We are not all connected. We are bags of skin. We are all separate bags of thinking skin," says the lovesick narrator of the story Edinburg to a woman "pale enough to be vegan," who comes into his grocery shop trying to post a leaflet.
The narrator is not unlike others in A..L. Kennedy's book of stories: He is in flux, cycling through certain misery, trying in vain to be at peace with himself, even for a moment. We do not get anyone's life story, and rarely do we get the full contextual back-story that brought us to these moments in between, where most stories take place. They push around after the fact, as they move through and around the consequences of their actions. In this way, they become like vivid memories of stark moments that stay with you after the final page.
In Saturday Teatime, a woman decides to spend an hour in a flotation tank, purchasing an "hour of flotation and relaxation" in a what she thinks is more akin to a "Flotation Damp Cupboard." It is clear she isn't the type of woman easily wooed into a womb-like happy trance by her floating brain in a cupboard, but she is trying to find happiness wherever it might be.
She ends up floating into a painful childhood memory, and two related theories. The first on laughter ("making the sound of hurt things, who are trying not to be") and the second on what she calls The Drop, "we're born into it, slithering over its edges and into life and at the start it's exhilarating, it's a rush. We're flying. Almost. We're flying down. But we assume that if we're built to fly, if that's what we're there for, then that's what we'll do. Forever … it's takes a while to realize that every one of us will land and not survive it. We are a tragedy waiting to happen or a design flaw, at the very least." Saturday Teatime is a mix of comedy and tragedy, Kennedy's area of expertise.
Even the stories populated by more than one character ache with loneliness
In Confectioner's Gold, a sleep-deprived couple wanders the streets of New York after a fight, defeated by some unexplained financial derailment, eating a meal they can't afford and contemplating their deep sense of exhausted misery. All that happens in the story is they walk and then eat, but every move they make is heavy, their inner monologues cave into themselves, every small choice of food, or words chosen to say or not say, is leaden with emotional movement.
One of the most affecting stories is As God Made Us, about a group of young soldiers dealing with various amputations after war. They're out at their monthly gathering where they swim ("show themselves thrashing, ugly, wild"), get drunk and watch porn together. Kennedy nails the masculine posturing and playful taunting in the dialogue, as well as the pain of post-trauma and loss of limbs. She sets a scene juxtaposing a schoolteacher's discomfort at the display of their altered, exuberant bodies.
In Marriage, Kennedy writes a throbbing impatient monologue from the point of view of a husband trailing his angry wife through the streets ("she will trash the afternoon"), presenting himself at first as exhausted by an unhappy and unreasonable wife, so convincingly that, when we eventually understand him, it is a shocking unravelling of our expectations.
Again, from a conventional standpoint, the only thing that happens in the story is that a couple takes a walk. Like many of the stories, Marriage seems like an emotional magic trick, with Kennedy's ability to create vivid voices and believable characters and then disappear your expectations of them in a single sentence: "she forgets I'm left-handed sometimes, ducks the wrong way." Him complaining that she has to "be so awkward about it" later and ruin the day.
In Sympathy, we meet a couple of strangers having a hot one-night stand in a hotel, displaying the complex relationship between desperate sexual desire and the free fall of grief.
Many stories are about the ends of relationships, or the point in a marriage where it is obvious to all that it's over. Even the stories populated by more than one character ache with loneliness. These stories are often about introverts negotiating the thorny and maddening violence of human connection. Kennedy knows how to write pain in all its stark detail, while managing to gently highlight the humour in the tragic reality of life. What Becomes is a collection of stories of loners trying not to be, and it is deeply moving.
Zoe Whittall's sixth book, The Middle Ground, will be published this spring.