The stories in A.L. Kennedy’s What Becomes seem driven by two entities: the author’s brain and her prose appendage. The latter is so alive it appears to possess a separate language pulse. In heightened moments Kennedy uses language to bind thought to physical sensation, which in turn stimulates a replicated response in the brain of the reader. This simulated experience is what makes her stories so striking and also intense.
So how does Kennedy pull this off? She begins with the cerebral voice, describing the characters’ circumstances and yearnings in rhythm-driven sentences, using or withholding punctuation to mimic thought: “here I am and this is from me and a proof of me and a sign of reliable love,” or, when a different character muses about the companionship of a dog: “It’s a nice feeling. Had it.” The stories work quite well on this basis—they are unsentimental, nervy, and gender-diverse (as far as I can tell, she does an extraordinary job of representing male consciousness). Kennedy also gives location an evocative specificity—you know whether the protagonist is in a kitchen or at a beach or outside a stage door. There are lyrically seductive descriptions of nature: “I go up and sit in the dunes and watch little gusts take a grass stem and make it write out strange calligraphy—maybe answers, or rules, promises, questions, or threats—scratched and dabbed and then worked over and then reworked, unknown word after unknown word,” (in a Kennedy story even the grass possesses language), though a page later there is “the sick tang of jet fuel over the inlet” and “the sunset bleeds away.”
Then, usually when a character is on the cusp of connection or the acceptance of disconnection, Kennedy’s pulsating prose appendage surges up to produce a new organism: intelligent word-flesh. The effect is peculiar and visceral. Words are embodied, body parts experience thought, and the reader is taken inside a character’s nerve endings:
“And there’s a silence in which I am aware of his lips, their silk inside, relatively hot. And his hands, they are holding my voice. And I am holding his” (“Whole Family With Young Children Devastated”). In this description of an illicit phone call Kennedy has made you imagine, if not actually feel, the silky inside of a man’s mouth. Talk about the power of language to transfer sensation.
“The same words that were in her mind, now in yours, relatively warm” (“Edinburgh”). In this passage, Kennedy bestows words with temperatures, and her characters exchange them like bodily fluids.
“When she began to love him, her body knew it first and as soon as they were over, it knew that, too” (“Confectioner’s Gold”). Another example of sentient flesh.
“Gobbler’s arm getting ready for something, thoughts roaring around inside it, Dan can hear them” (“As God Made Us”). Here Kennedy gives us the roaring of blood and thoughts inside an arm with plans, thoughts overheard by a fellow veteran whose own arm is partly gone.
To my mind, the collection is worth reading for these passages alone—they have the weird neural transference of an Emily Dickinson poem—but this review probably owes the reader a more global assessment.
The stories in What Becomes are not linked, nor do they share the same sort of protagonist. The narrators are both male and female, they are lonely greengrocers and soup-making thugs and weary mothers, they are single and adventurous, they are married and disheartened or single and recently dumped. They are creatures of our time: laid-off, worried, and damaged by love and war. To a person they are thin-skinned and sensitive to the atmosphere of emotion and habitat.
This roster of characters sounds depressing, but it isn’t—they are all vividly engaged in life and unresigned. The broken hearts in What Becomes continue to beat past injury—pain and disappointment do not deter Kennedy’s characters from hoping against the evidence, or even attributing some attractiveness to their wounded state. As the narrator in “Story of My Life” says, “Frailty and failure, they’re charismatic, they have a kind of nakedness that charms.” This is typical of Kennedy’s dark humor: if you can make fun of your despair, you can survive it.
Kennedy plays with language in a particular way in two stories that are somewhat outside the rest. In “Sympathy,” the entire story is comprised of dialogue between two consenting strangers in a hotel room—the talk is dirty and diverting, but, for all its frankness, the sex skims at the level of known description, and the characters’ human exchange lacks the verisimilitude that Kennedy achieves when she mixes description, thought and sensation from within stream of consciousness. The story “Another” reads like a parody of glossy celebrity profiles (i.e. Hello! Magazine), in which Kennedy blends traditional storytelling with italicized tabloidese: “The two remaining Westcotts had curled and snuggled with each other on the sofa for a while—Barry’s brave girls united in heartbreak.” Amusing, but not as powerful as the stories in which characters face more realistically portrayed loss and loneliness.
There is a sentence in the story “Edinburgh” that captures the existential plight of the characters in What Becomes: “We are all separate bags of thinking skin.” The veterans in “As God Made Us” who meet once a month to swim and pal around, and whose skin and flesh have been literally rent by combat, do the best job of crossing barriers to shared thought and feeling (at least amongst themselves), but even the collection’s most isolated characters pursue connection. What makes these stories so memorable is Kennedy’s ability to reify that quest in a trinity of language, thought, and flesh.