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Pickle Me This

May 16, 2010

What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy

I’ve been devouring short story collections lately, one story after another without even a pause for breath in between. And then I read “What Becomes”, the first story in A.L. Kennedy’s new short story collection of the same name, and I had to put the book down for a while. The story, about a man who’s the only person in the audience at a small movie theatre, who’s been waiting for the film to start and then when it starts, it has no sound– the story was so brutally, heartbreakingly sad that I just needed a rest before I could handle another. Which was good intuition on my part, because the stories in Kennedy’s collection are unrelentingly bleak.

And yet, would it surprise you that the collection was also hysterically funny? In particular, the passage about gerbil installation: “You’ve had some right cowboys in here… Any chance of a cuppa once I’m done?” Kennedy’s characters are usually profoundly lonely, with a wry outlook, sharp intelligence and sense of humour that makes the loneliness even more tragic, because it’s clear how much they’re aware of their disconnect, that they’d probably make for fairly good company. So tragic yes, but still funny. Bleak plus hilarious does make for a vision that is quite singular.

In the title story, the man in the movie theatre has left a troubled marriage in which so much has gone unsaid, in which the right things have never been offered at quite the right time. “Edinburgh” is the story of a man who owns an organic fruit and veg shop (“Sell organic food and imitation bacon, and suddenly folk thought you’d tolerate anything.”). He falls for a customer, and their love story is a trick of tenses– perhaps a used-to-be, a could-have-been, a never-to-have-been, or the still purely hypothetical. Regardless, it doesn’t end happy. “Saturday Teatime” the story of a woman’s failed attempts to clear her mind in a flotation tank (which is more like a “Flotation Damp-Cupboard”). “Confectioner’s Gold” the story of a couple who’ve lost everything in the recent economic collapse. “Whole Family With Young Children Devastated” is about a character who peers too much into the heartbreak of others, when she can barely help herself. In “As God Made Us”, a group of young with various physical impairments are asked to leave a swimming pool because they’re upsetting nearby children. “Sympathy” is a graphic one-night-stand in a hotel room, delivered solely with dialogue.

There is not a story among these that doesn’t pack a solid punch. Kennedy’s atmosphere is so vivid, her characters’ interior voices so deeply authentic, and though her prose doesn’t call attention itself, it is as perfect as the voices are. Her stories are constructed of details, right down to the grouting between the tiles on the floor, and the things her characters know, trivia netted or wisdom earned– the characters become people by this. Kennedy’s first-person narrators are so convincing that they must be the voice of the author herself, and yet the voices are impossibly various, so of course they’re not. And this is truly the mark of a stunning fiction writer, that what’s imagined is made so vividly real.

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