From the Publisher
"Captivating.... Funny, mysterious and so original that it is easy to suspend disbelief."
"A love story that’s highly imaginative and surprisingly poignant...yet amusingly ironic in tone."
The New York Times Book Review
"Kennedy...writes with passion and directness, taking risks that would leave other writers squirming."
San Francisco Chronicle
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.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The mordant--not to say morbid--humor and predilection for cold-bath shock that distinguished Kennedy's first novel published in this country, Original Bliss, mark her even stranger and more ambitious second foray as well. The narrator and protagonist of this story, set in Scotland in 1993, is 35-year-old radio announcer Mercy Jennifer Wilson. She uses the name Jennifer, perhaps because her taste for ruthless, highly choreographed s&m makes Mercy a misnomer. Jennifer wakes up one morning in the house she shares with three roommates--Arthur, a disaffected pastry chef; elusive Liz, ("who has developed being absent into her principal character trait"); and Peter, a do-good crusader to the Balkan states--and meets Martin, the man Peter has found to rent his room while he's in Romania. Or at least she assumes the rumpled, ill-looking man with no memory and a faint electric sheen to his sweat and spit is Martin. As it turns out, however, "Martin" is Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, reincarnated after several hundred years in Purgatory, and Jennifer falls in love with him. There are some inconveniences: Savinien is often weak, always proud, tends to go missing and believes fervently in dueling to the death with anyone who dishonors him. Jennifer's most prominent characteristic, she claims at the outset, is her calmness: "I am not good at emotional payoffs. I am not emotional." She responds with equanimity to the weirdness that has entered her life, and it is her cool account of the wildly improbable that makes this novel so arresting. Kennedy's deadpan irony--her dialogues, in particular, have a noirish sitcom feel--and her beautiful, translucent descriptive passages project a dreamlike aura over what is finally, despite its narrator's protestations, a moving story. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kennedy, a young Scottish author, has crafted a strange, improbable love story, but her strong narrative voice manages to keep the bizarre story line aloft. Although Jennifer, the novel's protagonist, maintains a warmly humorous and insightful running commentary, she claims to be a cold, passionless personality ("calm" she calls it, putting it in the best light). Forced as a child into a voyeur's role by her exhibitionist parents, Jennifer becomes an unwilling dominatrix. One day a ghost-like fellow with a greenish glow materializes in the vacant room of the house she shares with two other housemates who turns out to be Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac reincarnated--no, not the character with the big nose from the play, but the real, historical person. Jennifer finds herself in a sad, cerebral--and yes, physical--romance with a 300-year-old man of honor, who is no more of a misfit in late-20th-century society than is she. A poignant and thought-provoking novel; highly recommended.--Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Oddly engaging . . . A love story that's highly
imaginative and surprisingly poignant, earnest in
message yet amusingly ironic in tone . . . Kennedy
[has a] bold vision and masterly prose.
The New Yorker
Kennedy explores the improbablity of her love with the gravity of a philosopher and the license of a daydreamer.
Read an Excerpt
I don't understand things sometimes. Quite easily, I can become confused by a word or a look or a tiny event and then I just can't help but wonder why my life should happen in one particular way and not another. I always end up asking for answers I can't have.
A small part of this discontent started when I used to go to bed at night. Possibly not every night, but most nights, very many of my nights, would turn into something quite incomprehensible.
You can imagine me, I'm sure, tucked up in the customary way with my eyes closed and my body comfortably slipped between two familiar, peaceful sheets in a quiet and sensible atmosphere of repose. Think of that undistracting time before morning when there are no dogs, no engines, no voices, only an infinite extension of the still and dark and gentle air now dozing above my face. And here I am, ready to drop snug asleep in exactly the perfect place to cash in my day. Only then I don't sleep.
Instead I find I take strange exercise. I am tired and unathletic and I am weary back in to my blood and bone, but I willingly waste the priceless hours next to daybreak in an activity which is neither rest nor sleep.
Not surprised, just disappointed, I discover I am having sex again.
I am a partner, I am one half of a larger, insane thing that flails and twists and flops itself together in ways far too ridiculous for daylight. But these are ways that I recognise, ways that I can't help following once I start. So the bed I spent five minutes making this morning with hospital corners because they appeal to me somehow, and are neat that bed disassembles in moments, builds ridges up under my spine while my pillows fall off and the lights go on.
My head is singing with lack of air and sickening exhaustion is setting up little explosions of white at the backs of both my eyes. And I am still having sex. 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, I persevere in having sex.
And it really makes no sense to me.
I would lie, flattened out at the end of all the necessary minutes, feeling slightly wild but also useless, and I would be sticky and anxious and far too awake and yet all I had ever intended was to be asleep and I would not know what it meant.
Sex. I don't know what it means. I haven't approached it in quite a while, but I'm afraid my lack of understanding has to stay in the present tense. I can only remain bemused when I consider that on a depressingly regular basis I would render myself, and perhaps my companion, insensible with fatigue for no reason I could ever ascertain. Gathering my breath after the onslaught I would long for a bath and a Disprin, insulin, oxygen, a pint or two of evening primrose oil, a sandwich, a small cup of tea, just a nice lie down. I would then be utterly disheartened by the knowledge that all of this longing was happening almost precisely at the point where I would have to get up and start another day, filled with the promise of another night of probably more of the same again.
Not that I object to the activity itself. I can think of countless situations where nothing in particular goes on and ideal opportunities are presented for a quick burst of sex. While waiting for dubiously available medical care, dubiously available public transport, or the results of dubious enquiries into miscarriages of public probity and justice there are so many opportunities, each one panting with erotically vacant time and space. How actively we could thrash out our hours together, if we all of us only knew. We'd have no more need for chewing gum, waiting-room fishtanks, cigarettes, crosswords, public service charters, patience or even draughts. Not when we've all got sex.
Which would in many cases constitute the removal of a great weight from my mind. I would much rather know that my local MP was rolling along the Pet Food and Condiments aisle in a fellow shopper's moist embrace than imagine him or her juggling with breakable ceasefires, exorcising childhood crime and indulging in lighthearted TV panel games. And as sex with other people is now undeniably dangerous, I should welcome the thought that we might all prefer to spend entirely solitary nights in, not leaving ourselves alone.
My mind is open. We all have it in us to be an opium for every conceivable mass.
So in principle, I can honestly see that sex has many uses. In my own case, I'm sad to say that I have found it to be of one use only when I'm having sex, I'm not also expected to speak. This is the one major social transaction I conduct where conversation would be a sign of positive discourtesy.
Oh, a few words now and then are unavoidable, of course. I can remember.
there now later and not (there, now, later)
yes and no did and you and happy?
But that isn't speaking. And I should know because I really didn't like to speak. It made me uneasy to lock up my door at night and know there was someone else home who was supposed to be special for me. They would wash in my bath and sit in my armchair, they would want me to ask things about them and try to find out about me, they would want to see in through my eyes and let me do the same. Although this was very usual, something I heard about all the time, I couldn't bring myself to accept it, couldn't face it repeating the in-house, involuntary third degree for the whole of the rest of my life. So I became an expert in diversion. I quickly discovered how easy it could be to stay intimately active instead of intimate. Sometimes for many months, I could make almost anyone sure I was like them simply by making myself sure I knew what they would like.
Naturally, my position was not ideal. Months and then years burned away without changing what I came to see more and more clearly as an invincible lack of involvement on my part. 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 sought out relationships less and less, rented a room and shared facilities in a square, grey house with three complete strangers for whom I had only the smallest responsibility. I stopped trying to be normal and began to enjoy a small, still life that fitted very snugly around nobody but me. I no longer felt inadequate. And when I went to bed I slept.
I once believed I had an overly practical nature and that my lack of romantic enthusiasm stemmed from that, but now I know I have simply been unable to share in the emotional payoff, to feel the benefits of close company and sex. I am not good at emotional payoffs. I am not emotional.
You should know that about me. You should be aware of my principal characteristic which I choose to call my calmness. Other people have called it coldness, lack of commitment, over-control, a fishy disposition. I say that I'm calm, a calm person, and usually leave it at that, but I feel you should be better informed.
A few things have happened to alter my condition, but it would still be broadly true to say that I am calm. It is assumed that this stems from some kind of self-control or confidence, perhaps a type of faith. I am given credit for the massive exertions I must surely perform to sustain my tranquillity.
But I am quite happy to tell you that what appears to be peace and calmness is, in fact, empty space or, to be more exact, a pause. I am not calm, I am unspontaneous. When something happens to me, I don't know how to feel.
Naturally, I have now lived more than long enough to guess at an appropriate emotion for almost all occasions that arise. Those around me have spent years being furious and chipper, nostalgic, nauseous, glum and all the rest. I know what these things look like and can reproduce them adequately at will. But where someone else will romp immediately off into a chuckle or a gasp, I have to generate a thought, an effort, and any kind of very minor irregularity in my situation may elongate the preparatory pause I need to gather a feeling together until whatever I was going to do becomes irrelevant. I have missed my chance.
This has been less of a problem than you might suppose most people are too bound up with their own emotions to notice any failings in mine. I have, however, given the matter some thought.
Seemingly, most people have whole hordes of feelings, all barrelling round inside them like tireless moles. As little tiny children they release these emotional moles at the slightest excuse. They will pack a room to the ceiling with riotous, tunnelling mammals for no special reason at all. They have moles and they will exercise them, simply because they are there. Children will be gratuitously expressive just because they can.
Then, I have read, these innocent mole containers go out in the world and learn to conserve their moles. They are taught that other people's livestock may be unpleasant and do their little charges harm. A room full of moles can be messy and troublesome, even painful. The world is full of sharp little edges and nasty corners and such factors must encourage a level of reasonable restraint to protect both the moles and their minders.
This means that adults can behave quite calmly and safely with barely a trace of their animal insides showing from day to day. Equally, it only takes a first morning of perfect snow, a rapid descent into love or divorce, an especially manipulative film and the moles are out and rolling all over the carpet. So even if we can't see them, we take it for granted that everyone has moles.
Now, I'm a calm person, you'll remember that. I am safer than safe. This might imply that my moles are perpetually oh so sleepy and far underground. Or perhaps they used to canter about in the usual way, but then they were scared into hiding by some kind of psychological Rentokil.
Almost the first thing I noticed about me when I was very, very young apart from how my hands worked and what tasted nice, those kinds of details almost the first thing I noticed was that I had a certain moley something missing. I will tell you soon about my parents and the original ways they could have, but when I do, you'll already know they played no part in making me how I am. I won't say it wasn't useful to have no particular feelings for them to get hold of. I won't deny I made myself as slippery as I could, but you should know that for most of the years I spent near them, I was faking it. I was ringing up every reaction they might conceivably expect me to be attempting to suppress. In other words, I was pretending that I had anything to hide.
As I write this, I can see extremely clearly that nothing terribly bad has ever happened to me. I can't recall a single moment of damage that could have turned me out to be who I am today. I can dig down as deep as there is to dig inside me and there truly is nothing there, not a squeak. For no good reason, no reason at all, I am empty. I don't have any moles.