Of the new wave of Scottish novelists, A L Kennedy might seem at first glance the least sensational. The .grid excesses of Trainspotting (inevitably glamorised in film and media promotion) brought notoriety to Irvine Welsh; the ruthless revisions of the “pastoral and urban” myths in the work of Duncan McLean and Alan Warner, and the psychological extremes described by Janice Galloway, all mark these writers as somehow more exclamatory. They orbit in a constellation near Iain Banks’s outrageous fantasies, James Kelman’s unremitting attention to the urban working class, and Alasdair Gray’s allegorical realism. Reading A L Kennedy in this company, she seems more hushed and patient, yet perhaps also more unnervingly subversive.
Her accomplishment would connect her with Candia McWilliam, another oblique, yet thoroughly achieved storyteller. Skilled characterisation, exploratory narrative, determined fathoming of emotions and exactly charting the currents of personal relationships are all seductively and authoritatively characteristic of Kennedy’s three collections of stories and two novels. And there is also a wonderfully resilient humour, an intense understated scorn for the obvious and inimical, a creative repulsion from the exhaustion of defeat and inanition, a beautifully lively pleasure taken in the surreal, the unpredictable possibilities offered by chance, the surprising things belying force of circumstance, and a genuine trust in writing’s “original bliss”.
Her first prize-winning collection, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, was not just promising but already delivering. The nocturnal transports named in the title – Garscadden is a railway station near Glasgow where in uncanny number of trains “terminate” after midnight – apply not only to her tracing the lives of the curiously unexceptional people who are her characters and narrators, but also to the strange meaninglessness in their lives:
“contrary to popular belief,” she writes in the title story, “people, many people, almost all the people, live their lives in the best way they can with generally good intentions and still leave nothing behind.” An Olympic skier or a chat show host will get some proof of their own existence, but the silent majority have only one memorial, “The Disaster”: “We have small lives, easily lost in foreign droughts, or famines; the occasional incendiary incident, or a wall of pale faces, crushed against grill work, one Saturday afternoon in Spring. This is not enough.”
The conviction here is uncompromising and challenging, and the bleakness of the sentiment complements the replenishing humour and unsentimental sympathy that extends throughout her work in quirky, unexpected forms.
In “The role of notable silences in Scottish history” (from the same collection), she observes that since everything relies on chance and coincidence, “there’s no point being Scottish if you can’t make up your past as you go along.” After all, she concludes, “Everyone else does.” So the national context holds universal truths. Sensitive to Scotland’s peculiar foibles, Kennedy summarizes the national method “for the perfection of children” in her first novel Looking for the Possible Dance. The first three points are:
1. Guilt is good.
2. The history, language and culture of Scotland do not exist. If they did, they would be of no importance and might as well not.
3. Masturbation is an abuse of one’s self: sexual intercourse, the abuse of one’s self by others.
Little wonder that in general, “Joy is fleeting, sinful and the forerunner of despair.”
If this defines certain aspects of the moral, cultural, spiritual and sexual mores of Scotland, there is no national monopoly on such crippling self-negation. But Kennedy’s irony is a poised and steely instrument, in the dedicated service of the kind of self-extension to which human nature is healthily prone. The novel is an eloquent, tense, searching account of the quest for such a “possible dance”. The central character, Margaret, moves with uncertain assurance from Glasgow to London, between her father and her lover, adjusting co-ordinates of trust without foreknowledge, and ending with the hope of possibility reaffirmed, but still unconfirmed: real, but tentative.
Kennedy’s second novel, So I Am Glad, boldly departed from naturalist conventions, introducing Cyrano de Bergerac into modern Glasgow and making of him a very tangible, lonely and bewildered present-day lover at the same time as he is a ghostly figure from a half-remembered past, a foreign country he is haunted by. Kennedy’s unstrained use of the conventional science fiction trope of time-travel initiates a metaphorical understanding, as the narrator, who becomes Cyrano’s lover, poignantly realises how distant she is from hire as their intimate selves draw closer.
The stories in Kennedy’s most recent book, Original Bliss, develop the themes of sexuality, fulfilment and personal senses of loyalty, difference and unostentatious pride, that characterised the earlier collection, Now That You’re Back. They are all about searching, discovery, recognition, achievement and failure, and if these words seem inappropriately abstract in the vivid contexts of particular tales, set in actual places like Glasgow, New York, Copenhagen, then that reflects the quality of Kennedy’s prose which is fully equipped to evoke the spiritual dimension possibly inhabiting even the most unremarkable lives. The simple matter of sexual jealousy is present in the lives of weightless astronauts in outer space as familiarly and as unusually as it is in the lives of the two main characters in the novella which gives the new collection its title.
Helen Brindle, a forlorn housewife whose age and social class are kept out of the story to allow the universality of her condition to be more centrally focused, has lost her faith in God and the authority that confers meaning; Edward Gluck is a professor of psychology addicted to fairly extreme forms of pornography for sexual satisfaction. The story of how these two characters meet and develop a relationship of deepening trust and sympathy is both unlikely and weirdly convincing.
Kennedy’s deployment of emotional states is matched by her un-emphatic use of the exotic: she can write alarmingly lucid prose about terribly volatile conditions with almost no recourse to sentimentalism. If sentimentalism entails a claim to be exclusive – when a special case is made for a particular character or relationship the risk is always that it will seem sentimental – then Kennedy keeps free of that tendency by insisting on the commonality of the experiences she evokes. This is a rare skill, not just in modern Scottish fiction but generally. Kennedy is, perhaps, of all contemporary English-language novelists, the one who has been dwelling most thoughtfully on all the resonant meanings in the words with which George Eliot closed Middlemarch: “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Alan Riach is a poet who teaches English at Waikato University.