A.L. Kennedy’s new book of short stories delves into the un-swept corners of self consciousness as the characters struggle to deal with other people or just try to exist as a human being. Her descriptive power utterly transforms the world so you see it anew as it is so imbued with the characters’ sensibilities. I found myself laughing out loud reading some stories as they are so filled with clever wit, bluntness or shamelessness. Other times I had to wrap into myself like a protective cocoon because the stories were touching upon a tender feeling I was too ashamed to admit was true. Here there are characters who wish to avoid having their personalities pinned down and remain anonymous. Others are so firmly entrenched in their own sense of self that they are totally blind to other points of view. All the stories include brazen forthright personalities that are memorable.
Many stories are split between a third person (but still subjective) narration and an italicised interior monologue. These points of view interact with each other to provide a striking representation of consciousness as it moves between the physical world and the imagination. It’s handled so seamlessly by the author that when I was engrossed in reading a story I stopped noticing the switch back and forth. This is a smooth and gifted method of story-telling which allows the reader to more effectively pry into a character’s mind.
When Kennedy enters the male consciousness she explores many recognizable masculine traits like undue aggression, an ironic sense of humour, over-inflated pride and an unwieldy impersonal sex drive. Not that she conforms to stereotype; these men are strikingly individual, but she exposes aspects of manliness with a bold surety. Take, for instance, the story ‘Because it’s a Wednesday” where an older man is enacting an affair with his cleaning woman. There are unsettling notions of entitlement and possession (and a hint of xenophobia) which comes with their sex although the act is totally consensual. While they share this strange sort of intimacy there is also a powerful sense of the gulf in understanding between them and that emotion has been replaced with this habitual animal act.
The nameless protagonist of ‘These Small Pieces’ wanders into a church near Christmastime to listen to a sermon and carols being sung. He seeks to hide his identity as he contemplates interactions with any people he should meet there by giving himself the name Doug. Amidst his musing on the decoration in the church he proposes a hilarious theory about the symbolism of the serpent in Christian iconography: “plainly the snake is, more properly, the bad maleness of man, the writhing soft-hard wickedness he carries ahead of him into his life, the heat he goes astray with. Mary stamps on it. Bad boy and she stamps it flat.” The narrator has a protective sense of children and feel that their vision of the world being corrupted by the indecorum of adults – as if he himself is still angry about the world being demystified by too much reality. There is a sombre sense that he’s striving to achieve a religious feeling but doesn’t have the correct sensibility to really embrace it.
A rift that’s occurred in a long-term relationship is succinctly described in the story ‘The Practice of Mercy’: “They had broken things, the pair of them. Unexpected damage had occurred, and they’d thought they would have managed better after their years of practice, but they hadn’t.” In a short scene and with tender simple dialogue Kennedy suggests that the way to continue on in relationships when trouble occurs is with patience and carefully-tempered forgiveness. The opposite conclusion is made in ‘A Thing Unheard of’ where the narrator tries to devise the best way to break up with a lover by mentally testing out various methods of breaking the bad news. Drawn down circular paths of logic and excuses and justifications the narrator decides in the end it’s best to do nothing, break contact and let the person in question hate them.
When Kennedy wants to be serious she is deadly so as in the story ‘Run Catch Run’ which I think is one of the deepest meditations on loneliness and solitude that I’ve ever read. Here a boy keeps company with a nameless dog while hiding down at the beach (although no one is looking for him.) Avoiding returning to his home because of his parents’ battling he finds solace in causing small acts of violence. The story ‘Knocked’ also focuses on a boy who is nearing the brink of self-discovery and transition into adulthood. He cultivates a growing awareness of what will be expected of him becoming a man and how robust he needs to be in order to confront the challenges that await.
In the title story ‘All the Rage’ while waiting at a station for a train that is continuously being delayed it’s observed that “Mark had decided he’d take the rest of the day in soft focus and so wasn’t wearing his glasses. This meant the shiny, tiny letters and fictional times simply flared together into uncommunicative blocks. He preferred them like that.” This serves as both a funny method for dealing with the ineptitude of the railways and a metaphor for how he lets his relationships become unfocused. Rather than striving towards a definitive future and making a solid commitment he decides “Sometimes people want nothing. It is a necessity.”
Progressing even further into gauging the boundaries between intimacy and anonymity in relationships the story ‘This Man’ is ruthless. It accurately depicts how feelings for a partner can flip so rapidly between being extremely close one moment and in the next not knowing them at all as if they were a total stranger. These varying levels of togetherness sift through the narrator’s consciousness in awkward moment to moment sensations where a squalid meal is grudgingly shared during a date.
Kennedy has a Beckett-like quality of describing the abstract conditions of existence through a stream of impressions and wayward thoughts voiced by dislocated characters. This method touches upon heightened states of consciousness and yields a lot of humour about the absurdity of life as well as highlighting individuals’ peculiarities. Some of the stories are immediately accessible with a familiar-sounding voice while others can be quite challenging. Once I got into each narrative I was utterly absorbed in the story and this unique point of view. “All the Rage” is filled with confident, first-rate writing.