sit in a dark room, while a movie plays in silence, instead of getting on with his life, forging a future. In this story, as in many others, the protagonist’s bodily reality almost merges with the objects around him, the tools he uses to create a reality for him. There is the blood that he sheds on the kitchen floor (and on the knife he uses to cut up vegetables), and there’s the broken movie reel in the cinema that fails to supply the movie with sound, mirroring his own self-imposed deafness. The protagonist cannot provide answers on how to deal with disaster, but his very helplessness is instructive, and the emotional core of the book.
Other stories, like “Wasps”, the short, devastating tale of a married man’s ‘second family’, the result of an affair that eventually metamorphosed into the family he visits on some weekends and on the occasional holiday, seem to come up with answers: “[t]his is a way to be ready when he finally doesn’t come back”; answers however, that aren’t helpful or teachable, that are testaments of a similar helplessness, a similar lack of resolve and willpower. This all the protagonists of What Becomes share: the gap between what they know or intuit should be done, and what they can get themselves to do. Even those whose acts show a willingness not to engage with the issues, to ignore them until they hopefully vanish of their own accord, even they clearly know how they should live, since their acts are mere acting out of rote roles and performed joylessly, mechanically. Even “Marriage”, the story that I feel is the harshest of the bunch, the most cynical, implies, in its blatant display of cynicism, how to live well, although its characters aren’t able to. The story, which closes with the firm assertion “This is exactly what it looks like. Marriage.”, portrays an estranged couple, which is brought together by an act of domestic violence. Hitting his wife in the face, the husband, who’s the story’s protagonist, not only manages to arouse himself, but also to bridge a gap of affections that had opened between him and his wife. The event leaves him as bruised emotionally as his wife is physically, and the final scene has them hold on to one another for comfort, for strength, to endure the present, and one another. Although in “Wasps”, the lover watches her almost-husband leave into a rainy night, holding on only to herself, while the lovers in “Marriage” have each other, it’s hard to say who’s lonelier.
It is quite the miracle that Kennedy can pull off stories like this one without having to enter precious melodrama (except for maybe one or two slips), and also without subscribing to the well-worn workshop mantra “show don’t tell”. In my reading experience, that mantra is helpful if writers lack the creative urge and talent to make ‘telling’ work. Stories are quickly uncluttered if one concentrates on ‘showing’, which also facilitates further editing. Raymond Carver is a rather notorious example of all this. When in 2009, the Library of America published Carver’s Collected Stories, the editors Stull and Caroll decided to include “Beginners”, a version of Carver’s first major collection of stories that did not contain his long-time editor Gordon Lish’s cuts. Lish is famous for having truncated Carver’s writing to the essentials, even adding and changing phrases to make the cuts fit and retain the mood. The resulting stories are breathtaking masterpieces of concision, both moving and trimmed of fat. The original stories are far less than that. Not only is the reader forced to wade through what feels like undisciplined blather, but the emotional force is blunted and dulled through Carver’s penchant for telling, for spelling things out that Lish had mercifully expurgated from the original publication. Carver’s Collected Stories are a lesson in the difficulties of making a strong, introspective interior voice work in the short story format and my having recently read them may have heightened my attention to this kind of writing, but upon closing What Becomes one really feels that Kennedy’s resounding success at it is more than commendable, it’s wondrous. Kennedy never sacrifices emotional impact for elaborate speechifying, she makes the voices work for her, wrenches melodies, surprises and modulations from them, grabbing its readers by the throat.
And at the same time, she is often very, very funny. There is no need for her to paint a bleak picture in doom and gloom. Her stories are filled to the brim with the fullness of life, whether it’s a discussion of orgasm, or a humorous narrative of being afraid of the dentist, whether it’s remembering Doctor Who in a flotation tank or trading books with a blond beauty. People in her stories don’t give up on life, although most just hang on, but at least they do that. I called What Becomes an ars vitae, and then went on to enumerate stories where none of the characters really show us how to live life well, which might seem contradictory, but then Kennedy is not a philosopher, she does not intend to provide us with lessons or teachable moments. Instead, her stories are powered by her characters’ own drive to live their life well and Kennedy shows herself to be both a deeply moral writer, touching on various political and philosophical issues, as well as a compassionate, beautifully open and accepting writer, who waits for her characters to come up with a solution of how to live their lives, how to deal with others and one’s own ugly self. The most sublimely moving moments are those where here characters have the will and the vision to re-design the future, if not for themselves, then for their children, to make sure they will not be as damaged, as warped as they themselves. Despite Kennedy’s reputation for being unremittingly bleak and despite, too, the darkness in these stories, none of them are without hope, without the tacit potential of a better, a brighter future. All this is presented in Kennedy’s inimitable style, in her unique lines that have both the brevity of punchlines, and the sinuous flow of human thoughts and feelings.
I know some people don’t take to Kennedy, incomprehensible as it is to me, yet I’d go so far as to recommend this book to everyone who likes to read short stories. Maybe Kennedy takes some getting used to, maybe her stark sense of the body and of the world of the corporeal and of objects, and the long ruminations of her characters are not for everybody, but A. L. Kennedy is easily one of the best writers of her generation, and What Becomes might just be the best introduction to her work one could wish for.