Original Bliss

Sylvia Brownrigg reviews 'Original Bliss' by A.L. Kennedy


Sylvia Brownrigg
January 15, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

"I am a person who has no faith. I'm over. That's that," announces Mrs.
Brindle of Glasgow to cybernetics professor Edward E. Gluck. The two are
the central characters in the funny, affecting new novel by acclaimed
Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy. Mrs. Brindle's God has abandoned her for no
reason, and the loss has left her distraught, up nights watching
educational television in order to distract herself from the empty night --
and from the sinister, violent attentions of Mr. Brindle.

It is on television that Mrs. Brindle first sees Gluck, chatting
in a friendly way about masturbation and a form of EST-like personal
improvement called the Process. Struck by his theories, Mrs. Brindle
travels to Stuttgart to waylay him at a conference and seek his help. Gluck
offers her a few lines of self-help wisdom, and that might have been that,
if it weren't for the odd spark that lights between these two stray souls,
who find in each other someone who recognizes the experience of being
"numb; absent but functioning."

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It is only after Mrs. Brindle -- Helen, eventually -- comes to trust Edward
as a spiritual friend that she learns the distressing source of the
professor's numbness: He is severely addicted to hardcore pornography.
Though it fills him with self-disgust, he has to interrupt his busy lecture
schedule frequently to jerk off to violent videos and magazines. His
confession of this to Helen horrifies her, and she returns to Glasgow from
their chaste Stuttgart encounters determined to remain faithful to the
terrible Mr. Brindle, who not only hits her but also mocks her for her
questions of faith.

How Edward and Helen lead each other out of their differently painful
plights forms the narrative of this risky, moving fiction. Helen is wary of
her feelings for Edward, realizing "that damaged people often sought each
other out and fell in love with their mutual diseases, to the detriment or
destruction of their hopes and personalities." From early on, however, the
reader has faith that Edward and Helen are meant for each other; if there's
a weakness to the novel, it's that this conviction comes perhaps too
easily, and that Edward's transition from porn addict to gentle, patient
savior has an improbable glow about it.

But these are small qualms about a book that is alive with an edgy,
original language and dark comedy. ("Changing guards and ravens and the
homelessly mad -- that was the capital," is Helen's summary of a brief
spell she spends in London.) Kennedy has a beautiful way with the lonely
and the bereft, and a keen sense of the pleasurable strangenesses of
sexuality. She writes with a vivid synesthesia: The whites of Edward's eyes
"blare loudly"; Helen experiences "a pale, metallic sensation in her
limbs." Kennedy's rare gifts have been evident in her four earlier
prize-winning fictions, and her publication in the United States is long overdue.
Along with her peers Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, she is part of a group
of writers who suggest that Scotland is, these days, home of the literary
brave.


Sylvia Brownrigg

Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of a novel, "The Metaphysical Touch," and of a short-story collection, "Ten Women Who Shook the World," that will be published later this year.She is a frequent contributor to Salon Books.

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