There is, for want of a better word, an almost Jamesian quality to the young but already highly and justly acclaimed Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy’s work. Unlike Henry James, however, whose fiction grew increasingly difficult as his career progressed and his readership dwindled, Kennedy, although equally intent on depicting states of mind and feeling, writes in a way that seems transparent and effortless on one hand, finely wrought and slyly calculating on the other, with a bit of understated, offbeat humor thrown in for good measure. The opening of Original Bliss—Kennedy’s third novel (she has also published three collections of short stories)—lulls the reader into a sense of unearned security and superiority that the rest of the novel will complicate if not entirely dispel:
Mrs. Brindle lay on her living-room floor, watching her ceiling billow and blink with the cold, cold colours of British Broadcasting light. A presumably educative conversation washed across her and she was much too tired to sleep or listen, but that was okay, that was really quite all right.
Writing such as this rewards attentiveness on the reader’s part and quietly undermines the smug complacency that the language encourages. Small doubts arise, barely breaking the surface of the reader’s consciousness—questions concerning point of view, perhaps a bit less detached and ironically distant than one would like, the slightly jarring use of “washed,” “billow,” and “blink,” and the dialogical implications of repeated words and sentiments (“the cold, cold colours,” “but that was okay, that was really all right”). These nuances are all but drowned out by the raucous low comedy of the very next line issuing from the BBC program to which the unfortunately, even comically named Mrs. Brindle has been only half-listening, “What about the etiquette of masturbation?’” The comic disparity between “etiquette” and “masturbation,” as well as between “masturbation” and “Mrs. Brindle,” seems to confirm a feeling of superiority on the reader’s part that comes, of course, at the hapless Mrs. Brindle’s expense. In this, however, it is the reader who has been deceived, for Original Bliss is a novel that is as remarkably and deeply compassionate as it is carefully and subtly written. It is gauging accurately the degree and angle of ironic detachment that most tests the reader’s mettle in dealing with a novel about a character far less self-deluded and far more intelligent than the deeply depressed as well as repressed Mrs. Brindle first appears. By page 18, even the dullest reader can see how it is not, or not solely, the anonymous narrator who is using irony at Mrs. Brindle’s expense, but Mrs. Brindle herself in a way that is at once self-mocking and self-abasing.
On the third Friday of June Mrs. Brindle found what she needed at only her second high-street shop. A belligerently cheerful magazine winked out at her, shamelessly covered with posing and pouting fruit flans: almond paste, cherries, apricots, vanilla cream and appropriate liqueurs; each of their impossible elements boded well. She could explore a good dessert theme for weeks. This would be today’s encouraging victory of the positive.
The full horror of this self-effacing woman’s severely constrained life only slowly comes into focus, and as it does, the humor seems less comical, more cutting, which is to say more self- lacerating: “Radio Two, Mrs. Brindle’s favourite; it didn’t pretend to be better than it was.” It is not just her lack of self-confidence and fear of revealing herself that make the reader wince, but the emptiness of her carefully controlled life, her living without what she vaguely but accurately calls “Something Else.” Mrs. Brindle is not mad, though the reader may well begin to wonder first whether she is, then why she is not. Her doling out her daily life in small pieces is her way of making do, of appearing normal, and is duplicated in Kennedy’s careful doling out of that life piece by piece (there are no chapters, only small narrative bits separated by nothing more than two blank lines). Only gradually does the reader learn that Mrs. Brindle has a name—Helen—if not a room of her own and a husband as well as a God in whom she has lost faith, a loss of far greater importance to her than to her author. Keenly aware of that loss, she has begun looking for guidance in all the usual modern places: television, radio, magazines, bookstores, where she finds no “sections assigned to FEAR OF DYING, or ABSOLUTE LOSS” but does seek out and buy a book written by the self-help guru Edward E. Gluck. Gluck is the man whose voice she heard on the television speaking of masturbation and subsequently on the radio as he becomes a “persistent presence” in her otherwise dreary existence. In the book, “He personally assured her that she was the miracle that makes itself.” Suddenly, before the...
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