Kennedy, A(lison) L(ouise)
KENNEDY, A(lison) L(ouise)
Nationality: Scottish. Born: Dundee, 1965. Education: Warwick University, degree in drama. Career: Administrative appointments in two creative writing programs; full-time writer. Awards: Saltire Award for Best First Book, for Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains; Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; Somerset Maugham Award, for Looking for the Possible Dance; Encore Award and joint winner of Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, for So I Am Glad.
Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains. 1990.
Now That You're Back. 1994.
Original Bliss. London, Jonathan Cape, 1997.
Looking for the Possible Dance. 1993.
So I Am Glad. 1995.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. 1997.
Stella Does Tricks.
Editor, with Hamish Whyte, The Ghost of Liberace. 1993.
Editor, with James McGonigal, A Sort of Hot Scotland. 1994.* * *
A. L. Kennedy is a young Scottish writer with a sharp perceptiveness for character drawing. She was born in Dundee and received her early education there, and in those years she had no thought of becoming a writer. She then went to Warwick University, where she read language and drama, a course "half academic, half practical," as she has put it in an interview, in which she had the chance to stage manage, direct, and write monologues "or whatever anyone happened to want." Her postuniversity jobs included a year based in Cupar in Fife with a children's puppeteering company that played in schools and in tents at galas. By the end of the year she was not particularly enamored of the experience of audiences of a hundred children without parents. For two years she also did work in community drama at Clydebank in Dunbartonshire.
Kennedy now lives in Glasgow. When asked what she particularly likes about that city, her immediate reply is "Everything." She does not like "overregulation" and works when she feels like it, but she finds "eleven o'clock at night to two in the morning" a fruitful time for writing. Kennedy has given readings from her works in various parts of Europe and in Australia, New Zealand, and India, where, she remarks, though the people are "madly keen," they are too poor to buy books, however cheaply produced.
Kennedy published her first short story in 1986. As her stories began to appear with increasing frequency in magazines, she was asked by Seuker and Warburg if she had a collection available. At that moment she did not. When she eventually submitted one, it was rejected, though with helpful critical suggestions. Her rewritten collection was eventually accepted and published, and it won instant acclaim. (She reckons that she has had only one truly nasty review, but even though the reviews nowadays are all good, she says that she "collects them but does not read them.")
Kennedy also has published two novels. Sometimes, she says, a short story arises in her mind as a kind of by-product of the novel she is writing. She maintains that a short story has to be thought out in advance much more fully. No doubt her interest in relationships is in part a result of her earlier training in drama. The majority of the relationships she writes about are unsatisfactory ones. "Isn't that how it is in life?" is her response.
Kennedy's first book of 15 stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, is distinguished by the accuracy of observation in the depiction of small people struggling to come to terms with situations they do not fully understand. In the title story Kennedy writes,
It is … the story of how I learned that half of some things is less than nothing at all and that, contrary to popular belief, people, many people, almost all the people, live their lives in the best way they can with generally good intentions and still leave absolutely nothing behind. There is only one thing I want more than proof that I existed and that's some proof, while I'm here, that I exist.
Throughout, the predicaments of small people battling their bafflement, whether the failure of a sexual relationship or a more externalized circumstance, are shot through with poetic images. In "The Poor Souls," for instance, there is this image: "The trains are good when there's snow. It tears beside the windows in white threads and you look out from the warm on melting streets and pale blank allotments with dog tracks. The canal disappears."
Kennedy's second collection, Now That You're Back, drew from the reviewer A. L. Taylor this observation: "Great short stories are as rare if not rarer than great poems and the fact that a handful here possess great magical quality is remarkable." One of the group to which he refers is undoubtedly "Bracing Up." Another is surely "The Mouseboxes Family Dictionary," a highly original piece. It is made up of a series of definitions, mostly grim in their humor. Thus, of God we are told that "Mouseboxes have a deep and working belief in God which has, for many generations, meant that Mouseboxes do not generally pray at all for fear that God will hear what they are and come to get them." Even more grim is the definition of life: "Like an overbearingly scented rubber pick, a chocolate pacemaker, or an open tub of chicken giblets cast out to a man besieged by tetchy sharks. That is to say, a gift of very little utility, which draws on lengthy and unpleasant ramifications."
In another outstanding story, "Failing to Fall," a woman constantly makes taxi journeys from the same stand. One day she meets a stranger who gives her his telephone number, rings her up, and tells her to go to a certain film, a block of flats, a particular party, though he himself never goes. The stranger then announces that he will not ring again and has changed his number:
… I was sad because I thought I had recently caught the idea of the thing. I'm not really so terribly stupid. I know about self-awareness and caring for the child within, I've read books. I figured out that it didn't matter where I was going in the text, as long as I went. It didn't matter who made the call. It didn't matter if there was a call, I could catch a taxi anyway, decide where I was going and then take off. I need never feel confined by my own existence again.
Highly original and oddly disturbing, "Failing to Fall" is indeed a remarkable piece of writing.
In her third collection, Original Bliss, Kennedy's qualities seem to deepen as she explores "the dark byways and cul-de-sacs of love." The title story is the longest work in the collection, being almost a novella. It tells of a relationship that began as a kind of intellectual exercise and ended as a sexual love affair. In it Helen Brindle, who was beaten by her husband, a man of coarse appetites and foul temper, meets an American psychologist, Edward E. Gluck, who believes that his function in life is to be a genius in his profession. I do not recall any short work of fiction in which the brutality of a failing sexual relationship is so vividly portrayed or in which the sexual fulfillment in another relationship is recounted in such unpruriently sensitive detail:
They're almost away now, almost one and the same thing and not a thought between them except for:
"You have really large feet."
"Now she tells me."
"I'm very tall!" Bright at her ear, breath and sound and Edward being pleased to sound mildly offended. "Didn't have big feet—I'd fall over. We wouldn't want that."
"No, we wouldn't want that."
And, having nothing more to say, Helen lets herself be. She is here and with Edward as he folds in around her and she around him and they are one completed motion under God the Patient, Jealous Lover; the Jealous, Patient Love.
Taking into account her first two novels, Looking for the Possible Dance, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and So I Am Glad, which won the Encore Award, it is clear that Kennedy is not only outstanding among the ranks of twentieth-century Scottish writers of fiction but that she is already among the outstanding younger writers of fiction in English.
See the essay on "Bracing Up."