“If you’ve read Kennedy before… you’ll know what you’re in for ” – Serious Sweet by AL Kennedy
Kennedy’s latest novel is a hefty beast (five hundred pages and counting), but the central conceit is simple: will this man and that woman get their respective lives in order enough to pull their budding relationship together? They’ve got twenty-four hours to make it happen. Cue dramatic music…
There’s a bit more to it that that, of course. The woman, Meg, is celebrating her one-year anniversary of sobriety (though ‘celebrating’ is something of a misnomer, as she spends part of the day at the gynecologist’s getting a post-op check-up and most of the rest waiting around for her not-quite-a-boyfriend to sort out dinner plans), so there’s a certain amount of tension around the likelihood or otherwise of her falling off the wagon. Then, Jon, the male protagonist, a civil servant, is trying to negotiate a bunch of work meetings with colleagues who (correctly) suspect him of leaking information to the press, while also trying to comfort his adult daughter, who’s split up with her waste-of-space partner, and with all this getting in his way, he has to keep postponing his date with Meg. The pair met originally because Jon, in the guise of his alter ego, Corrwyn August, has been, for a small fee, writing sensitive, affectionate letters to women he’s never met. However, Meg, one of those women, did in fact engineer a meeting with him, because she fell in love with the letter-writer, and as it turns out, Jon had fallen in love too. Actual dating, though, hasn’t quite taken off for them, because they each have an unholy amount of secrets and intimacy issues, and they’ve only managed to go on a couple of coffee dates and a single day-trip. So while they’re both longing for a ‘serious sweet’ connection, they’re massively on edge, which means that if this particular date doesn’t happen or goes wrong, the whole affair is doomed – along with, it’s implied, the likelihood of either of them ever trying to meet anyone else ever again.
The twenty-four hour framework is book’s structuring device – the sections are given time-stamps and the narrative switches between the two so we get a patchwork impression of their respective days. This isn’t, of course, a unique innovation – there’s Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway, for a start, and (less brilliantly) McEwan’s Saturday, never mind 24 for the more visually-inclined. It’s a good technique as far as dramatic unity is concerned, and it gives the text a built-in tension. But all the same, as far as we’re concerned, two main things worked against it here. One: sure, the day is significant for Meg, because it’s her AA sobriety marker, but its significance for Jon is a lot shakier. Okay, he’s railroaded by his colleagues and the press into finally making the biggest leak of his unimpressive career, which means he’ll end up quitting his job – but what’s actually at stake? He dislikes his job to a very large extent, he hates his government and he’s spent ages trying to crack it open via leaks anyway. Neither is he overly bothered by the potential media attention or legal issues were he to be revealed as the source, and he was planning to leak this particular info for ages – in fact, he divulges it pretty willingly. So the ticking clock has no inherent tension or danger for Jon, other than the potential loss of Meg, but this isn’t presented as a huge deal for him until very late on. All of which means that the very deliberate way the book is structured doesn’t, for half of it, at least, have much impact. Two: very large swathes of the book are involved with long recollections of events the previous day, or earlier the same day, or months, or even years previously, with very little actually happening in the present moment other than mundane detail about the characters’ workdays and their anxious thoughts about their clothes, their pasts and meetings yet to come. So the very present-focused structure of the book seems to fight against the actual contents. It’s not that flashbacks are a problem – hey, they worked for Woolf – but there’s got to be something in the day itself to keep us invested in the timeline of the book’s ‘now’. In this case, that ought to be the will-they/won’t-they aspect of Meg and Jon’s relationship – but in fact the link between them isn’t even made until relatively late on, and the notion that everything will founder irrevocably for them both if this meeting doesn’t happen doesn’t really take hold until the final hundred pages. (It’s not even their first date, so why this is the crunch-point at all is never totally established.) Moreover, the biggest obstacle to their happy ending, which isn’t the cancelled dates, but Jon’s self-loathing and his massive difficulties with physical intimacy, isn’t brought to the surface until the very end. Which brings us to…
The interesting thing about this book is the way Kennedy sets about exploring the complexity of human intimacy – the vulnerabilities and fragilities that it reveals, causes, and potentially helps to heal. But while she spends over four hundred pages laying the groundwork for the meeting of these two fragile individuals, she rushes right over the consequences of that meeting. John’s implosion, when faced with the actual reality of sex with Meg, is catastrophic and fascinating – but it’s almost brushed over, and the book ends a mere handful of pages later. We’re not in the business of telling writers what they ought to have written, but in this case it feels like Kennedy could have given us a lot more aftermath and a lot less build-up, and we’d have had a really compelling account of the problems masked by the apparently happy, and at least optimistic, ending.
Stylistically, if you’ve read Kennedy before, and particularly her later works, you’ll know what you’re in for – think exhaustive transcriptions of thought-processes, plenty of italicized flashbacks, a lot of equivocation in interior monologue. You know when writing tutors point out the difference between dialogue and real speech? Well, Kennedy doesn’t really hold with that dichotomy, so if meandering lines like, ‘What? Oh… I thought… Okay. Oh. Oh… I haven’t. Have I…? Hold on. I don’t. No. Oh,’ annoy you, you’re better off elsewhere. Still, this is part of what makes her interesting: her work is all about getting stuck into something that’s approximating actual human speech and thought rather than polishing up a snappier, wittier version to entertain the masses. And in a book that’s about intimacy, she does a great job at portraying the excruciating reality of awkward conversations by playing them out pretty much in real time so that we agonize right alongside Meg and Jon as they try to make good impressions. Again, though, it’s not entirely consistent – Meg’s very long and rather literary account to Jon about her hospital appointment, for instance, doesn’t ring true as actual speech, any more than do Jon’s political diatribes, accurate though they might be. And when the speech does ring true, it’s also somewhat repetitive – which makes you long either for the artificiality of more typical dialogue, or for the more palatable length of the short story. After all, Kennedy’s short stories try for the same effect, and in many instances (see ‘This Man’, in her collection All The Rage) manage it better because the reader isn’t given the opportunity to mutter, ‘yeah, yeah, I get it’, and skip forward.
As a novel, then, it demands a considerable amount of patience and faith from the reader, and we’re not convinced that such patience and faith is sufficiently rewarded, because we think, despite the length, that it ends too soon. Thematically, however, it’s complex and fascinating – the notion of intimacy is extended to the relationship of the politician to the electorate, humans to animals, parents to children, husband to wife, to the difference between phone-call and text, and email and letter; the book deals, albeit tangentially, with domestic abuse and child abuse, and is in many ways about trauma and (the possibility of) survival. We’ve got to applaud Kennedy for taking it all on, even if we’re not sure she pulls it all off.
Any Cop?: If you like Kennedy’s style, you’ll probably get a lot out of it, despite our criticisms above. If you’ve tried her work already and you’re not keen, this won’t change your mind. If, though, you’ve not read her previously, we’d suggest you give a couple of her short stories a whirl first to see how you get along.
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- October 10, 2016 / 9:00 am