WHAT BECOMES by A.L. Kennedy

Book Quote:

“This is the general rule–people seek their happiness.  Even if they’re masochistic, when they find their perfect pain, it should make them happy.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (APR 7, 2010)

What do we fear? Being lost to others? Becoming invisible to our loved ones? Relentless anger? Dashed spoiled hopes? Living a meaningless brief existence? How about nameless nasty pickup sex? Going to the dentist? Violence at the hands of one you love? Yes. That and more. If writing were therapy–and some say it is–A.L. Kennedy would be both patient and therapist, subject and practitioner. Or put another way, consider exposing your darkest thoughts, your most troublesome concerns to the light for all to see and pick over. And in doing this, you not just expose them, you render them with a power and an art to make them irresistible, like gaping at a horrible car wreck.

There is, for instance, the couple walking down the street in the story, “Marriage.”  “So they won’t have a giggle. They won’t be companions. They won’t chat. They will just walk, trudge on. She will trash their afternoon.” The wife is walking in front of the hapless husband–”She likes making him study her back.” She picks up the pace, and he shrugs at strangers as he tries to keep up. “My wife–you have to love her, eh? She’s temperamental, you might say. A bit overbred. Still, we weather the storms. Oh, indeed we do. Both of us. Here we are Weathering.” He puts his hands into his pockets and pleasures in the bespoke flannel-lined coat he is wearing. It is a small pleasure against such odds. “While she scurries on ahead, he feels the coat clap at his shins, its weight pressing and cuddling around him. Serious weather shows it off to advantage, naturally.” Then the husband’s thoughts turn to the bedroom and the sex of the previous night: “…expecting her to be alive for him–but she turned away, she turned her back.” Then the anger coming on in a rush in him, “Oh, in the end, she let him–eventually she let him–lying like meat and he’s being allowed–his own wife. So he stopped.” And then:

“He hit her.
“Just once.
“The noise of it.
“Like a shot.”

And there are chilling little epiphanies. In “The Story of My Life” a dental patient is not anesthetized properly. “I can’t see to hit him, I can’t fight him off and he’s digging and drilling, drilling and digging and the extraction takes forty-five minutes.” She looks. “There’s blood in his hair. It’s mine.”

Or the less violent, beautifully rendered “Confectioner’s Gold.” A couple sit in a diner, the man weeps, the waitress approaches. “‘Are you…’ The waitress steadies and adjusts, ‘Happy with your meal?” The man, Tom, “feels he should be explanatory and adds, ‘We lost…’ and then can’t begin to say what.” It is as simple as that: We lost….It is heartbreaking. It is like that, this book. Sudden unexpected violence, fears stemming from recessed corners, sadness–it’s all there and at times it seems unrelenting.

I confess to backing off the pace of reading What Becomes. Like a potential character in the book, I started to pain over it, grew weary of the weight of this small tome. Why, I wondered? Why do this to me, your reader? Why punish me so–and with such agility? Kennedy gives me a clue on her web page: “Does this mean I’m trying to beat the reader up, or I think life’s all pointless and people are shit?” She continues:

Clearly not. If it was all pointless I wouldn’t bother doing something as tiring as writing and if I thought people were shit I wouldn’t write for them. I’m trying to tell you the best stories I can and to take you to places that are new to you. Hollywood endings, blandness and sugar-coating are all things I find tedious and insulting and so I won’t try and offer them to anyone else or build them in my own head. If the nature of reality sometimes leaves you feeling mugged, my work may sometimes be company for you.

There is a sprinkling of relief to be found in these pages, a wry humor that occasionally breaks through. Like all dear things, its scarcity makes it more valuable. There is the man in Vanish for instance who is trying to give away a theater ticket now that his girlfriend has broken up with him. But who wants a single ticket, and a seat next to a stranger at that? “People had acted as if he were offering them a snake–which would always sound rude, now that he thought about it, rude more than poisonous–Hi, would you like my snake? I have this snake. Free snake. Free to a good home. Tired old snake seeks any deargodplease home that it can get.”

I was surprised to find on Kennedy’s web page that she is also a stand-up comic. It seemed incongruous with the personality I thought I detected in the prose. But the joke was on me. “Wouldn’t you rather see how far you can go into nowhere that has ever existed,” she writes, “…and then try to get total strangers to follow you?” Ha! That’s a good one.

What Becomes could, I think, be read as an exercise in Aristotelian catharsis. But in the classic sense catharsis is a cure, the result of an underlying problem revealed. These stories offer us little in the way of revelation. In that sense they feel completely modern. The worry over such modern methods, however, is that of being gratuitous. I did not feel that here. I never had a sense that I was being herded into a pen for sake of the herding alone. There is a quiet element to the voice in these stories that, despite frequently rising in anger or striking out, instills in the reader a degree of trust. That is a remarkable trick, when wading through such mucky waters. There is yet another clue found in a Kennedy interview that lends credence to this idea. When asked why fiction matters, she replies: “Fiction allows you to enter the mind, body and maybe even soul of someone other than yourself. It takes you away from self and into another in a deep and remarkable and penetrating way – this can give you a remarkably unsociopathic understanding of other people’s reality, irreplaceability and complexity. You also have the company of another voice – that can be a huge support in hard times.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (April 6, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: We should have reviewed A.L. Kennedy before now… but she’s in good company of our recently reviewed authors:

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April 7, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Literary, Short Stories, United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

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