Near the start of A.L. Kennedy’s latest novel, its chief character and overriding consciousness, Nathan Staples, a successful writer of horror fiction, emerges slowly from a bout of compulsive masochistic fantasies, puts Glenn Gould on his CD player, and gets ready to hang himself from an iron hook in the central beam of his cottage, or almost hang himself – well, just enough to give himself ‘that big, blank, hot-mouthing, hair-lifting, sexy, sexy fear that he only ever met at times like this’. Must I read this? ‘You must know everything,’ said the master storyteller Isaac Babel a few years before he disappeared into a Stalinist labour camp. A taboo on such material, whether self or socially imposed, would inflict its own kind of moral injury.
For a start we should concentrate on the excellence or otherwise of the art with which the dreadful material is rendered, and A.L. Kennedy is a virtuoso of prose. Her phrasing is fine-tuned and supple to the highest degree: intuitive and subtle about the multifarious sensations of being alive, witty in a drastic way, ear-perfect in the mimicry of how people speak to each other. After hearing that a lover has gone away:
This news of his departure had left her feeling simultaneously hollowed and freed.
Which now made walking unexpectedly difficult. She seemed noticeably lighter than she was used to being, more liable to topple or be blown adrift. A lock of tension had settled, triangulating fierily between her two shoulders and the tender vertebrae that moulded the give of her waist. She looked, had anyone cared to observe her, slightly sleepless, preoccupied.
A publisher’s editor sick and tired of his job: ‘He hated the lunge and fumble of bad writing in his brain – all the time in his brain – the mutter and jump of manuscripts as they jerked off their watery efforts inside his mind, as they wasted his intelligence, as they dry-fucked his privacy, as they made him disappointed beyond bearing.’ A person elated by love:
He’d quite forgotten that it was, beyond all the gloss and brimstone, a kind of very wonderful sleepiness. Being with your person, whoever that was, would bring an immediate inrush of easy peace: an insulation from torments, large and small ... And the dreadfulness of the world was no longer dreadful and your limbs had a pleasant, un-looked for certainty and your lung (should you happen to have just the one) would feel light and efficient and healthy in all its transactions with the satisfying air.
Sometimes the phrasing lost me: ‘Her memory’ – of her lover –‘tickled her with him and sucked and whooped and sank, precipitate and slick.’ Does ‘precipitate’ (meaning, I suppose, ‘headlong’) add anything to ‘whooped’, and in what sense can such a memory be ‘slick’? At other times the frequency of ‘slightly’ and ‘oddly’ and ‘vaguely’ and ‘somehow’ veers into a calibration of subtlety that calls to mind Henry James in the overripeness of his final phase. This novel is indeed Jamesian to the core, in its writerly concern with being a writer and in its attention to interpersonal perception, which is sometimes as complex as James’s in ‘The Bench of Desolation’ or R. D. Laing’s in his analysis of how we live in the eyes of others.
As the novel gets into its stride, the slight overreaching in the prose wears off. Our anti-hero, Nathan, is undergoing his self-imposed ordeals on an island off the Welsh coast. Here writers live in a community paid for by a trust. They may write, they may not. They may find, or they may destroy, themselves. Each is obliged to undertake seven Main Events, a kind of DIY ordeal, under the quasi-pastoral supervision of Joe (named Joseph Christopher, with heavy symbolism), a burnt-out novelist who is trenchantly characterised – the aureole of prematurely white hair, the professional smiles, the psychotherapist’s way of knowing everything about you and always being right, of understanding your tantrums almost before they happen. Into this hotbed comes Mary Lamb, whose memory sucks and whoops and sinks – the daughter of Nathan and his long-since-estranged wife Maura, whom he still adores. Mary is a promising writer and also a promising daughter, golden-haired and golden-skinned, irreverently witty and physically affectionate with her strange old dad – who spends many hundreds of pages not revealing to Mary that they are daughter and father. He is her personal tutor and he insists that for her first year on the island she writes nothing – only reports to him orally what she has been seeing.
It was hereabouts that doubts arose in me. For the sake of her writing Mary has left her beloved boyfriend Jonno and the two gay men, an uncle and an ‘uncle’, who have brought her up. She is then constrained, for many months on end, not to write, and this she fulfils with next to no demurral, resistance, frustration, resentment, or any other serious qualm to speak of. What does she do throughout this time? Explore the island? Observe tides and puffins? Hang out with the other writers? By the time three years have passed (or 318 pages out of 567) she has never even walked as far as the Head, which is the chief landmark. Even when she hears that her long-absent father has been a professional writer for most of his life, she doesn’t ask his name. A little later again, there occurs the first deep twinge of self-interrogation on Nathan’s part as he considers why he is still with-holding his identity from the woman he has now worked with so closely:
Ach, fuck it, I shouldn’t tell her. It would just be an imposition. I want her to be my daughter to please my ego, not to please her. Now she likes me because she likes me, not because she feels she ought to.
As if knowing I was her father – knowing I was that particular pathetic, uncommunicative shit – would make her feel she ought to like me.
I would hate to spoil your enjoyment of the novel by revealing whether or not he finally speaks out. After all, this is the chief element in the book which meets the novelistic need to keep us interested as to what will happen next. My worry is whether Kennedy has kept her eyes on the psychological likelihoods that must govern such a fabric of people, events and places if it is not to tear apart into a farrago in which fantasies, concepts, and expertly administered shocks prevail at the expense of lives unfolding with at least a nodding resemblance to our own.
The island community, with its seven voluntarily beleaguered writers, is hard to believe in. We cannot know their writing – that besetting novelist’s problem of evoking a text in the medium of a text. Nathan and Mary’s fellow writers are only thinly present as physical and emotional beings – Louis the historian and nice old gent, randy Lynda, her husband Richard with his withered arm, Ruth who specialises in prison documentaries. This supporting cast rarely interact in their own right and are brought on mainly to bitch at each other during the dreaded Meetings. At one of these Nathan opines that ‘we all come here, I suppose, to shut up. We stop the words.’ So they are in a kind of passive therapy, which lasts, according to the chapter headings, from at least 1990 to 1997. Could this happen, or to put it another way, have we here a parable of creative solipsism, the apparently static self-absorption of the writer’s days and years, rather than a realistic fiction? Nathan, for all his self-hatred and destructive compulsions, is made the mouthpiece for many a heartfelt truth about the writer’s vocation, addressed to his unacknowledged daughter in his role as tutor: ‘All the rosy fortune-telling about your wonderful, promising career, disregard. You are who you are already, that’s what lets you write, defend it, keep it simple and ... clean.’ And again: ‘That’s, that’s ... the words, you see – you can’t wish them here when they’re not, you can’t stop them when they are: they’ll fill your life, make your life, eat your fucking life. They can’t belong to anyone. They’re like land – it’s not in their nature to be owned by anyone and if you try it, they’ll choke you.’
Nathan’s own words are anything but ‘simple’ and ‘clean’, so far as we know, and involve the maltreating of penises, arseholes, eyeballs and teeth. It is a chief ground of his self-hatred that he has made his living by mediating his torturous visions. He is not disesteemed for this in the island community, or in the London literary world, which is the locale for several sequences of virulent satire. Did the editors at Cape wince or even swoon with delicious humiliation as they saw themselves excoriated? Perhaps to publish so extreme a cartoon of their own milieu is itself a case of the masochism which lies near the heart of A.L. Kennedy’s vision.
The strand in the novel which came home to me as a recognisable image of behaviour was the homelife of the two uncles, Bryn and Morgan, with their love for each other and for Mary, their routines in the cramped Welsh town, Morgan’s struggle with emphysema, Bryn’s dandyism and fondness for Latin. When Morgan dies, he is bitterly grieved for and richly remembered. If the Josephs and Ruths and Lyndas and Richards have no such life to write about, they are indeed bound to stew in their own scalding, curdled juice. Neither their writing nor their characters, however, count for much. It is Nathan’s sensibility that dominates, and what we know of it is in a sense this novel itself. His own work-in-progress, on-camera, is an unremarkable autobiographical novel about his lost wife and his demeaning effort to be close to her once again. His paying work, off-camera, is a kind of horror fiction which he teaches himself about by setting up a mantrap in which (inadvertently or by design) he nearly scalps himself (and nearly dismembers his beloved dog). In a country which no longer tortures people, or only at a distance, there has to be room for an art which grapples with the more deadly twists of private behaviour to which we’re prone. It is perhaps because Kennedy is dealing with nightmares and not with atrocities that she has had to situate her book on a chimerical island and people it with women and men who have less reality than the specialist in unease and self-disgust in whose head we are virtually enclosed.