Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A. L. Kennedy's "Wasps"

Who'd've thought I'd be blogging twice in a week about A. L. Kennedy? She's this week's New Yorker fiction writer, though, and thus the subject of the latest post in my Magazine Reading Project.

This is actually quite handy, because I wondered, in the previous post, if the things that bothered me about Kennedy's first collection were the result of youth, or of something inherent to her work. I complained about the narrative stasis that seemed a hallmark of her stories, and about her tendency to rely too heavily on victimhood as a topic. And indeed, this new story, at least in those respects, is just like her early ones--a cuckolded mother of two stays cuckolded, and does nothing about it, and everything remains the same.

However, Kennedy has gotten a lot better at it, and I like the story a lot. I felt a little funny complaining last time, because I know that a story doesn't require strong narrative drive to be good; nor does its protagonist have to "change" or experience "redemption." Here, though, Kennedy's immersion in the details of the character's life--and her superior ability to choose and refine those details--makes the piece worth reading. Of particular power is her portrayal of the protagonist's sons, who at the ages of 7 and 4 have learned to channel their anger at their absent father upon each other. There is a great moment where the older boy "washed his own hands very thoroughly, theatrically, with the air of a weary surgeon. As she watched, the weight of an older brother's responsibilities and trials hardened his jaw enough for him to look very much like his father."

The really excellent bit here, however, is a scene in which the father subtly, quietly, transfers the blame for his absence and infidelity onto the younger boy. "That's why I go away, Jimbo," he says. "For you."

Ouch. In the wake of this scene, the father leaves again, and the mother again lets him, and once again I longed for something other than stasis, true to life as stasis might be. But there's no accounting for taste, and no denying that, judging by this story, anyhow, Kennedy has gotten really good. It's a better piece of writing than anything in her first book. Here's hoping somebody someday says the same thing about me.


zoe said...

That's quite an odd coincidence. I have to admit, I haven't read much by her. I saw her read when I was at University and very much enjoyed it. She's very dry and big on black humour.
I think maybe I should say that we, (the Scots) as a nation, like the bleak. We see no value in happiness. Of course, I'm being tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely. You might like to check out Bill Duncan's book "The Smiling School For Calvinists" for further understanding.
I think that, generally, we aren't happy unless we're unhappy. Any other Scots reading this, please feel free to shoot me down.
p.s. as a high school English teacher, I would just like to apologise for any incorrect grammar I have used here. In my defence, they didn't teach much grammar for a while here in the 80s which was when I was at school. I like an intuitive approach to expression... That's my excuse.

Andrew Gelman said...

On an unrelated topic, I'm curious what you think about Allegra Goodman. We had a mini-discussion here of her book Intuition here. I couldn't quite figure out why it was so highly praised except that it was sort of like intellectual comfort food. But maybe I was missing something?

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