Here at Bookmunch Towers, we’ve always held ourselves slightly at one remove from AL Kennedy. We know that she’s celebrated. One of those Granta under 30 authors. Twice no less. Celebrated literary sort and stand-up comedian. Whenever Kennedy’s books have dropped on the doormat, we’ve farmed them out. Check out the previous reviews – What Becomes, Serious Sweet, The Little Snake, The Blue Book, On Writing – all written by our illustrious contributors. We’ve had an idea of Kennedy in our mind, that she would be difficult, or precious, or literary (by which I suppose I mean that her fictions would elegantly twist in stylish prose without a whole lot of anything actually happening). We say this because we were wrong. We had a hang up. We admit it. We suck.
The Little Snake was the book that did it. It sat on the shelf a wee while (much like a little snake would, we suppose) before catching our eye, the cover glinting, the size of the book being such that we knew we could read it in a day. And it charmed us. It beguiled us. We lapped it up and we recommended it and we bought it, as a gift, for others. But our former preconceptions ran deep. Like tree roots about our soft and gooey innards. The Little Snake was, as its title suggested, little. Suppose the little fable was a frippery, a sugar snack, a cosmetic comestible? And then we spied We Are Attempting to Survive Our Time. As titles go, it shares the big prize for most timely title with Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse. (If you’re reading this aeons in the future we write still in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown.) But – full disclosure – there was a little toing and froing. Yes, the title is a cracker. But it’s AL Kennedy. She’s a writer who I don’t expect to like. Even though I’ve read one of her books now and I liked it. If I read a second book, I’ll have to utterly dismantle all of my long-held ridiculous and baseless notions. No man likes to do that.
You might be reading this and thinking, Jesus, who gives an actual F what journey you took, you ridiculous man, tell us whether the book was any good or not! I’d ask for your forbearance. There is a point to this. We started reading – We Are Attempting to Survive Our Time is a collection of short stories – wanting to dislike the book. Just because that would be easier. We’d have been able to tell ourselves we’d been right all along. Rather than wrong all along. Nobody wants to know they’ve been wrong all along. And, for a time, we held on to it. ‘Panic Attack’, the first story, is a sort of #metoo tale from the perspective of a nervous man that features a back and forth between what you might call regular writing and italicised writing, a sort of literary stichomythia not unlike a comedic routine in which the comedian talks to themselves (think Stewart Lee when he does his mum saying, “Yes Stew, Tom O’Connor is the best comedian in the world’). We didn’t entirely get along with it and the chalk tally in our heads gleefully put a 1 in the dislike column. Similarly, ‘Everybody’s Pleased To See You’: which felt like the kind of story you might commission for a collection called Forgotten London, about hideaways and hangouts that were once the centre of a particular world and are now gone and all but forgotten. It’s not a bad story, it’s just somewhat arch and a little pleased with itself. (The chalk tally gets a second strike but it isn’t quite as surefooted as the first.) ‘Walker’ is story three: like ‘Panic Attack’, Kennedy employs the italic/non italic back and forth for a story that has a whiff of On Chesil Beach about it. And yet by its close something ineffable is starting to happen. She’s working her magic on me. “At this moment she is on the beach and she is a walker. At this moment it’s all she has to be.” I feel struck by a feeling similar to that engendered by the recent Richard Ford book, Sorry For Your Trouble.
But no. I shake my head. I’m nothing if not stubborn. I’m not even a quarter of the way through the book yet. Hold fast, man. Hold fast. I double down on my grumpiness. In a sort of Rick Mayall voice in my head, I say, you’ll have to get up pret-ty early in the morning if you think you’re going to win me over, AL Kennedy. ‘Waiting in the Jesus Queue’ employs the old italic/non italic back and forth again for a tale that recalls King of Comedy if Louis CK was Rupert Pupkin. Weirdly, despite being probably my least favourite story in the book, this is the turning point. She has me. She fucking has me. I’m sunk. From here on in, every story is a smasher. It’s like being pummelled if you knew you deserved to be pummelled. ‘Unanswered’ is a wartime story – itself one of my least favourite things – but the fucker thrums with contemporary resonance. Choke on this:
“Of course I don’t believe in Paradise and we didn’t build one here. Everyone stopped trying. I wish we’d done better. Battle on for Paradise and you won’t get there, but wherever you are, it’ll be good. Dad used to say that and mum would agree.”
The stories start to feel like a conversation about our time, each story a different glimpse, comment, aside. There are even times, during ‘Inappropriate Staring’, a terrific story about people in a zoo dealing with local prejudices, it starts to feel like Kennedy has already read this review and fashioned the story to provoke me. But there isn’t any way she could do that is there? She couldn’t read my mind could she? She’s not that good, is she? (And forgive me, I’m working really hard to NOT write an italicised response. I will not write an italicised response. I will not.)
“Presumably, in a personal taxonomy where species status slips so easily, he must have to work very hard and then even harder to justify his own position. He mustn’t like the wrong music, must never enjoy the wrong food, mustn’t smile out at streets as he walks in case he blesses the wrong face with his approval and gets tainted. He must work so hard to avoid factual information: history, geography, biology, anthropology, love.”
I’m humbled. But she continues. This is ‘It Might Be Easier to Fail’:
“I meet people like that all of the time now, they’re inside a personal war they’ve declared against people they’ve never met, ideas they can’t get the hang of, facts that hurt their feelings.”
It’s powerful stuff. There are stories of refugees, people fleeing war, discovering peace of sorts. Stories of would be political assassination. Stories of homelessness. Stories of assault, told as if it’s a podcast. Stories of racial disquiet (‘Spider’, one of the standout tales from the book). Kennedy is a writer who, we sense, pays attention to the world around her, twitching like an edgy transmitter. You get the sense, as you read, that if you are of a certain political persuasion (the right political persuasion), you will take her point of view to your heart because she cares a great deal about injustice and bad feeling.
“You can’t do terrible things and not be punished. I’m saying that, writing that, thinking that, because saying and writing and thinking are always the start of a thing becoming true out in the world. You build the start of every alteration out of words. Whatever you do, good or bad, you’ll have thought it first, named it first.”
Yes, there is a downside:
“…it seems that I have lived my way into an age when almost everything good is ending. That’s sad for lemurs and the ibises in the same way it is sad for us.”
But, in the final (title) story, we get a brief glimpse of hope, related via the message left within a satellite and flung out into the deeper reaches of space:
“To let outer space understand us, the satellite carried along information: birdsong and thunder and measurements and music and a message in languages. I’ve always remembered that part of the message said, We are attempting to survive our time. This seemed, to me, very brave and frail and hopeful.”
The same could be said for AL Kennedy and this book – it’s various messages are very brave and frail and hopeful. If you’re looking to survive your time, you could do a lot worse than cling to these stories.
Any Cop?: We were resoundingly wrong about AL Kennedy and we’re thrilled to shout that from the rooftops. And the great pleasure of being wrong is that we now have a whole bunch of AL Kennedy’s earlier books to work through. Lucky us!