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All the Rage by A L Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, 2014, 217 p.

 All the Rage cover

This is Kennedy’s fifth collection of short stories. Most of the contents tend to utilise short sentences. Sometimes verbless. Often with a second person style of narration.

Late in Life recounts the emotions of a younger woman and her older lover the day they have a lawyer’s meeting to determine the details his will. Of a student ahead of them in the queue at the Building Society where they are about to pay off her mortgage she thinks, “Young men are easily confused. They lack resources.”
In Baby Blue a woman wanders into a sex shop to get away from the cold outside and escape thoughts of the medical procedure she has undergone. As she finds herself dogged by the assistant’s efforts to help she ponders her attitude to love. “The real experience of love is of having unreasonably lost all shelter.” Chocolate-flavoured condoms inspire the thought that her experience of oral sex is not “intended to be primarily culinary,” and that “Use of such a device might imply “your penis is inadequate and ought at least to taste of chocolate to compensate, so here you go and roll on one of these.”
Because it’s a Wednesday. Wednesday is the day for the viewpoint character’s domestic help to do the cleaning. Because it’s a Wednesday they are doing what they always do – at her instigation. Because it’s a Wednesday he’s shagging Carmen. (Not a spoiler, it’s the story’s first sentence.)
In the run-up to Christmas a man drops into a church in These Small Pieces. The service prompts thoughts of the unreliability of God and the occurences which have hurt him.
The Practice of Mercy sees a woman take a stroll from her hotel room through an unfamiliar town and return to find her lover, with whom she’d had a disagreement, has come to join her.
The person who has been Knocked is a young boy recovering in hospital from being trampled by a horse, who imagines he can see into the future in a small way.
In All the Rage a married man in his forties who serially tries it on with women finds his match in a twenty-two year-old woman.
In Takes You Home a man who “never intended to grow up and have to be adult” but “did. Naturally,” (although on several occasions had heard it said he’d simply got taller and faked the rest,) ponders the times he had in the flat he’s selling.
The Effects of Good Government on the City features a woman on a visit to Blackpool questioning her relationships.
In Run Catch Run a boy caught up in the throes of his parents’ divorce plays with the dog his father has bought him and his mother says they can’t afford.
The viewpoint character of A Thing Unheard-of is seemingly afraid of contact and runs through the many ways in which they could deliver a message, in person, on the phone, in a letter, electronically.
This Man is the story of a lunchtime first date which is an awkward encounter – until suddenly it’s not.

Pedant’s corner:- potassium added to water is described as wasping “back and forth on the liquid’s surface in a tiny blur of lilac flames , too angry to sink.” (The reason potassium doesn’t sink is because it’s less dense than water. It would float even without the flames,) wisht (several times but once as whisht. This Scottish word is usually spelled wheesht.)

Another List

I recently came across this list of ten of the best Scottish fiction books. (A bit late I must admit. It was produced five years ago by the Irish Times on the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum.)

The ones in bold I have read.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)
Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981)
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (1989)
Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington (1992)
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner (1995)
Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)
Day by A L Kennedy (2007)

Most of the usual suspects appear here. Trainspotting is the only one I haven’t read.

The list seems to be biased towards more modern novels. Remarkable for its absence is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (now nearly 100 years old, however.) I doubt that’s an omission any such list produced in Scotland would make, though.

Serious Sweet by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2017, 525 p.

Serious Sweet focuses on the activities of London dwelling Jon Sigurdson, a civil servant who has come to hate his work, and Meg Williams, bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic, over the course of one day in which they do not come together till late on. The book tends to follow each in turn with their actions and encounters in normal text and their inner thoughts rendered in italics. Smaller snippets, snapshots of daily life in London, intersperse the time denoted incidents of their day. It all makes for a rather dense reading experience.

Jon is divorced after his wife had a series of affairs but loves his daughter Rebecca. Meg has just had an all-clear appointment at the gynaecologist, after treatment for cancer of the womb, which has nevertheless left her sad at the loss of the possibility of having children.

Jon had previously had a wheeze of inviting women, via an advertisement, to pay him to write them letters expressing kind thoughts. They may write back to him but the idea is that they never meet. (It is hinted that on Jon’s part this may be an elaborate cover to reveal government secrets in letters to someone called Lucy though this is not fully explored.) Meg took up his offer and they met when she tracked him to the PO Box where he picks his letters up. But they do not have a formal relationship. A series of everyday obstacles – and a crisis meeting – prevent their planned dinner date but they do eventually get together late in the day.

Through Jon, Kennedy provides a commentary on the indifference – almost savagery – of the prevailing attitudes of those in power, “Suffering no longer indicates hardship, it indicates bad character and celestial punishment. And if God has seen fit to punish – well that invites further loss,” is followed by, “Tell the average mug punter to put ten quid in the communal tin, wake him up the following morning and he’ll accept without hesitation that asking for ten pence back because he needs it would be a sin.” The mantra is “Opinions Not Facts. These are our watchwords.” Its effect is that people are forced to fail and then they are blamed for that failure. The strategy is to, “Advise them badly, advise them misleadingly and issue threats.” Which only compounds their – and society’s – problems.

Jon says to a colleague, “‘We’ve had more than ten years of being told about the undeserving poor. If you’re poor enough to need benefits you must be doing something wrong – you must be something wrong and undeserving. Want shouldn’t get – that’s our departmental motto. Our national credo – we all love royal babies and hate the poor.’”

The reply he gets is that, “‘Conservatives know you can’t change human nature and therefore the suffering … have brought their pain upon themselves. They could only be forgiven if they thrived …. and no longer need any help. And if you can’t change human nature, you don’t need government …. except for those posts occupied by those who believe you can’t change human nature.
‘And progressives believe that you can change human nature and therefore the great plunging herd of voters must be restrained and managed at all times.’”

(That “knowledge” which conservatives have, though, is merely a belief. Thriving is no signifier of virtue, nor even of effort. Not thriving is certainly not an indication of lack of either. It might simply be bad luck or lack of opportunity. Human nature may be a given but human behaviour isn’t, or else why are there laws to influence it?)

That this is embedded in a narrative which tends to meander takes off its edge somewhat. The book is not one that rewards light reading. Persevere though and it has its moments.

Pedant’s corner:- “to not speak” (I suppose there may be a gradation of meaning with “not to speak”,) shtum, “The he leans in” (Then he leans in,) on-board (why the hyphen? On board is fine,) “a mass of individuals undergo” (a mass undergoes,) “‘I though you were’” (thought,) he is trying make sure (trying to make sure.)

The Blue Book by A L Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, 2011, 375 p.

Sumptuously produced with embossed boards, gold leafing, patterned endpapers and page edges in a blue so deep it’s almost purple this is a consciously literary endeavour. It makes frequent reference to your book, the book you are reading, and also has unconventional upper pagination (the numbers at the bottom of the page are in the normal sequence.) It also explicitly mentions the fact that it has three pages numbered 7 – with a page 18 well out of sequence. In addition The Blue Book has three pages numbered 9, two 8s,10s and 27s as well as 0s and 1s towards the end; not forgetting a 666, a 676, a 678, a 798, an 888, a 919 and a 934 in a book with only 375 pages. (There may be some of these I have missed.) Numbers are an important means of communication for the two main characters and Kennedy has toyed with this notion and with us. Quite how necessary it is to do so is another matter. A further notable feature was the repetition of phrases, “Because he was young,” “A man standing in a doorway,” etc. The narration is not straightforward, sometimes describing aspects of a man’s life in detached third person, at others the internal thoughts of Elisabeth Barber as well as the ongoing narrative. There is also a rather high count of a certain expletive.

One of the scenes tells us of a boy being told about girls by his father. Girls, he says, will not be gorgeous like Dusty Springfield, whom the boy rather likes. Or if they are this will not be good news. Which seems like sound advice.

The meat of the novel is compressed into the time scale of a cruise across the Atlantic to New York but there are various flashbacks to earlier incidents in the two main characters’ lives. Elisabeth is taking the trip with her boyfriend Derek who is on the brink of proposing. In the queue to embark they encounter a man who engages them in conversation. This man’s question to Elisabeth later that day when Derek is absent seems shocking but it turns out Elisabeth used to be his partner, not only in life but also on stage in a show which was basically a con where he claimed to have messages from the dead to their loved ones in the audience. The disintegration of Elisabeth’s relationship with Derek and her renewal of that with Arthur Lockwood – implicit from that encounter in the queue – drives the novel.

A flaw for me though was the fact that The Blue Book depends for its emotional impact largely on the late revelation of a crucial piece of information up till then withheld. To be fair it is withheld from one of our duo of characters but it felt too much like a deus ex machina.

The Blue Book is not one to be read lightly, nor with lack of attention.

What Becomes by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2009, 218p

 What Becomes cover

The back cover blurb of What Becomes makes explicit reference to the old Jimmy Ruffin (among many other performers) hit What Becomes of the Brokenhearted and this collection of short stories does mainly examine fractured or doomed relationships within or outwith marriage. The emblematic story title here would be Whole Family With Young Children Devastated though in the story concerned it actually refers to a notice about a lost pet displayed on local lamp-posts. Two stories are exceptions. Another concerns the careful reconstruction of a new life and relationship after the woman’s husband has died, while As God Made Us is about the camaraderie of a group of ex-soldier amputees and the prejudice they still face.

Kennedy’s style in her short stories is oblique. Very little is stated outright either by her narrators or by the characters but it is all exquisitely, carefully written. The overall sense is of people clinging on, desperate to make connections.

There was one peculiar phrase where a character was described as, “constructing these laborious smiles which I think were designed to imply he was a dandy youngster and blade about town,” – of which I can only make sense by assuming that similes was the intended word. But if it’s not in fact a typo it’s brilliant.

Day by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2008

Day follows the fortunes of Alfred Day, a former tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber during World War 2. This might lead you to believe he will die in the novel’s denouement – rear gunners were notably short lived, being the first target a night fighter might hit in an attack run and unsuitably positioned to exit a doomed Lanc easily should the worst happen – but it is quickly revealed that after the war he returns to Germany to take a part in a film set in a POW camp. The book roams back and forth through Day’s wartime life, the filming and his relationships with the bomber’s crew, his parents, and the married woman he takes up with.

The prose shifts in various ways. The narrative is not linear, the point of view changes, as do tenses and even the person in which the novel is related. Passages related by “you” – ie in the second person rather than the more familiar first person, I, or third person, s/he, are notoriously difficult to bring off – but Kennedy slides into them and out again with facility.

The post war scenes are the least engaging. They seem to be present to allow Day to recollect his wartime experiences from some distance though they do reveal part of his character and the ugly compromises made by the war’s winners as their old allies turned into adversaries and vice versa.

The front cover tells us Day won the Costa Book of the Year 2007. While the fractured nature of the narrative may render it difficult to read for some, the gradual unravelling of the story does build to its conclusion; where there are no unsignalled authorial surprises waiting for us.

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