“Why are you telling me this?” A friend often poses this dry and disconcerting question to the stories, fictional and otherwise, that come her way. Of all the reasons someone may tell a story—and there are many more than Cicero’s famous three, “to teach, to please, to move”—surely the most demanding on the art of fiction is the reason of inner compulsion. The felt personal necessity to tell a story is of course likely to be part of the motive of every storyteller; but it is another matter when it becomes the dominant, or sole, reason.
When a writer has only an incidental relation to the reader but is instead shaping a story entirely in answer to personal need, and so is in effect talking to himself, the odds are against the results succeeding; and the writers we admire who have written chiefly from this inner compulsion, among whom I would include Kafka, Melville, and—in poetry—Dickinson, are extraordinary in part because they are able to carry off the nearly impossible. It is a little like someone at the breakfast table telling you her dreams. From Emily or Franz, I maybe could bear it; perhaps not so much from most others.
That the Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy, very much an inner-compulsion writer, succeeds at all, then, is something of a miracle and a sign of her brilliance; but that only parts of her fiction manage the leap from the interior self to the world of readers is certainly not surprising. The inner necessity of the writer translates to the interest of the reader only with great art. And what very odd, idiosyncratic things Kennedy has been writing for the last twenty years, novels and short stories that have been widely praised in Britain and, more locally, here. Most recently Kennedy has published the elaborate novel The Blue Book, and this year, the collection of stories All the Rage.
Original Bliss (1997), her first novel to appear in in the US, centers on the entanglement of an abused housewife with a faith healer and includes a nearly clinical, and antierotic, exploration of addiction to hard-core porn. In the last decade Kennedy’s most impressive novel was Day, an even more complex tale, set in Germany in the late 1940s. A former RAF gunner has taken a job as an extra in a British-made feature film set in the same stalag where he was imprisoned at the end of the war. His mind is layered with memories of the war and of his childhood; the story line flickers through many times and places.
As striking as Kennedy’s subject matter often is—embracing violent sexuality, traumatic memories, extravagant con artistry, and minutely calibrated power politics on both public and domestic stages, almost always from a male point of view—it is in her manner of storytelling that Kennedy’s true idiosyncrasy lies. By virtue of…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.