A.L Kennedy has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best writers working in Britain today. In her latest collection, All the Rage, Kennedy turns her gaze toward the wretched aspects of love: the fault-lines where the erotic becomes violent, where love degrades into betrayal, and where the edges of language rise up, rendering her characters unable to say what they mean.
The title story, “All the Rage” is the longest; at 45 pages, it details a complicated, unpleasant affair conducted between a man in his forties and Emily, an alcoholic in her early twenties. Mark picks up Emily on the Tube: he is a serial adulterer whose wife is described as a spectral presence “virtuously about in the garden, or the kitchen, or her church”. Emily’s appeal is her absolute acquiescence to Mark’s wishes: her barely achieved personhood buckles under the force of his will. Kennedy imbues the relationship with violence: “Her acceptance – unrelenting acceptance – brought out a terror in his blood, a type of recurring vertigo. Whatever he requested, she would do…”. His violence cannot break her detachment: he administers regular beatings after which she is “unreachable and at her loveliest”. She calls him darling, and he refers to her as his “proper wife”. When Mark’s wife finds out, he is torn between glorying in the status afforded to him as a “previous adulterer”, found out and brought to heel, or killing himself on the tube tracks on a weekend afternoon.
Adultery is no longer shocking. Indeed, often it seems to be literally “all the rage”, the stuff of weekly celebrity magazines. Kennedy’s power lies in her ability to recapture the horror and personal cost of infidelity, the wretchedness of two people finding physical union whilst failing to communicate: the desperate ordinariness of universal desire gone wrong. Mark is vile, but never just vile. Rather, he is complicated, understandable, human: he “would have died for love”, and his failure to locate meaning in marriage or adultery is sad, and small, and entirely human.
The stand-out story of the collection is, for me, the final one. Many of Kennedy’s short stories deal with the unpleasant aspects of established relationships, but “This Man” dissects in infinite detail the nuance and rhythm of a first date. In Kennedy’s poetic prose, the couple sit on “uneasy, weatherproof chairs”, do not look at each other, and in their anxiety do not eat. Conventional desire is replaced by a fixation on the far future: the protagonist compulsively imagines the pair of them together in old age, bickering: ‘It’s not that you believe this nonsense… its more that you’d rather anticipate fictional disasters than deal with your awareness of how many true things can go wrong”.
True things can, and do, go wrong in Kennedy’s short stories, and the reader is drip-fed the details, never allowed to reach a straightforward conclusion. She perfectly captures the dismal repetition of dating: ‘You are very tired of being disappointed. You’ll get over it, be cheerier tomorrow, but standing in the sunlight with this man you’re not over it yet.’ Extraordinarily vulnerable, the protagonist of ‘This Man’ is the character in All the Rage who most explicitly craves love, even if it can only be conceived of as the opposite of disappointment. So there are no fireworks when the couple kiss. Quite the opposite: ‘He kisses with a pressure which is nearly an absence and therefore aches’. This universal ache, of longing to be understood, held and cherished is delicately summed up by the final lines of the story: ‘You do not know him, this man. He is practically a stranger. Only he’s not.’
In this extraordinary collection, none of us are strangers: we are connected by private griefs, intimate desires, and the sense that it is just possible –although vastly unlikely – that we may come to a point where we are understood.