There are two voices in AL Kennedy’s writing – the miserablist author, and the stand-up comic. In All the Rage, her latest collection of short stories, the comic is in fine form but maybe the author is too downbeat for her own good. She can skilfully pick apart the ridiculous aspects of modern life which we take for granted – the Santa Dash, the patter of a sex shop sales assistant – but she is too detached from the lives she describes, her resolutely third-person narratives a way of keeping her characters at arm’s length.
The way her comic observations stand out from her more thoughtful passages of prose made me think that Kennedy would be a great flash fiction writer. ‘Baby Blue’, for example, is frustratingly vague and impersonal, until its protagonist somehow arrives in a female-friendly sex shop. The difference in the writing is marked; Kennedy is wickedly funny describing the ‘more or less sci-fi imitation penises’ and chocolate condoms (‘I don’t feel my experience of oral sex is intended to be primarily culinary’). ‘The Practice of Mercy’ has a similar passage in which Kennedy ruminates on hotel breakfasts, lamenting the way that hash browns and bacon, those ‘customary Anglo-American harbingers of obesity and doom’ have replaced the ‘mysterious’ continental breakfasts with their ‘plates of unnameable meats and pure, wild colours in jars’. The problem is that I can’t really remember anything else that happened in either story.
The stories here mainly concern damaging love affairs, or damaged lovers, and at times there is a sensual tone to Kennedy’s writing. ‘Late in Life’ opens with a woman eating a fig, ‘destroying it in an affectionate way’. Later, a character craves ‘the potentially fraudulent kiss of fresh hotel sheets along limbs’. All too often, though, she retreats into frosty detachment, in which inanimate objects seem infused with more human qualities than her characters.
From time to time Kennedy manages to combine her acerbic observations with more reflective passages to good effect, as in the title story, which describes a journey disrupted by delay and a change of trains at an unfamiliar rural station as a form of purgatory (one which will be familiar to anyone who has to use Northern Rail on a regular basis). The protagonist, a tabloid journalist, is stranded on the platform with his wife, but still seeks out opportunities to cast his predatory gaze over the other passengers. Kennedy describes his tempestuous marriage with relish (‘there was something about kissing her while she tasted of contempt… you had to be careful in these areas, and he wouldn’t recommend it for someone who flagged under tension, but if you could stand it…’), but for the most part his thoughts are taken up with memories of a younger woman with whom he had enjoyed a protracted affair. The amount of time he spends thinking about these women is contrasted with the hasty and brutal reductionism of his work – ‘urgent copy to go with urgent tits… this week’s tits were wronged, glazed with anguish’. The high point of this story concerns the journalist’s farcical attempt to attend a demonstration with his young lover, but unfortunately the narrative afterwards trails off into recriminations.
The opening story, ‘Late in Life’, is touching and witty. A middle-aged woman prepares to go into town with her older lover, who will pay off her mortgage, a prelude to moving in together. She is energised by the prospect of freedom from her financial obligations, determined to ‘undermine the calm of her nearest building society branch with an outbreak of sex, or something like it’, but is dismayed at the lethargy of the people around her, the student ‘of the wandering sort’ who ‘shuffles past, his business concluded. He seems exactly as bewildered as he did when he drifted up to make his enquiry’. These delays allow her mind to wander, thinking of her lover’s closeness to death, and the temporary nature of her happiness. Here, the writing is tight and the situation definite, with none of the drift that creeps in elsewhere.
There’s plenty to admire in the stories I’ve mentioned above, which are insightful, witty and melancholy at once. But who could ever love a story which begins with the line ‘the thing is, you know they’ll be thinking much the same’, as ‘A Thing Unheard-of’ does? This vague set-up is unfortunately the default setting for too many of the stories here, and the cumulative effect of them drains the life from the collection. When describing her characters, Kennedy’s writing becomes blurry, impersonal, lacking emotional resonance – a sad contrast to the sharpness of her observations.