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.

How to make it as a writer: be a man

January 6, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

The shortlist for the Charles Taylor Prize was released yesterday, and it consists of four books:

  • The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son by Ian Brown
  • Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000 by John English
  • René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin
  • The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Life of William Randolph Hearst by Kenneth Whyte

Now, if you’re like me, the first thing you’ll notice about this list is that all four books are written by men. Not only that: all four books are written by men writing about men. The authors are all white, all of a certain age, and in all but one case (Brown’s) the books’ subjects are dead white guys.

This is particularly noticeable coming so soon after Publishers Weekly released its list of the ten best books of 2009, not one of which was written by a woman. Much was made of the longlist for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which contained 12 names, only two of which were men. Both made it onto the shortlist, and one of them (Linden MacIntyre) went on to win the award. Indeed, in Giller’s 16-year history, the prize has gone to a woman only five times, and there have been only four female honourees (Alice Munro won twice). In a December 30 op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Julianna Baggott points out that there were only two women in Amazon’s top ten for 2009, and four in the top 20.

The raw numbers seem to point to an ingrained institutional sexism, which is odd for an industry supported by women (who statistically consume more books than men) and powered by women (who make up the vast majority of influential acquisitions editors in Canada – think Louise Dennys, Ellen Seligman, Iris Tupholme, Nicole Winstanley, Alana Wilcox, Lynn Henry, Anne Collins, etc.). Baggott does not limit her analysis to a recapitulation of the numbers; instead, she attempts to settle on an explanation as to why books by men get trumpeted more often and more loudly than books by women:

I often hear people exclaiming that they’re astonished that a particular book was written by a man. They seem stunned by the notion that a man could write with emotional intelligence and honesty about our human frailties.

Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be experts on emotion. I’ve never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman.

So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.

What’s interesting, however, in the Publishers Weekly list is that the books are not only written by men but also have male themes, overwhelmingly. In fact, the list flashes like a slide show of the terrain I was trying to cover in my graduate thesis, when I wrote all things manly – war, boyhood, adventure.

The idea that “men get points for simply showing up on the page” is fatuous, especially given that many novelists, such as Henry James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Marcel Proust, who historically trafficked in books of deep – not to say extreme – psychological depth, were possessed of a Y chromosome. I hardly think that James, Dostoevsky, or Proust are given points “for simply showing up on the page.” In a similar vein (since we’re speaking anecdotally), I’ve never heard anyone say of Kazuo Ishiguro’s extraordinary 2005 novel Never Let Me Go (a mainstay of the ubiquitous “Best of the Decade” lists that have been cropping up in the last few months), “That’s a terrific novel. I can’t believe it was written by a man.” Most people I’m aware of (both male and female) would stop after the first of those two utterances.

What’s more interesting is Baggott’s theory that women get passed over because they don’t write about masculine themes – war, boyhood, and adventure. One 2009 novel written by a woman – Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean – features all three, and was nominated for the Giller, the Governor General’s Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award (it won the last of these). By contrast, Bonnie Burnard’s highly anticipated second novel, Suddenly, also published in 2009, is about three women whose lifelong friendship is changed when one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It wasn’t nominated for any major awards. Does this have to do with the respective themes these two authors chose?

It’s tempting to say yes, until you realize that one of the four female Giller Prize recipients is Bonnie Burnard, who took the award in 1999 for her debut novel, A Good House. Set in the aftermath of World War II, that novel is about three generations of an ordinary family. In other words, Burnard’s first novel contains none of the themes Baggott specified, yet it went on to win this country’s richest prize for English-language fiction. Is it possible, then, that her follow-up was passed over for award consideration not because of its subject matter, the gender of its author, or an institutionalized sexism, but because it simply wasn’t as good as other novels from the past year?

Perhaps. Of course, one book is too small a sample size to be statistically significant. So we can look at the five books by females out of 16 Giller Prize winners since 1994, as well as the number of women over the same period who have won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction (five), the Man Booker Prize (six), the Pulitzer Prize (six), and the National Book Award (six). The largest of these numbers – six – accounts for 37.5% of the total winners of any given prize for the period.

If the numbers don’t lie, and if Baggott’s explanations are unsatisfactory to explain them, where do we go from here? Writing in the Norfolk Books Examiner, Lydia Netzer engages with Baggott’s analysis and comes up with three possibilities to explain the exclusion of women from the Publishers Weekly list:

1. The list is sexist, purposefully oppressing women. The solution in this case would be, I guess, to burn down the list. Make a new list. Get those bastards. This seems kind of weak and paranoid.

2. The list is false, reflecting a lame and lingering cultural bias that is on its way out. The solution is to wait. After all, we didn’t count the black writers, or the South American writers. It will all come around, given more time. I guess this is what I would like to believe.

The third possibility is more alarming than the others, because it is the simplest explanation, and therefore the most viable:

3. The list is right. The things that women write about are neither culturally nor historically significant, and the books that women write are not the best books.

It is this last hypothesis that Netzer ends up endorsing: “The lesson of the [PW] list is that nobody’s going to do us any favors. We’re not going to get prizes just for showing up and writing our little books.” If women want to get their books on the major prize lists and roundups of the year’s best, they need to “address the important stuff, the big stuff: death, war, sex, adventure, as it pertains to women and men.” Which brings us full circle to Baggott’s idea of “masculine” themes – i.e., the big stuff, the earth-shattering warp and woof of history.

Except that one of the women writers Netzer mentions as being historically relevant is Virginia Woolf, who didn’t exactly write about “adventure.” On the contrary, Mrs. Dalloway is the prototypical domestic novel, focusing on the title character’s preparations for a dinner party. (Yes, this is the crassest of oversimplifications, but I’m attempting to make a point.) The novel is resolutely interior, yet it has been heralded as a modernist classic. Another classic from the early 20th century, this one written by a man, takes up similar quotidian themes. James Joyce’s Ulysses is not about war or adventure, it’s about two gents who wander around Dublin while one of them gets cuckolded. It would appear the whole focus on “masculine” subject matter is a bit of a non-starter, then as now.

While I’d like to believe that Netzer’s second hypothesis is the correct one, my suspicion is that the truth is closer to her first suggestion. It’s probably the case that there is an unconscious sexism afoot in our literary culture, which props up the work of men at the expense of equally worthy books by their female counterparts. There are female writers working today – Mary Gaitskill, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Alice Munro, A.L. Kennedy, Barbara Gowdy, Monica Ali, A.M. Homes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Lynn Coady spring immediately to mind, all of them writing about different subjects and in wildly different styles – whose work is easily as good as that of their male contemporaries; they deserve greater recognition than they have historically received.

Fuck that with vigour and from a strange direction

November 3, 2009 by · 7 Comments 

It isn’t the readers’ or the writers’ fault that publishing has fallen on its own sword and allowed book shop chains and short-term thinking to eat its heart away. It isn’t our fault that the Net Book Agreement disappeared (although we should have fought harder to keep it). But we are the ones who’ll lose out, who don’t get the variety of books, who don’t find the unlooked-for pleasures or get to share the new dreams. The appetite for them is still out there. With each generation of poor schooling it’ll be diminished – we’ll be less and less able to understand what we don’t have – but, for now, the part of my job which is consistently inspiring involves seeing and feeling the energy of readers, meeting that immense enthusiasm for wonders – in all kinds of people in all kinds of situations – Ilkley, Ely, Toronto … it doesn’t seem to matter where. If that energy and intelligence steps up to the next level of organisation, there could be hope for us. And I need never go on another TV or radio show and find that, however the discussion was described beforehand, what we’re really meant to talk about is how poetry is dead, or the novel is rubbish, or the short story is irrelevant. Fuck that, quite frankly. Really. Fuck that with vigour and from a strange direction. It truly leaves me more than annoyed.

– A.L. Kennedy in the Guardian