Much—arguably too much—has been made of A. L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting (1999). This little book on what is, for Kennedy, an unusual a topic, begins with the author—who had been selected by Grantamagazine as one of the twenty “Best of the Young British Novelists” just six years earlier—brought to the brink of suicide by the death of a friend and the breakup of the relationship with “the love of her life.” Only “hear[ing] a man’s voice droning from a distance, cheaply amplified and criminally flat and singing what has always been my least favourite folk song in the world—Mhairi’s Wedding’” kept her from jumping out the window. While On Bullfighting swerves, in its opening pages, into the oddly angled sort of black humor that has become one of the trademarks of this enormously talented writer’s finely crafted fiction, it also swerves into an area which Kennedy usually avoids: her personal life. This reticence takes on added significance in light of her criticism of a literary establishment bent upon defining contemporary British fiction in largely autobiographical terms. On Bullfighting may not be fiction, but it does put Kennedy’s life front and center: the suicidal despondency, the neck problem that left her sleepless and dependent on pain-killers, the writer’s block from which she hoped On Bullfighting would deliver her.
Everything You Need, first published in Britain in 1999, is the longest, most expansive, most ambitious, and arguably most autobiographical of Kennedy’s books. It reads like the lighter side of On Bullfighting. In its emphasis on relationships, its idiosyncratic and intensely inward-looking style, and its quirky humor and slightly off-kilter realism, Everything You Need is, despite its great length, considerable chronological range, and large cast of characters, of a piece with Kennedy’s earlier, more circumscribed, at times claustrophobic fiction, yet something of a departure too in having a male protagonist and taking writing—the risks and necessity of writing—as its subject. Given the inward, Jamesian turn of Kennedy’s fiction, the novel has a relatively simple plot. A writer, Nathan Staples, who for fourteen years has not had any contact with his daughter, Mary Lamb, herself a fledgling writer, arranges a fellowship for her at a writer’s colony off the Welsh coast. For the next seven years, he serves as her mentor there, while simultaneously working on his first “serious” book in more than a decade. The novel is arranged by year (1990 through 1997) and alternates between Nathan’s and Mary’s points of view (with Nathan receiving most of Kennedy’s and the reader’s attention). It begins with Mary, just turned nineteen, coming to the island, and ends with the launch of her first novel and the completion of Nathan’s book (fiction? memoir? both?) in which he reveals himself to Mary as her father. In much the same way that Kennedy’s title jokingly alludes to the self-help books that figure so prominently and ironically in Kennedy’s earlier book Original Bliss, the characters’ names allude, semi-allegorically, to their different natures and differently anxious voices: his the world-weary voice of experience, hers the innocent lamb taken to slaughter on the altar of art. The parallels to William Blake and the story of Abraham and Isaac are unmistakable but nonetheless subordinate to Kennedy’s half-jokey use of the grail quest as a plot device.
Nathan is far less a character than a brilliantly realized caricature: a lonely, cynical, suicidal, self-centered, yet self-deprecating clown of a man, down to one lung and just as “full of want” as he is of comic despair. His yearning for his long-lost daughter and his equally long-lost art is the Dostoevskian dream of a ridiculous man, and, since this is a Scottish novel, a story of guilt, too, topped off by a strong, typically postmodern dose of crippling self-consciousness to go with his equally incapacitating capacity for self-incrimination (as father and as writer who, after showing early promise, began writing “dreadful saga or whodunit” and “that pulpy horror shite”). Just as he takes up walking and swimming to get his health back after a bout with cancer, Nathan works hard to get his art, his daughter, and his wife Maura back as well. Fourteen years before, Maura, seeing how Nathan had begun looking at four-year-old Mary as a writer- and reader-to-be, banished him from their lives, leaving him to wander Britain alone, abandoning his art for popular fiction, before washing up on Foal Island. There, Nathan and five other...
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