Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

"What Becomes" by A.L. Kennedy (Jonathan Cape, 2009)

In a recent interview she said "What Becomes" is more tonally together than any of my other books, partly because [the stories] have a definite commitment to misery, rather than an inadvertently high amount of misery. I can believe that. Couples fall apart. So do individuals.

In "What Becomes" an apparent mental breakdown is represented by a film without the sound-track, and a CD-player whose replay button replays just the previous track. In the following paragraph I was confused by "Converse All Stars" (a brand-name?) and distracted by "but you never could tell" (how much are we supposed to read into it?)

Then behind him there came a grumble of male conversation, a blurry complaint about the cold and then a burst of laughter and the noise of feet - heavy steps approaching and a softer type of scuffling that faded to silence. Frank was willing to be certain that Softer-foot was the kid from the door: lax posture and dirty Converse All Stars with uneven wear - product of a careless home, an unsupportive environment - probably he'd padded in behind Frank again for some reason and then headed out to the foyer - that's how it sounded, but you never could tell", p.4

When he cuts a finger it's "Funny how he didn't feel the pain until he saw the wound", p.7

In "Wasps" "love and pain are names for the same thing. Give one, mean the other. Get one, want the other. Mean one, get the other back for it. Want one, want the other, want both", p.30. A thumb bleeds.

In "Edinburgh" a promising affair goes wrong when they sleep together. There's another hand injury - "His thumb only started hurting when he noticed it, once he understood what had gone wrong", p.49

"Saturday Teatime" features a visit to a Flotation Tank. Thoughts drift. There are passages in italics and extensive use of line-breaks

Word dreams.
No internal organs, just a mass of unlikely excuses for their absence.
And no way to stop the words.
No, there is, though.
There is.
I am in charge here.
That's right.
And nodding my agreement rocks the heart of everything.
Which is myself. For an hour. (p.59)

In "Confectioner's Gold" the connection between emotion and expression can disappear or become too strong, too mechanical. There are more italics and line-breaks - a different person to the one in "Saturday Teatime" yet the same voice

Or do I say nothing because they're blind?
Am I prejudiced in that way, too?
Am I a bastard?
I think I am.
Quite possibly?
A total bastard.
And my wife would agree.
Is that a positive - because we agree?

Tom needs a coffee, but suspects he can't drink any more. (p.79)

"Marriage" sounds like a promising title in an otherwise unremittingly gloomy book. However, it begins "This isn't working, he can tell". The man's coat fits better than he and his wife do.

In "Story of my life" various visits to the dentist are strung together. But in addition to that there's a meta-plot.

  • The story begins "In this story, I'm like you. / Roughly and on average, I am the same: the same as you./The same is good. ... I understand a lot - very often - almost all the time - most especially the stories. They are an exercise of will: within them whatever I think, I can wish it to be" (p.139)
  • "And I should pause here briefly, because it lets the story breathe and even possibly give a wink. I step back to let you step forward and see what's next. This way you'll stay with us. With me./ Which is the point", p.142
  • "And this section of the story is here for you to like and to let your liking spread to me", p.144

"Whole Family with Young Children Devastated" has lost dogs, people emoting in public, and a couple having an affair who enjoy being on the phone together while watching a psychic show on TV. "Sympathy" (another promising title) has hotel sex between strangers. In "Another" a dead husband is replaced by an improved version. In "Vanish" a man buys 2 tickets for a show, but his girlfriend leaves him before the date, so on the night he tries to give the ticket away. A strange guy who claims he knows the performer takes it.

Other reviews

  • Alex Clark (Guardian) ("It is a critical commonplace to describe Kennedy's work as unremittingly bleak ... Disappointment and disaster stalk the pages")
  • Patrick Gale (Independent) ("AL Kennedy is one of nature's Eeyores. Her fictional territory, staked out in a sequence of technically ever more impressive novels, is grim. To criticise her work for bleakness would be missing the point ... "Marriage" is a micro-masterpiece")
  • Tania Hershman (The Short Review) ("As God Made Us is an extremely powerful story")
  • Matt Thorne (The Telegraph) ("is as dour and difficult as anything she’s produced to date. ... The best story in the collection, 'Sympathy’ … Only one story seems slightly silly, 'Marriage’")
  • dovegreyreader ("the grim, harsh realities of life stalk these pages in many guises")
  • KevinfromCanada
  • Kevin (booklit)
  • Robin Romm (New York Times) ("Like many of Kennedy’s characters, the woman in the flotation tank doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. Perception moves the story forward.")
  • Claire Sawers (The Scotsman) (""FRAILTY and failure, they're charismatic," announces AL Kennedy midway through her latest collection of short stories, where she stops narrating and turns the spotlight back on herself for a moment.")
  • Holloway McCandless (Identity Theory) ("usually when a character is on the cusp of connection or the acceptance of disconnection, Kennedy’s pulsating prose appendage surges up to produce a new organism: intelligent word-flesh.")

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