A.L. Kennedy isn’t one to get hung up on ornamentation. Even, say, titles. All the Rage is the Scotland-born, London-based author’s sixth collection of short stories – she’s also penned six novels and three works of non-fiction – and it’s full of generic names like Late in Life, These Small Pieces, and This Man. You get the sense these are placeholders, scribbled at the top of the page so that Kennedy can get to her real work that much quicker. But don’t let these utilitarian titles fool you: Kennedy is one of the most consistently dazzling writers of prose going today, and All the Rage is so dynamic and alive that it might skitter right off your coffee table.
Billed as a collection of stories about love, All the Rage feels, to me, more like the author’s latest series of dispatches from the human psyche’s rawest and most chaotic corners. Kennedy has covered this territory before, and she seems at home here; love and its absence just so happen to be the active ingredients this time around. These are men and women in committed relationships, sussing out new ones, sleeping with the hired help, waking up in the hospital, singing off-key in church, running from troubled pasts, and always thinking, thinking, thinking.
Kennedy’s stories usually begin in one character’s head, and they always hit the ground running. She began her 2012 novel The Blue Book thusly: “But here this is, the book you’re reading. Obviously.” That streak continues in All the Rage. A Thing Unheard-of opens with “The thing is, you know they’ll be thinking much the same.” In Run Catch Run, it’s “It couldn’t last. Not this. There was no way it ever would have. Never mind.” Where other writers are intimidated by the blank page in front of them, you get the sense Kennedy can’t attack it fast enough, filling line after line after line with her protagonists’ inner turmoil.
Once they’ve gotten going, her stories don’t slow down, either. Kennedy’s insistence on galloping internal monologues often means that it takes her protagonists a page or two to circle back to what’s really on their minds. Baby Blue, for instance, begins with a woman bemoaning waking up far from home with jet lag, the “wrong sun” behind the curtains and her skin smelling “frightened and of catering in confinement.” A lesser writer would have saved this kind of description for the main event, but Kennedy barrels right along, her narrator finally admitting that this is actually a story about the time she wandered into a sex shop by mistake and was then coerced into buying a vibrator by two salespeople who are both aggressively perky and aggressively Canadian. Then it transforms into something else entirely, and these late-stage metamorphoses, too, are not uncommon (see also: the kaleidoscopic title story, set – partly – in a train station). Kennedy is all too aware that stories are an inherently messy medium. Sometimes we forget the punch line. Sometimes we get distracted by what we see out of the corner of our eye. To trim off these loose ends, Kennedy argues, is to excise much of a story’s honesty.
It’s remarkable that Kennedy has maintained such an output of literary fiction over the past twenty years, as her resume also includes radio plays, live theatre, Dr. Who e-books, and stand-up comedy. But she leaves her stamp wherever she goes, and audiences everywhere are the better for it.
In The Practice of Mercy, Kennedy offers a particularly brilliant analysis of where her fiction sits in the larger literary landscape – one that’s disguised as a description of hotel breakfasts. “These days,” her narrator thinks, surveying the buffet, “hotels practically everywhere had the same eggs, sausages, bacon, hash browns, French toast, the customary Anglo-American harbingers of obesity and doom.” Dorothy, however, “continued to long for regional variations and mistakes – dishes of weird broth, unpardonable chicken sausages, potatoes to which sad accidents must have happened, strange grains and badly transfigured eggs.”
In this moment, the reader feels an instinctive affection for Dorothy. And it’s only heightened when she imagines approaching a server with this query: “Excuse me, do these taste bizarre, or have a disturbing texture, in which case I’ll take several?” In a way, readers browsing their local bookstores for All the Rage will be asking much the same question.
Michael Hingston is the books columnist for the Edmonton Journal. His novel The Dilettantes was released last fall.
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