It feels to me that A.L. Kennedy’s stories are getting more opaque as her career progresses. Certain stories in All the Rage, her new collection, seem to be puzzles of a sort, with the history of the narrator of “The Effects of Good Government on the City”, for example, not declared outright but rather made clear (ish) through allusion and oblique references. It works, because it’s believable that the character herself is repressing and concealing her past. In opening “Late in Life”, a series of minor reveals leads us towards the reason for the two middle-aged characters to be standing in the building society queue together, sharing figs and each other’s company, without ever outright these reasons outright – ensuring that seemingly unassuming title has, in retrospect, quite the bite.
Elsewhere, moments which might be passed over in a matter of a few sentences by another writer are unpacked and unpacked: in “This Man”, it’s the awkwardness and emotional push-and-pull of the first date, where every decision, every awkward utterance, shifts the dynamic between two near strangers in a way that’s recognisable yet, in Kennedy’s hands, deeply specific. In “A Thing Unheard-of”, the narrator is contemplating how best to bring a relationship to an end; almost no detail of the person behind the words, or their recipient, or of the relationship itself, is revealed: it is all about the twisting awkwardness, the tortured etiquette (you can’t just leave a voicemail declaring things are over, much as it might be the easiest way out).
All the Rage is divided roughly equally between these opaque miniatures, and more transparent stories, still gorgeously concise. The title story is the longest, and one of the most transparent here. Marooned at a railway station, Mark leaves his wife on the platform and goes for a wander, sizing up a stranger, then recalling an affair – not his only affair, but his most memorable and (because of being) his most disastrous – with an idealist student, Emily.
The baby steps that we take towards intimacy, the perennial insecurities, the pitfalls of love – with which almost all these dozen stories, in one way or another, are concerned – are rendered in Kennedy’s by now unmistakable style
The baby steps that we take towards intimacy, the perennial insecurities, the pitfalls of love – with which almost all these dozen stories, in one way or another, are concerned – are rendered in Kennedy’s by now unmistakable style: littered with sardonic asides in italicised thoughts, full of hesitations and ellipses, the skewering use of the second person to address the reader directly, and people not quite managing to say what they mean, or mean what they say. There’s humour, too, in the darkness – to hear Kennedy read aloud, making an audience laugh at the nastiest lines, is to forgive her that ill-starred sidestep into stand-up comedy – either in the situation (“Baby Blue”) or the characters’ pithy, snippy observations: “These Small Pieces” starts with a riff on something called a Santa Dash: “runners in cheap felt Santa get-ups jogging about the Sunday streets and ruining the magic for any children they happened to pass” – and the watching children’s dawning realisation that there’s more than one Santa. It also has possibly the funniest retelling of the biblical story of Isaac and Abraham.
“Knocked” starts with a boy waking in a hospital bed and expands outwards, forwards and backwards in time, showing us how he’s come to be here, and what the lasting consequences will be. It will prove to have been, and we may have missed this in the very first line, “[h]is earliest adult experience”. Kennedy has always been able to write well about darker shades of sexuality, avoiding the prurient or the moralising – one thinks of the sadomasochistic relationship in the novella Original Bliss – and the lightness of touch here, the humanity, with which she writes of, again, matters many novelists would shy away from, is astounding. It’s one of her strongest stories to date.
It’s in the nature of a collection of stories that some are stronger than others; for me, those near-monologues “This Man” and “A Thing Unheard-of” are among the less successful pieces here. “Baby Blue” takes a long time to get going, with lots of scene-setting that turns out to be mere dissembling on its narrator’s part – it just about works, but the trick is played one time too many in the one story. Fortunately, it’s also in the nature of collections nature that, starting on the next story, you can be blindsided once again. In “Knocked”, in “All the Rage”, in “The Effects of Good Government”, we have, once again, evidence that, at her best, there’s no-one to touch Kennedy. C