Speaking at the Contemporary British Fiction
Symposium in London last June, A L Kennedy was almost apologetic about the final movement of Original Bliss. ‘It’s the first – and last – happy ending I will attempt,’ she sighed. Yet its ending – like all its expectation-defying plot developments – requires no apology. It observes a rigorous and resonant poetic logic that sweeps all objections aside.
Happy endings – even the tentative and ambiguous variety readers encounter
in Original Bliss – might seem anathema to a writer whose bleak subject matter is often matched by an unremitting irony. Kennedy’s most recent novel, Everything You Need, exhibits these qualities in abundance, and features a subplot about literary envy whose grim hilarity rivals that of Martin Amis’s The Information. Unlike Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, however, who organizes his life’s work ‘in pigeon-holes partly,’ Kennedy resists attempts to categorize her work. ‘People will give you intentions,’ she said in June, ‘and I very rarely have any.’ Subjects come to her unannounced, she said, and writing presents itself as a necessity, ‘like a psychological sneeze.’
True to the implications of this metaphor, Original Bliss is a
visceral novel, felt in the blood as well as the heart. Kennedy tenderly but
unflinchingly exposes the minds and bodies of her unlikely lovers, a
physically battered Glasgow housewife and a pornography-addicted
self-help guru. Helen Brindle has lost her ‘original bliss’, her ability to pray and have those prayers answered.’She found she had lost the power of reaching out. Now and again she could force up what felt like a shout, but then know it had fallen back against her face. Finally the phrases she attempted dwindled until they were only a background mumbling mashed in with the timeless times she had asked for help.’ As this passage suggests, Kennedy overcomes the melodrama-inviting nature of her material through the power of her language, rendering both her damaged characters’ lonely preoccupations with verbal economy and grace and a loving attention to their all-too-human predicaments.
Helen is the most fully realized character in Original Bliss, but such is Kennedy’s talent that she even succeeds in rendering the conceited,
onanistic Edward Gluck endearing. In his first appearance, as a voice and
an image on the television, he seems little more than a parodic amalgam of
L. Ron Hubbard and Wayne Dwyer. But as he increasingly opens himself up to
Helen, recognizing in her the same qualities the reader has come to
admire, he loses his one-dimensionality. By the end of the novel, what began as
an utterly implausible conjunction – the stuff of a creative writing school
challenge – becomes a healing, revivifying union.
Original Bliss originally appeared in 1997 as the centerpiece of a
collection of short stories. Kennedy originally conceived it as a
story, but observed that it ‘extended to become . . . a novel in its
own right.’ The publisher has made a wise choice in granting new life to a
short novel with a long imaginative reach.
Reviewed by James Diedrick
James Diedrick is Howard L. McGregor Professor of the Humanities at Albion College and author of Understanding Martin Amis (1995). He maintains the
Martin Amis Web