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Book Review: The Blue Book

By (March 17, 2013) No Comment

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by A.L. Kennedy

New Harvest, 2013


Scintillating Scottish-born novelist A. L. Kennedy’s 2011 novel The Blue Book (now published in America through Amazon’s New Harvest imprint, although this harvest is explicitly not new) opens with a direct connection between book and reader:

And you’re a reader – clearly – here you are reading your book, which is what it was made for. It loves when you look, wakes when you look, and then it listens and it speaks. It was built to welcome your attention and reciprocate with this: the sound it lifts inside you. It gives you the signs for the shapes of the names of the thoughts in your mouth and in your mind and this is where they sing, here at the point where you both meet.

… eliciting an immediate twofold reaction: pleasure, because that’s English wielded as few modern practitioners can wield it, and something akin to despair, because readers know right away and with leaden certainty that they are in the presence of postmodern metafiction, that swampy morass of authorial egotism in which writers work off their professional ennui by pulling pranks on their audience. Books’ narrators talk about being the narrators of books; the writer, now a self-identified actor in the drama, assembles characters and props with godlike indifference (“now we’ll have a woman appear; her hair is brown – no, red!”); the fourth chapter switches places with the twentieth and announces that fact, and so on.

It’s wearisome even to think about, recalling as it does the worst excesses of some of the most overrated authors of the last century (and recalling also, ironically, some of the most misunderstood and poorly imitated works of great masters such as John Barth or Mario Vargas Llosa), gimmicks instead of storytelling, and great gobs of haughty contempt on hand, should readers (or, God forbid, critics) sigh that their time is being wasted. Observant readers of The Blue Book will start sighing right away when they notice that the page numbers at the bottom of every page don’t always match the page numbers at the top of every page. It’s an unpleasantly jarring reminder that some writers – even such genuinely talented ones as Kennedy – still think that kind of nonsense is interesting or even edgy.

All the more disappointing because there’s an actual novel trying to happen in these misnumbered pages, and the Blue Book – what the Blue Book is in the narrative, nevermind what the reader is holding in his hands, for the love of Mike – plays a significant and fascinating part in it. The novel takes place in that perennially convenient setting, the ship at sea (less convenient – in fact, exploded – in the current cellular age, but Kennedy takes care of that by specifying “this is in the days before Facebook, Twitter, before lives were bent over for better inspection everyfuckingwhere”): young Elizabeth and her fiance Derek are travelling to America, and much to Elizabeth’s chagrin, one of their fellow passengers is Arthur, who was once her partner in a spiritualist scam to bilk gullible audience members into thinking they were communicating with lost loved ones. While Derek is paralyzed with seasickness, Elizabeth is on her own to confront both the present and the past. We break often into the stream of her thoughts:

Well done and by the way I have been with – sounds biblical – another man – Christ, this is giving me a headache – another man – made love with – trying to make love with – another man – I think I’m ill – not unpleasantly ironic if on a boat full of geriatrics I’m the one who ends up having a stroke – no pun intended.

I have no idea what I’m supposed to say – how to explain that Derek is no longer my concern, not at all, that I look at him and get vertigo because he is so far away.

And we learn a good deal immediately from both Arthur and the Blue Book that’s inside the narrative (not the one the reader is holding in his hands, for the love of Mike). The pair’s con artist past is laid out in absorbing (albeit fractured) segments, including one positively bravura passage on the heart of the spiritualist game, the assaying of grief that comes before the exploiting it:

And he’s taken the time to examine them, to be comprehensive and find it – their truth. Because it is there: the grey in their faces, the void in every dawn, the scream in the eyes, the howl, the moment, the one and forever moment, the instant when they heard, felt, knew that the world had left them, had fallen away – these intolerable losses they carry with them, unspeakable. Anyone could see what he does, if they tried – it isn’t hard to notice the humiliation of too great a pain. There’s no hiding the indignity of that.

There’s no bearing the indignity of that.

Indeed, the novel is filled with Kennedy’s signature ice-beautiful prose. For every misfired Barthian stunt, there’s a quietly impressive stretch of simple narrative or description, as when the ship is finally drawing into the Narrows and approaching New York:

They are together, certainly that, arm-in-arm and up on the ship’s highest deck with the early crowds, the handrail-leaners, camera-carriers, the knots and straggles of murmuring shapes. Everyone seems a little stunned and delicate with lack of sleep and the large cold around them which is relatively still, but has a suggestion of merciless places in it nonetheless. Hudson Bay and farther north, the solemnity of fatal wastes.

Such prose provokes only pleasure and gratitude. And then the reader sees that page 174 is followed by page 676 … and other emotions bubble up.