What Becomes, by A. L. Kennedy

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

I’ve been on a good international run with short story collections in the last year:

– From Canada, Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness lived up to very high expectations; Deborah Willis’ debut collection, Vanishing and Other Stories, was a very pleasant surprise.
— From the U.S., Maile Meloy (Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It) was new to me, but I’ll be reading more of her in the future. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s linked stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, offered a short course in modern Pakistan history. And Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge deservedly won last year’s Pulitzer, drawing comparisons to Sherwood Anderson’s classic collection, Winesburg, Ohio, a book that I am very happy I finally discovered.
— Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons confirmed that the Irish author is every bit as good a short story writer as he is a novelist — and provoked me to order a couple of William Trevor collections to re-visit the acknowledged Irish master of the short story (stay tuned on that front). Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes may not have been up to his best novels, but was a worthwhile read.
— And of course I did reread my favorite short story collection of all time, J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories.

UK cover

I don’t consider myself a particular advocate of the short story, although as a Canadian reader I suspect I read more than many international, particularly UK, readers do — it seems to be a format that attracts more talented writers here than it does elsewhere. And I was somewhat surprised to discover that I had read so many good collections in the last 12 months.

All of which is a very long introduction to A. L. Kennedy’s What Becomes. Kennedy is an oft-published Scottish writer of considerable reputation (this is her tenth fiction book) and positive reviews of this collection at booklit and dovegreyreader did put the book on my radar. Kennedy’s Canadian publisher, House of Anansi, recently released the volume here, so now I can add a Scot to my short story resume.

What Becomes includes 12 stories and calls for a reading discipline that is often beyond me. All short story collections benefit from an approach that says you should only read one or two and then set the book aside for a while (a trait that I have admitted before that I find difficult to practise). Kennedy demands it — both her prose style and content have a lot of similarities from story to story. Read too many at once and they start to run together — space them out and you can appreciate the author’s talent.

Kennedy’s characters tend to be damaged people, either dealing with a loss (a death in the family, the end of a realtionship) or fearful that showing initiative involves taking a risk that will end in loss. Consider Peter, a greengrocer in the story “Edinburgh”, who notices that a young woman has become a frequent visitor to his shop:

Or you could simply stand in your shop and hear yourself dying and do the job that is supposed to pass your time — and then see her.

His day — that day — had not been ready for seeing her.

His days were not ambitious in that way.

Other customers had been about because it was lunchtime, but they were just the usual. She wasn’t. She was made of something different.

Silly how you went home and you thought about her, having nothing else to occupy you beyond a small number of television programmes about Hitler and sharks, anything else being really too much of a challenge, if not an insult, to the mind.

‘They ought to combine them. “Hitler’s Sharks” — everybody would watch that.’

A lonely man needs to decide whether to take a risk. Even though “Edinburgh” is only the third story in the collection, the reader is pretty certain it won’t turn out well. Kennedy is more interested in exploring life’s disappointments than its successes and she does it well.

“Whole Family with Young Children Devastated” is literally about a loss. Another young man is being awakened in the middle of the night by frequent wrong number telephone calls which feature a woman yelling at the dialer in the background, apparently believing he is calling a lover. The frustration is that the awakened man can do nothing to stop the interruptions to his sleep. Kennedy segues into a street scene where the young man discovers every pole features a poster with “pin-sharp colour shots of a tubby old retriever that’s looking up at the camera as if it trusts me, trusts children, trusts absolutely everyone” and with the text:

MISSING
FROM THE AFTERNOON OF 21 MARCH
HE IS A MUCH LOVED FRIEND AND PET
WHOLE FAMILY WITH YOUNG
CHILDREN DEVASTATED
PLEASE HELP US WE ARE AT A LOSS

As you can see, sometimes the author piles up the losses to enable her to contemplate how they relate to each other.

And then there is “As God Made Us”, which explores loss of a different kind:

Once every month they swim together: six gentlemen sharing a leisurely day. They choose whoever’s turn it is to be host, fire off the emails, travel however far, and then rendezvous at a swimming baths and christen the Gathering.

They call it that because of the movies with the Highlander in, the ones with everybody yelling at each other — There can be only one — and mad, immortal buggers slicing off each other’s heads with these massive swords.

You have only got the one head and shouldn’t lose it.

The six all share a kind of loss, but that isn’t what Kennedy makes the story about. Rather, it ends up focusing on a school teacher who objects to their presence at the pool because it upsets her young students who are also out for their swim.

I hope those three examples supply an indication of what What Becomes is about. And perhaps more important why you need to give Kennedy the time to explore in depth what her collection sets out to achieve. None of the stories are cheery (despite the fact that Kennedy is also a stand-up comedian in Glasgow); but every one does examine in detail the particular theme that she has chosen. That is what good short story writers do: They accept the limitations of the format, realizing that is what allows them to paint their limited story in painstaking detail. Kennedy does that with considerable talent — like Meloy, she is another author whom I will be investigating further.

I have included copies of the covers from both the Anansi and UK versions with this review. While they are very different, Kennedy has been well-served by both designers. Her collection has the other-worldliness that the UK cover with its “disco” ball evokes; equally, it has the penetrating introspection that the Canadian cover implies. If you want 20 minutes worth of reading that combines both a level of disturbing fantasy and equally troublesome but intriguing details, any one of the dozen stories in this book will fill the bill.

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12 Responses to “What Becomes, by A. L. Kennedy”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    I don’t know why but I find A.L. Kennedy slightly intimidating. I’ve seen her on TV a few times and she has quite a powerful presence, and I guess I’ve felt that her books might be like that too. But I like the sound of this collection. And the thing about sharks and hitler made me laugh, although it’s a well-worn joke.

    As an aside, how do you read a short story collection? Do you read the stories one after the other, or one at a time, with a break to read something else?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I was trying to find a way to work “sardonic humor” into the review, so thanks for giving me the opening. None of the stories are the least bit funny — but every one has bits like Hitler’s Sharks (that wasn’t really a good one, more intended to illustrate the emptiness of the character). You get a lot of chuckles, but never a real belly laugh. There is a lot of humour in the way that she looks at the world and its foibles. I can see where Kennedy would be powerful (I’ve never seen her on TV) but the stories are certainly not intimidating.

    As for how I read a short story collection…. Every one I pick up, I resolve to read one or two, at most three, stories and then set the book aside for a day to give the author a chance. Then, if I like the stories (true of both the Munro and Meloy in my list above, as well as others) I plough right through like it was a novel. (Which is probably why I like selections of linked stories best — both Ishiguro and Mueenuddin fit that description). And if I do set the book aside (Tobias Wolff comes to mind), I always seem to forget to pick it up again.

    (Incidentally, I did manage to discipline myself for What Becomes — five reading sessions with a maximum of three per session.)

    So I’m trying a new approach that accepts my failure. I plough right through, then go back and read a number of stories a second time (five in the Kennedy collection and I will get to some more later).

  3. Craig D. Says:

    I care less about story length and more about how much time the author spends getting to the point. I’ve read 300-page novels that jerked me off less than many 20-page short stories.

  4. Colette Jones Says:

    I tried “Day” by AL Kennedy and abandoned it, but I haven’t abandoned her as an author – I will try another. I saw her talk about it at the Hay Festival and quite liked her laid back style. I also saw her show “Words” on the Edinburgh fringe last year and really liked it. I think she does not appeal to some people at all though. In our family, younger son and I enjoyed the show immensely, whereas husband and older son fell asleep.

  5. whisperinggums Says:

    Funnily enough I picked up a short story collection today to choose one to read – and AL Kennedy was one of the authors included. I decided that I’d read her – but in the end I didn’t get time to read any. However, I haven’t read her yet and you have piqued my interest, so I will try to get to it this week.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette, wg: It is true that Kennedy has a grimness to her story plots that I am sure does not land well with some, even though there usually is some icy humor attached to it. I didn’t discover she was a performer until midway through the book and knowing that did help me. Her prose style is very verbal and sometimes choppy (one story in this book is told entirely in dialogue) which can be annoying. Mentally casting the stories as mini-plays was helpful.

  7. Carly Says:

    Good timing on the review, this book’s just been shortlisted in the fiction category of the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards (now there’s a catchy title if ever there was onw). I’ve been considering getting a copy, and your review has certainly inspired me to do so sooner rather than later.

    Yet I have that same problem with short stories, in that on finishing a good one I want to read straight on (just like any other good book) but I know my head will mix up the new story with the story just gone. It’s frustratiing. I have the same problem with poetry. Although, having said that, one of the other books I have read so far from this shortlist (J Morgan’s) is a poetry book that kept my interest from page to page. I was so surprised. It was like a short novel. Very engaging, very moving, very amusing (in places) too.

    I’m definitely going to give Kennedy a go (though I do prefer your Canadian cover to ours). Maybe too Alan Bisset’s book. It’s very big and intimidating, but I heard him at a reading last year and he was pretty good. http://www.scottisharts.org.uk/1/artsinscotland/literature/projects/bookawards2010/2010shortlist.aspx is the link for the shortlist if you’re interested. They don’t seem to be so well known, even though they’re just as big as the Costas!

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Carly: Thanks very much for the link — I’ll admit the Awards are not top of mind for me, although I do think I have read one previous winner (The Good Mayor for first novel in 2008 — unless there is some competing award — reviewed here ). And I will admit that Kennedy’s book is the ony one on the2010 list that I have heard of. I agree that the blurb for Bisset’s book makes it sound interesting.

    I share the short story/poetry frustration you mention. I am afraid that I simply read too fast (I blame my Grade Two teacher: “Don’t move your lips when you read.”) I was able to struggle through my poetry courses in university but even then it was the epics (Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene) that made it possible.

    I hope you enjoy Kennedy’s book when you get to it — please drop by with your thoughts when you do.

  9. blithe spirit Says:

    I’ve read a lot of A.L. Kennedy (she’s one of my favourite writers and absolutely terrific as a reader – take the chance to see her “live” any time you can), so I know to read her slowly and take a break. I’ve just gotten my hands on this collection and read the first short story. I’m going to read one perhaps every two days and think about them and savour them.
    As to her novels Kevin – I would start with Everything You Need which is pretty bleak and grim (it’s about a group of writers who live on a type of isolated writer’s retreat) but quite startling in its storyline and images. Still haunts me and it’s been at least 10 years since I read it. Or Paradise which is again a bleak (but with horrifyingly funny moments) story told from the perspective of a female, unrepentant, defiant alchoholic. Not a happy story by any means but the writing is pretty spectacular.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    blithe spirit: Thanks for the recommendations — I know a little bit about Day but not much at all about Kennedy’s other books. Everything You Need seems to have an interesting premise.

  11. Carly Says:

    Thanks Kevin, I will do.

    I’m with you on the poetry-epic front, but that’s what so surprised me with JO Morgan’s book, it reads like a mini-modern-epic (if that follows), it really is something very special. I don’t know if you’d be able to get it in Canada, but I know quite a few “non-poetry” readers who just loved it.

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I noticed this one when Booklit covered it, it does strongly tempt me.

    My main concern is that, like you, I struggle to read short story collections as I should. I either read them in one massive block, diminishing their input, or space them out so far I end up not finishing them (I’m still technically reading What we talk about when we talk about love, it didn’t help when I learned the editor should probably be listed as co-author).

    Still, if I can overcome that this sounds like a good introduction to Kennedy. I’ll take a look at it next time I’m in a bookshop.

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