A particularly bleak episode in A. L. Kennedy's 1997 volume, Original Bliss, imagines an astronaut drifting from his shuttle, tempted to perish in outer space. What Becomes -- the mordant, meditative latest collection by the Scottish writer and stand-up comic -- takes place on an often otherworldly Earth. One character spends her entire story in a therapeutic flotation device; another lingers in a deserted cinema, watching a movie play soundlessly. Studies of alien landscapes both physical and psychological, these tales imprison people in their own minds: like Kennedy's astronaut, her latest characters are almost fatally disconnected.
When they do attempt to relate to one another, they tend to come off as robots harboring half-hearted social aspirations. "It was sometimes good to make a conversation, join in," a man observes in "Vanish." And sometimes not. One of Kennedy's most stirring stories, "Marriage," describes the horrors of joining: its protagonist abuses his wife. Rather than open themselves to others, Kennedy characters -- like the tormented souls of Dostoevsky -- frequently teem with unspoken soliloquies. Enclosed in the husband's head, we experience "Marriage" as a terrifying trap -- just as his wife, perhaps, experiences wedlock.
He recalls an incident that prompted him to hit her: "She was there in his home, in his room, in his bed in his dark and supposed to be his love -- the feel of her smile, he was trying for that, his mouth idiotic with trying to find out that, with expecting her to be alive for him -- but she turned away." That repeated "his" suggests he wants not merely to connect with her, but also to own her, to absorb her into himself. And yet his feelings -- his desire for her to come alive, his lurch as she distances herself -- also seem rather natural. The sharpest moments of What Becomes permit the normal to bleed into the pathological, the casual into the criminal. The husband goes on:
Just the once.
The noise of it.
Like a shot.
Came after that.
Back in her and came.
Like a shot.
Which is why she had to be so awkward about today.
He shares his memory in short lines that strike quick and hard, and so revels in reliving that he echoes his own phrases. "Like a shot," he says twice -- highlighting the conflation of love and violence, touching and hurting, that haunts many of the stories in What Becomes. A frighteningly nonchalant analysis grounds this column of prose, a summary appropriate to everyday injury. And her injury is everyday -- he beats her regularly -- which is why it's also remarkable. His wife spends most of the story several feet away from him: "Marriage" literalizes, and justifies, our distances from each other.
For all their incapacity to connect, many of Kennedy's characters seem like-minded, painted from the same palette of tones -- neurotic, sardonic, introspective. (One imagines they might enjoy group therapy together.) And for all the book's interest in strangeness, it sometimes recreates typical -- even stereotypical -- situations. As a whole, the collection presents a spectrum of neurosis most compelling at its extremes: the playfulness of "Story of My Life," for example, provides welcome counterweight to the despair of "Marriage."
The abused wife's bruised cheek is only a single injury among many in What Becomes. Another character draws blood during overeager sexual experimentation, and several slice their thumbs. One of the latter -- tormented by events Kennedy never specifies -- observes the blood dripping from his hand, and sees "patterns complicating patterns… telling the story of someone standing, wounded." The complications of our patterns, the variety and plenitude of our wounds -- these are the subjects of Kennedy's own stories, whether they unfold in outer space or in our devastated inner cosmos.
Read an Excerpt
The cinema was tiny: twelve rows deep from the blacked-out wall and the shadowed doorway down to the empty screen, which had started to bother him now, a kind of hanging absence.
How did they make any money with a place this small? Even if it was packed?
Which it wasn’t. Quite the reverse. There was, in fact, no one else here. Boy at the door had to turn the lights on just for him, Frank feeling bad about this, thinking he shouldn’t insist on seeing a film all by himself and might as well go to the bigger space they kept upstairs which had a balcony and quite probably leg room and would be more in the way of a theatre and professional. In half an hour they’d be showing a comedy up there.
Or he could drive to a multiscreen effort: there’d been one in the last big town as he came round the coast—huge glass and metal tower, looked like a part of an airport: they’d have an audience, they’d have audiences to spare.
Although that was a guess and maybe the multiplex was empty, too. The bar, the stalls that sold reconstituted food, the toilets, the passageways, perhaps they were all deserted. Frank hoped so.
And he’d said nothing here as he’d taken back his torn stub and walked through the doorway, hadn’t apologised or shown uncertainty. He’d only stepped inside what seemed a quietly watchful space as the younger man drifted away and left him to it.
Four seats across and then the aisle and then another four and that was it. The room wasn’t much broader than his lounge and it put Frank in mind of a bus, some kind of wide, slow vehicle, sliding off towards destinations it left undisclosed.
He didn’t choose a seat immediately, wandering a little, liking the solitude, a whole cinema of his own—the kind of thing a child might imagine, might enjoy. He believed he would move around later if no one else appeared, run amok just a touch and leave his phone turned on so he could answer it if anybody called.
Then behind him there came a grumble of male conversation, a blurry complaint about the cold and then a burst of laughter and the noise of feet—heavy steps approaching and a softer type of scuffling that faded to silence. Frank was willing to be certain that Softer-foot was the kid from the door: lax posture and dirty Converse All Stars with uneven wear—product of a careless home, an unsupportive environment—probably he’d padded in behind Frank again for some reason and then headed out to the foyer—that’s how it sounded, but you never could tell.
At least one person was still there, still loitering, and for a moment this was almost unnerving. Frank being alone in a cinema, that was all right—alone in a muddle of people in a cinema, that was all right—just yourself and one other, two others, strangers at your back as the lights dim and the soundtrack starts to drown out everything—that might not be good. Silly to think that way, but he did.
For a moment.
Then he focused on being irritated, his nice privacy broken when it had extended so very far by now, right up to the black walls that melted when you studied them, disappeared down into the black carpet and left you adrift with nothing but the dull red shine of the seats and a sense of your skin, your movement, fidgets of life.
It was fine, though. Nobody joined him. The heavy steps withdrew, closed themselves up, Frank guessed, inside the projectionist’s box, accompanied by a ruminative laugh. After that a regular, clattering slap started up and he supposed this to be the sound of loose film at the end of a reel, but he couldn’t imagine why it was simply rattling round again and again.
He waited, the clatter persisting, his feet and fingers beginning to chill. One punter, apparently, didn’t merit heating. Even if it wasn’t logical to assume he’d be impervious.
He was still human and still here.
Little vents near the ceiling breathed and whispered occasionally, but that would be the wind outside disturbing them. The night was already roaring out there and set to turn worse, rain loping over the pavements, driven thick, and a bitterness underlying it that ached your teeth, your thinking. Warmth had drained from his shins where his trousers were soaked and the coat he was huddled into was only a fraction less damp.
Frank put on his hat.
The rattle of unattached film continued. And he believed he’d heard a chuckle, then a cough. Frank concentrated on his head which felt marginally warmer, because of the hat. Good hat: flat cap, proper tweed and not inexpensive. A man should have a hat, in his opinion. Beyond a certain age it will suit him and give him weight, become a welcome addition to his face, almost a trademark. People will look at his hat as it hangs on the back of a chair, or a coat hook, or rests on the edge of his desk and they will involuntarily assume—Frank’s here, then. That’s his hat. Frank’s old, familiar hat. Through time, there will be a small transfer of emotion and people who are fond of him will also like his hat, will see something in it: the mark of his atmosphere, his style: and they’ll be pleased.
His own transfers were largely negative. For example, he truly detested his travelling bag. This evening it would be waiting inside his hotel room, crouching by his bed like the guard dog in an unfamiliar house. It always was by his bed, no matter where he was sleeping, neatly packed for when he’d have to leave, fill it with his time and carry it the way he’d enjoy being carried, being lifted over every obstacle.
Never thought he would use it on his own account—the bag. Never thought he’d steal his days from everyone and run away.
Not his fault. He didn’t want this. She forced his hand.
He’d been in the kitchen, preparing soup. Each Friday he’d make them both a big vegetable soup: beans, leaves, potatoes, celery, lentils, tomatoes, bits of pasta, seasonal additions, the best of whatever he found available. Every week it would be slightly different—less cabbage, some butternut squash, more tamarind paste—but the soup itself would be a steady feature. If he was at home that evening he would cook. It would be for her. It would be what he quietly thought of as an offering—here I am and this is from me and a proof of me and a sign of reliable love. She could open some wine, maybe, and watch him slice: the way he rocked the knife, setting a comfy rhythm, and then the onions and garlic would go on the heat to soften and the whole house would start to smell domestic and comforting and he would smile at her, tuck his ingredients into the pan, all stripped and diced, and add good stock.
He’d been in the kitchen, slicing, no one to watch. French knives, he had, sharp ones, well balanced, strong, a pleasure to work with, and she’d been late home so he’d started off without her. The blade had slipped. With squash you’ve got to be careful because it’s always tough and can deflect you, slide you into an accident. But he hadn’t been paying attention and so he’d got what he deserved.
He’d been in the kitchen alone. Funny how he didn’t feel the pain until he saw the wound. Proximal phalanx, left ring finger, a gash that almost woke the bone. Blood.
He’d been in the kitchen and raised his hand, had made observations, considered his blood. It ran quickly to his wrist, gathered and then fell to the quarry tiles below, left large, symmetrically rounded drops indicative of low velocity and a perpendicular descent, and haloing every drop was a tiny flare of threads, of starring. The tiles were fairly smooth, but still confused his fluid into throwing out fine liquid spines. Glass would be better, holding his finger close over glass might give him perfect little circles: the blood, as it must, forming spheres when it left him and the width of each drop on impact being equal to each sphere’s diameter. You could count on that.
He’d been in the kitchen, being with the blood. He’d allowed the drops to concentrate at his feet, to pool and spatter, patterns complicating patterns, beginning to look like an almost significant loss. Twenty drops or so for every millilitre and telling the story of someone standing, wounded, but not too severely and neither struggling nor in flight.
He’d been in the kitchen and laid his own trail to the French windows. Tiny splashes hazed a power point in the skirting board, dirtying its little plastic cover—white, the kind of thing you fit to stop a child from putting its fingers where they shouldn’t be. No reason for the cover, of course, their household didn’t need it—protection from a hazard they couldn’t conjure, an impossibility.
He’d been in the kitchen marking the reflections with his blood. Then he’d paused for a few millilitres before he needed to swipe his whole arm back and forth in mid-air, blood hitting the dark glass of the doors in punctuated curves, the drops legging down before they dried, being distorted by motion, direction, gravity. He’d pumped his fist, then tried to cup his hand, catch some of his flow, then cast it off again, drive it over his ghost face and the night-time garden outside, the dim layers of wind-rocked shrubs, the scatter of drizzle, thinner and less interesting than blood. He’d thrown overarm, underarm, tried to get a kick out of his wrist until the hurt in his hand felt anxious, abused. Then he’d rubbed his knuckles wetly across his forehead before cradling them with his other palm, while his physiology performed as could be predicted, increased heart rate jerking out his loss, building up his body of evidence. Read the blood here and you’d see perhaps a blade that rose and fell, or the clash of victim and attacker: blows and fear and outrage, shock.
He’d been in the kitchen and she had come in. Never even heard her unlock the front door, nor any of the usual small combinations of noise as she dropped her bag and shed her coat, made her way along the corridor and then stood. He’d only noticed her when she spoke.
“Jesus Christ, Frank. What have you done. What the fuck are you doing.”
He’d turned to her and smiled, because he was glad to see her. “I’m sorry, the soup’s not ready. It’ll be . . .” He’d glanced at the clock and calculated, so that she’d know how to plan her time—she might want a bath before they ate. “It’ll be about nine. Would you like a drink?” He could feel a distraction, a moisture somewhere near his right eyebrow.
“What the fuck are you doing.”
He’d smiled again, which meant that he might have seemed sad for the second or two before, “I know, but nine isn’t too late.” He needed to apologise and uncover how she was feeling—that would help their evening go well. Time spent paying attention to people is never wasted. “Unless you’re really hungry. Are you really hungry?” Her hair had been ruffled, was perhaps damp—some intervention of bad weather between her leaving the car and reaching their doorstep had disturbed it. Skin paler than normal but with strong colour at her cheeks, as if she was cold. Her suit was the chocolatey one with this metallic-blue blouse, a combination which always struck him as odd but very lovely, “You look tired.” It was the fit of the suit. So snug. It lay just where your hands would want to. “Would you like a bath? There’ll be time. Once it’s ready, it doesn’t spoil.” She’d kept her figure: was possibly even slimmer, brighter than when they’d first met. “I got some organic celeriac, which was lucky.” He seemed slightly breathless for some reason and heavy in his arms.
“What if I’d brought someone back with me. What if they’d seen . . . you.”
“I didn’t . . .” and this was when he’d remembered that his finger was really currently giving him grief, extremely painful. He’d felt confused. “I didn’t think you were bringing anyone.”
At which point she’d lifted up a small pot of thyme he kept growing near the sink and had thrown it towards his head and he’d bobbed down out of the way so it had broken against a wall behind him and then hit the tiles and broken again. Peat and brownish ceramic fragments were distributed more widely than you might think and the plant lay near his feet, roots showing from a knot of earth as if it were signalling distress. Thyme was quite hardy, though, he thought it would weather the upset and come through fine in the end.
“It’s all right. I’ll get it.” Frank wondering whether the pan and brush was in the storm porch or the cupboard underneath the stairs. “It’ll be fine.” He couldn’t think where he’d seen them last.
“It’s not all right. It won’t be fine.” And she walked towards him, sometimes treading on his track, her shoes taking his bloodstains, repeating them until she stopped where she was close enough to reach up with her hand and brush his forehead, his left cheek, his lips. This meant his blood was on her fingers, Frank softly aware of this while she met his eyes, kept them in the way she used to when he’d just arrived back from a trip, a job—this was how she’d peered in at him then, seemed to be checking his mind, making sure he was still the man he’d been before.
After the look she’d slapped him. Fast. Both sides of his jaw. “It’s not all right.” Leaving and going upstairs. He didn’t follow because he was distracted and he shook his head and ran his tongue along against his teeth and felt he might have to accept that he no longer was the man he’d been before.
Not that he’d been anybody special.
And this evening he was apparently even less: the sort of man who’d sit in a cinema but never be shown a film.
The projection box had quietened, the rattling stilled. There had been a few ill-defined thumps a while ago and then silence and the sensation of being watched. Frank was quite sure the projectionist had decided not to bother with the movie and was waiting for Frank to give up and go away.
But that wouldn’t happen. Frank was going to get what he wanted and had paid for. Overhead, deep mumbles of amplified sound were leeching through the ceiling, so the other feature had begun. Still, he suspected that no one was watching upstairs, either—he’d not heard a soul in the foyer.
Half an hour, though—if the comedy had started, that meant he’d been stuck here for half an hour.
He removed his hat and then settled it back on again.
Being left for half an hour was disrespectful, irritating. Any longer and he would be justified in growing angry and then making his displeasure felt.
He coughed. He kicked one foot up onto the back of the chair in front, followed it with the other, crossed his legs at the ankle. He burrowed his shoulders deeper into the back of the seat. This was intended to suggest that he was fixed, in no hurry, willing to give matters all the time they’d take. The next step would involve conflict, tempers, variables it was difficult and unpleasant to predict.
From the Hardcover edition.