31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 21: “Baby Blue” by A.L. Kennedy

May 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From All the Rage

All_the_Rage_KennedyI first encountered the fiction of Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy as a result of a recommendation from Canadian novelist and story writer Bill Gaston, and it’s not difficult to see what attracts Gaston to Kennedy’s work. The two writers share an affinity for stories that mix humour and pathos, though Kennedy’s fiction has a greater tendency toward darkness and cynicism than does Gaston’s.

“Baby Blue” is a story that flirts with darkness, though a reader is liable to miss this on a first pass, since Kennedy employs a canny construction that withholds the story’s true subject until the final pages.

The dominant central section of the story finds the anonymous first-person narrator in a kind of daze, wandering the aisles of a Canadian sex shop. This sequence is replete with comedy that verges on absurdity without quite tipping over. The narrator is befuddled by the array of devices on offer in the store: “Devices engineered – there was a lot of engineering – to mimic the effects of sex. Only devices … not costumes, or DVDs, or magazines, or books, or most of the things I’d expect to be in a sex shop, in as far as I’d never had expectations in that field and couldn’t be sure, but must have surmised at some point.”

Not included among these assumptions and expectations are row upon row of fake vaginas, which prompt the narrator’s mind to launch into a frenzy of (quite reasonable) questions:

I’d halted in front of a bank of what were probably – definitely, now that I looked – fake vaginas and I couldn’t answer – who would? – that, no, I intended to buy such a thing for someone else. Who? For whom? A female friend to whom I would suggest that their own was unhelpful? Or would I give one to a straight man as if he’d no chance of access to a real one? I’m sorry his girlfriend left him, never mind and here’s this, which boils down to her essentials?

That “here’s this” is quintessential Kennedy: perfectly timed to elicit a surprised howl of laughter. It should perhaps not be remarkable to note that Kennedy also performs stand-up comedy; “Baby Blue” is written in a highly conversational style that in places mimics the rhythms and cadences of a stage comedian. In the store, for instance, the narrator is badgered by an overzealous shop assistant: “The assistant wore a name badge which called her Mandy, although I couldn’t accept that as likely.” And there is a glorious riff on the absurdity of flavoured condoms:

Chocolate-flavoured condoms. They had chocolate-flavoured condoms.

You like penises, you like chocolate, why not both?

There were many whys for not both. For many reasons, my opinion was in favour of not both.

Ultimately, where chocolate-flavoured condoms are concerned, the narrator concludes: “I don’t feel my experience of oral sex is intended to be primarily culinary.”

While much of what transpires in the sex shop is played for laughs, it is significant to note the circumstances surrounding the narrator’s arrival there: these play into the story’s overall schema, which is more serious and sober than it at first appears. The narrator wanders into the store without really being cognizant of where she is, or where she is going. “It must have been cold in the street,” she thinks. “So I can assume that I dodged indoors quite blindly to borrow a touch of warmth.” Although the memory of the cold burning her hands is “inflexible,” much of the rest is vague to the point of obscurity. “I no longer concentrate as I once did,” is all she says by way of explanation.

Kennedy’s story is broken up into roughly three parts. The introductory section is deliberately contingent and contradictory; the first sentence in the story reads, “What happened was that I got lost.” The notion of being “lost” is key here, both in terms of geography and the narrator’s psyche. As “Baby Blue” progresses, the narrator tracks back to earlier statements and contradicts or modifies them, telling us that specific details are untrue or irrelevant. The effect of this is disorienting, leaving the reader feeling similarly lost, without stable footing.

The final section of the story dispenses with the “palaver” of the sex shop, which, we are told, “didn’t matter, was unimportant.” Why, then, spend so much time on it? Why immerse us as readers in a scene and a tone only to tell us that neither is germane?

In the final pages of the story, Kennedy reveals that the narrator’s mental state is the result of having left her partner just prior to undergoing a medical procedure that is not identified explicitly. “I’m paying,” the narrator says, and later, “I’d rather not have the sedative and so get discomfort instead, not pain precisely – severe to moderate discomfort.” She muses about no longer being “a complete woman, not comfortable and me, not as far as I can tell, since they’ve taken what they had to away.” Is the procedure an abortion? “More may be removed on future occasions,” the narrator says; what are we to make of this comment? (Certainly the details, and the story’s title, tilt heavily in the direction of an abortion.)

The story is silent on the specific nature of the operation the narrator undergoes. Indeed, there is only one thing that is clear: the narrator’s partner has disappeared. “The story’s position is unequivocal on that: your absence.” It is also clear that the narrator was the person who precipitated the split, not the other way around. “I have gone to trouble for you,” she thinks, “so you don’t have to.”

The early stages of the story, then, operate in much the same way as the conversation about booze at the beginning of Hemingway’s classic story “Hills Like White Elephants.” (This association also implies the nature of the narrator’s operation as an abortion, though there is nothing in the story to suggest that the comparison is intentional on the part of the author.) The narrator’s focus is scattered and unclear, but her mind clings to anything other than the thing that is most important to her, the thing that has brought her to the place, and the fragile state, in which she currently finds herself. We laugh at her experiences in the sex shop, but in retrospect the laughter is fraught with angst and pain.

“We’re an odd species,” the narrator thinks early on in the story, “embracing ruined water, a gradually sifting possibility of disappearance. Some of us don’t, I realise: those trying for more specific ends and getting trapped away from them – making hospital trips, for example, contending with rural environments – residents of places held habitually under various things like winter, the effect of winter.” These seem at first like disconnected ramblings, though the tossed off reference to a hospital visit resonates retroactively, as does “the effect of winter,” which is, after all, to kill certain living things. “Baby Blue” is a story that resembles Kierkegaard‘s understanding of life: it must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward.

UPDATE: One thing that keeps the critic awake at night is the potential for egregious misreading. That is, the possibility that haste, or inattention, or distraction might lead to missing the key that unlocks a story. In other words, the critic lives in fear of getting it wrong.

An earlier version of this post contained the suggestion that the operation the narrator undergoes is not an abortion, but a vaginal hysterectomy, which is very occasionally performed without anesthetic. Further deliberation over the story – and in particular its final two pages – suggests that this may be the correct reading. The narrator’s comment about “the bad bodily changes” she underwent could as easily refer to cancer as to an unwanted pregnancy, and cancer would also explain the comment about having to remove “more on future occasions.”

None of this changes the analysis presented above regarding the way the story is constructed, but it does offer a differently nuanced rationale for the woman’s grief in the wake of her operation. Further thought and rumination convinces me that this latter interpretation is the more persuasive one.

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