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All the Rage, by AL Kennedy, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 224 pages
With the dozen short stories in All the Rage, Costa prize-winner AL Kennedy illustrates that rules in creative writing are made to be broken. Students in the sort of fiction classes Kennedy teaches at Warwick University are nearly always instructed to prefer the specific over the general. In promoting this “rule”, insofar as one can posit any dictates in such a nebulous discipline, lecturers reliably digress on the mystery of fiction: the more singular a story’s particulars, the more universal its reach.
Kennedy often turns this truism on its head. Characters do not always merit names; the pronouns “he” and “she” suffice. She sometimes opts for a global second person: “you” do this, and “you” do that, as in “you have grown into the shape the job requires”. While we are occasionally informed that a story is set in, say, Blackpool, this entire collection is permeated by a disconnected placelessness, an arm’s-length sensation, a distance and dislocation. The prose frequently lurches from clinical or slightly unhinged description to an abruptly more intimate voice in italics. It shouldn’t work, really. But in a surprisingly high number of cases, it does.
All the Rage is a set of love stories, although the alienation, isolation and dismay that grey its pages suggest that anyone so much as saying hello to anyone else is a small miracle of God. But it is Kennedy’s portrayal of the difficulty, if not seeming impossibility, of connecting with other people that makes these stories so moving. When her characters succeed in making contact, it’s like Sandra Bullock grabbing George Clooney’s hand in Gravity – two bodies, adrift in a weightless cosmos, tentatively, yet gloriously moored. For most of the final story, “This Man”, an awkward lunch date punctuated by misunderstandings and dismal miscues seems fated to end in estrangement until the protagonist snatches her happiness at the last minute with a fervid kiss. The last lines read, “You do not know him, this man. He is practically a stranger. Only he’s not.” And then we know that they will last and cling to one another and have beautiful children.
The best, longest and fullest of these tales is the title story, in which a middle-aged journalist in a disaffected marriage has been found out: he’s been carrying on an affair with a young girl named Emily with whom he is infatuated. If that sounds ordinary, this is where Kennedy’s disjointed, angular style and weird, displaced atmospherics really work. We feel the hangdog adulterer’s resignation, wistfulness and unconvincing guilt in a way that makes this oft-repeated scenario fresh.
Strikingly, he recalls a moment during one hotel tryst when he allowed a couple passing down the hall to glimpse his pretty lover, to appreciate his trophy: “I was closing the door, but I wanted to look at her, a parting glance: naked sprawl of my girl across our evidence, the disarray of a cheap fawn coverlet and dull white sheets, her bared feet towards me, plump. She was sleeping it off. She was sleeping me off.” As the couple walked past, “I kept the door open – not for terribly long, a breath, a large instant – but I did give that much of her away. And it made me glad. I wanted them to understand that I could touch this angel and she’d got me.
“She never knew and it didn’t harm her, and then I locked her up safe and the couple moved on.”
Kennedy’s language is spare but single word choices gleam, like “our evidence” above. Stray images catch the eye: a breeze comprises “slack little gusts that taste of dirty washing and stale fat”. A perceptive truth about how to end a relationship is assembled with the most primitive of lingual building blocks: “Your only realistic option is to do nothing and to say nothing, to answer nothing and eventually they’ll work out what’s going on and, by then, they will hate you enough for matters to be simpler.”
This author is especially skilful at capturing male points of view; something about a line like this in the title story rings true: “Mark smiled at Pauline, kept it insincere, because she suspects him when he seems to have a meaning.” In a tale about a boy and a dog that his parents are sure to take away from him, “Run Catch Run”, Kennedy also seems a dab hand at entering the mind of a child: “Adults didn’t know how to enjoy anything. They did stuff and then wondered why they’d bothered. They couldn’t decide what they wanted.”
What is wrong with the style of these stories – a vagueness, a groping quality, a lostness, a sparseness of physicality, a trapped interiority, a cerebral floating over the landscape as if few of the characters quite have their feet on the ground – is also what is right with them, what provides the collection its distinctive and identifiable voice. If we begin to yearn for narration that is firmer, clearer, sharper and more grounded, well, that’s what other people’s short story collections are for.
Lionel Shriver is author of ‘Big Brother’ (HarperCollins)