The friend who turned me on to A.L. Kennedy's fiction, a dedicated
loner and a lover of the oddball, had cleared a space on her shelf
between volumes on forensic science and Diane Arbus for the Scottish
author's "Original Bliss." Now, Kennedy's 1995 novel "So I Am Glad"
is seeing U.S. publication, and we are treated to another of
Kennedy's funny, sad, fantastical stories: a romance between an
isolated, emotionally crippled radio announcer and her eloquent
roommate who may be the ghost of Cyrano de Bergerac.
You hand yourself over to "So I Am Glad" with very little resistance,
drawn in by M. Jennifer Wilson, the radio announcer who narrates her
story in a vivid, singular voice. Jennifer is comically antisocial.
"Friends are not so difficult to make," she says; "it took a good
deal of work to escape having even one." She tells us that she has no
emotions -- "moles," she calls them. Instead, she has a calmness that
blocks out what churns below. When she recalls being "caught in sex"
in the early morning hours, she describes herself as "like an
inadvertent Irish dancer tied up in a hot canvas sack, like a mad
traffic policeman tangoing through ink, like a killer whale fighting
to open an envelope." She has a body and a mind, but lacks some
essential connecting fibers between the two.
How did she get this way? Jennifer grew up with the kind of parents
who were "not of the kind ... to slip me the type of tidy fable I
would hear more distant adults or schoolteachers palming off on
children or even each other." The pair had sex right in front of her,
and she shut down: "Like manholes and poison bottles I was made to be
self-locking and I could no longer be bothered pretending I might
have a key ... I stopped trying to be normal and began to enjoy a
small, still life that fitted very snugly around nobody but me."
The agent of Jennifer's transformation is a roommate who appears one
day, without a memory. He looks like "a small man with the air of a
prize fighter turned poetic, or a dancing butcher." He remembers his
name -- Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac -- and recollects his fame: "I
needed to be famous to live, simply to fill up the space that any
normal man would take as his right. I needed to be mistaken for
something more than what I was, for fear of disappearing." As much
of a lover as the Cyrano we know from Rostand, Savinien argues for
the existence of a "point," a moment when two human beings are one,
"the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the man who
bleeds and the man who makes him." Jennifer has trouble tolerating
such possibilities of connection: "Pain and depression I found
unpleasant but you must understand that what made them unendurable
was hope. That tension between my situation and my hopes for the
better ... can eventually only do what tension does, it causes splits
and tears, a degree of loss. ... And when the hoped-for future
finally appears, I would rather not see what it brings because hope
has already robbed it, mortgaged it to the bone. ... But I believed
him." The moles begin to stir within M. Jennifer Wilson. For the rest of the novel, she develops like a plant in a time-lapse video.
Kennedy takes careful measure of just how much the imagination gives to ordinary life. She drinks from the same romantic well as the Scottish pop band Belle and Sebastian. "So I Am Glad" is, in a sense, a fable for adults, yet it's Kennedy's treatment of unease and isolation that is most convincing. Much of her best writing occurs outside of the love
story, in Jennifer's lengthy asides and flashbacks. Kennedy gets fired up by the lacunae and margins of life, where she points out the unexpected beauty to be found in the grotesques hiding there.