Scottish novelist and comedian A.L. Kennedy has written a collection of short stories entitled All the Rage. Someone else has written on its back cover, calling them love stories. Surely not that kind of love story.
“I would hate it to be lots of doctors falling in love with nurses and then having lots of babies and being terribly happy, and then they get married—that’s much more disturbing than my stories,” says Kennedy, who teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick.
The likeminded will love All the Rage. Those who like “love stories” may perceive Kennedy’s as running the gamut from quietly unsettling to deeply disquieting. These are love like a punch to the gut stories. Love actually—dark and dirty, funny, painful or pathetic, at times—dealt with in deft first- and third-person narration that’s very close to consciousness. It can be too close for comfort, and that may very well be the point.
Behold “Baby Blue,” the tender tale of a woman who’s not quite sure how she’s wandered into this sex shop. “I had not intended to stand in public holding an electric penis while it performed keenly, then gently, then sluggishly, then not,” Kennedy writes. Though her origins are murky, there’s a general sense this was deliverance by disappointment. “[A]nger is always the second emotion, something else having always been there first. I wish I’d never learned that,” she writes.
When love’s what’s first, resultant anger may be doubly potent. “Certainly love makes you feel vulnerable, so I think they’re not really all that unconnected,” says Kennedy.
The titular story further investigates their close relationship. “ ‘All the Rage’ is a kind of love story; it’s somebody who can’t deal with love and has spent his entire life trying to actively avoid it,” says Kennedy. From the outset, “Mark had never thought he’d consider throwing himself under a train. Turned out he was wrong,” Kennedy writes. He’s been throwing himself into adulterous affairs, which we learn as he wanders from his wife while awaiting a train. And yet he falls into a sort of love with Emily, his most resilient mistress, who proves equipped to absorb his anger. “He didn’t want to hit her, he simply couldn’t shake his desperation to leave her marked,” she writes.
Kennedy is especially skilled at writing in distinct male voices. “I’ve spent my life trying to work out what the hell is going on inside men,” she says, though it’s no more admirable than writing from a feminine point of view, as long as it rings true. “You’re always inhabiting somebody who isn’t you....The fun of writing is that you’re not there. I don’t hide myself anywhere [in fiction]. You tuck yourself somewhere where they will never find you if you’re there at all. I’m not Mark, I am not the person that man risks going out with, I’m not Mark’s wife—and I’m very glad that I’m not any of those people.”
While maintaining her distance, Kennedy identifies most with the characters in “This Man,” a rendition of an awkward first date where he’s shifting all the furniture about and she’s already imagining their golden years together. “Which is inappropriate. You’re on a first date. Why picture the brownish parka in which you apparently think he’ll take decrepit holidays?...Why assume you’ll have nasty bread?” she writes. “I know where they’re coming from,” she says.
“This Man” is the final story of the collection and comes as a bit of a surprise: It’s the most hopeful. “It’s not that I don’t believe in love, I just think it’s difficult and being facile about it…I’m not a Hollywood ending kind of person, which I don’t think is my fault,” Kennedy says. “If the book is saying anything it’s, ‘It’s not you. It’s okay, it’s not you.’”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.