Anyone wondering what really constitutes literary risk-taking in the wake of the knickers-twisting dustup prompted by humourist Gary Shteyngart’s recent comments on the subject should consider the bar set by Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy. Kennedy is what you’d call a bona fide risk-taker, and I’m not just referring to her writing. Almost a decade ago, she did one of the risk-takiest things you can do when she embarked on a side career in standup comedy at almost forty.
The move was all the more interesting given that Kennedy’s six novels and seven short-story collections—whose subjects include addiction, betrayal and isolation—aren’t what you’d call guffaw-inducing. Only a couple of the stories in her latest collection, All the Rage, reach for laughs in any obvious way.
Many of the pieces read like poems. This isn’t just because they’re brief and poetic—though they can be—but because what they’re “about” tends to be yielded rather than handed over. After finishing Kennedy’s stories, one often has the urge to immediately reread them under the brighter light of acquired knowledge.
Despite the timing of the book’s release and a dustjacket that describes it as “a dozen ways of looking at love,” you’ll want to think carefully before giving it as a Valentine’s gift, however. All the Rage celebrates love the same way an open pit mine celebrates the earth, or an autopsy celebrates the body.
In one story a woman suffering from a cancer-like disease wanders into a (Canadian!) sex shop and finds herself buying a dildo to end an awkward interchange with a salesperson. In another, a female war vet (presumably suffering from PTSD) returns to a relationship she now finds unfathomable. One of the book’s only straightforward odes to love, “Takes You Home,” is about a heartbroken widower abandoning the flat where he and his wife lived.
Kennedy writes equally—and equally convincingly—from the perspective of men and women (the narrator’s gender in the collection’s most abstract piece, “A Thing Unheard-of,” is, like its subject, unclear). She has a habit of interlacing third-person narration with first person, stream-of-consciousness italics.
As in life, sex and power are frequently intertwined. In the collection’s long and powerful title story, a journalist and serial adulterer named Mark reflects on the relationship that got him caught. Emily, a student, was half his age and a borderline alcoholic: “He didn’t want to hit her, he simply couldn’t shake his desperation to leave her marked.”
“Because It’s a Wednesday,” is about exploiting relationship inequalities, too. A man who readily accepts his Spanish-speaking cleaning lady’s invitation to regular, impersonal sex wonders—though not all that long or hard—about her motives: she turns down extra cash, but doesn’t seem to get any enjoyment out of the interludes either.
In “Run Catch Run,” the most achingly affecting story, a boy whose parents have recently separated arrives at his mother’s house with the consolation-prize puppy his father has given him. He adores the dog, but hasn’t named it yet. This is, we come to realize, the outcome of his recent lesson in the perils of attachment; he knows his angry mother will force him to give it away.
This is one of Kennedy’s strongest collections. For Valentine’s Day though, stick to chocolates or flowers unless you think your partner would appreciate a card that expresses this kind of sentiment: “The real experience of love is of having unreasonably lost all shelter…And you cling to whoever is with you for sheer safety, beyond anything else. You cling to whoever has robbed you and they cling back because they are equally naked—you have stripped them to their blood. They are your responsibility, frail and skinless. It can’t be helped.”
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor