What Becomes

Stories

by A.L. Kennedy

What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy X
What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2010, 224 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2011, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Marnie Colton
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BookBrowse Review

A short story collection from the winner of the 2007 Costa Book Award

Towards the end of the title story in this bleak yet bracing collection, a man delivers a haunting interior monologue about how people cope, or fail to cope, with loss: "Our town is full of people running back and forth in torn days and every other town is like that, too. Our world is thick with it, clotted in patterns and patterns of grief." In the remaining eleven stories, A.L. Kennedy goes on to depict such towns, such characters, all dealing in their own complex and eccentric ways with despair, longing, and the occasional glimpses of love that enter their lives. To the author's fans, none of this will come as a surprise, but the short story format does provide a more palatable way of absorbing Kennedy's pitiless worldview than do her novels, which can become nearly overbearing in their focus on human frailty and breakage.

Kennedy's trademark fascination with violence, both physical and psychological, animates these stories in alternately bold and subtle guises: the literal bloodshed in "What Becomes" and "Story of My Life" complements the romantic heartbreak in "Edinburgh" and "Sympathy." The violence that couples perpetrate against each other ("Confectioner's Gold", "Marriage") as well as the violence that families inflict on children ("Wasps," "Saturday Teatime") form the core of Kennedy's belief that "love and pain are the same thing" and that "people seek their happiness. Even if they're masochistic, when they find their perfect pain, it should make them happy" (the ironically happy titles of several of Kennedy's novels - Paradise, Original Bliss, So I Am Glad - reinforce this stance).

In What Becomes, Kennedy also explores the fine line between pity and empathy, especially the discomfort that her characters feel when they end up on the wrong side of that line. Tom, the down-on-his-luck husband in "Confectioner's Gold," muses on the condition of the blind: "I end up feeling sorry for them, and I'm not supposed to; I'm supposed to feel empathy not sympathy..." Later in the story, he breaks down in tears at a fancy restaurant, then worries that the waitress will pity him instead of empathizing with him. Likewise, the physically handicapped war veterans in "As God Made Us" fight to keep their dignity when an elementary school teacher chastises them for allegedly scaring her charges on their outing to the community pool. And perhaps most devastatingly, the unnamed woman in the extraordinary, dialogue-only "Sympathy" finds that she has misunderstood her new companion's true intentions.

If all this sounds incredibly depressing... well, it sometimes is. Kennedy holds the dubious distinction of crafting some of the most miserable portraits of marriage and family of any contemporary writer, and if she occasionally lays it on a bit thick, as in the double whammy of "Confectioner's Gold" and "Marriage," the fact remains that nobody writes about unhappy couples walking down a street - together but apart - quite so evocatively. On the other hand, her sharp sense of humor acts as a rescuing hand reaching into the bottom of a well, offering a saving grace to her characters in their darkest moments of despair. Peter, the lovesick shopkeeper in "Edinburgh," applies his withering wit to the New Age healers who bring flyers to his produce mart: "'Sell organic food and imitation bacon and suddenly folk thought you'd tolerate anything. Poorly looking lunatics would rush at you from miles around with news of whatever had saved them from themselves.'" After Paul is dumped by his girlfriend in the final story, "Vanish," he attends a magic show, only to find himself seated next to a young magic enthusiast named Simon who proceeds to babble about the performance they are about to behold; Kennedy drily remarks that "It was ridiculous and unfair to imagine a person like Simon could unknowingly drain each remaining pleasure from those around him and leave them bereft." What happens next, however, magnifies both Paul's capacity for wonder and the reader's faith in Kennedy as a master storyteller with a few white rabbits to pull from her shadowy sleeve.

Reviewed by Marnie Colton

This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

Flotation Tanks

"My head will keep on racing throughout this, I have no doubt," declares the speaker at the beginning of "Saturday Teatime" as she embarks on her first experience in the device known as a flotation tank, sensory deprivation tank, or isolation tank. And as she predicts, her thoughts do indeed surge in multiple directions, dredging up painful memories as she lies in salted water within an encapsulated space that she compares to a cupboard. Sealed inside this womb-like, completely dark container, she tries to reassure herself that "this must seem only snug and homely, buoyant: no overtones of drowning, suggestions of creatures that rise from unlikely depths, hints of noise underneath the silence, eager."

The neuropsychiatrist John C. Lilly created the first flotation tank in 1954 to test the hypothesis that the brain could not only function without external stimuli but would also enter a relaxed state conducive to meditation and enhanced creativity. After using the tank himself, he found this to be the case, but flotation only entered the public consciousness on a larger scale in the late 1970s, when two scientists expanded on Lilly's ideas to create Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST). Such sessions in the tank usually last an hour, the last 20 minutes of which are marked by a shift in brainwave patterns. The beta waves that mark the typical waking mental state change to theta waves, indicative of deep relaxation. Many tank users find the experience extremely refreshing albeit initially frightening, and REST claims to treat many physiological and psychological conditions, including anxiety, depression, pain, insomnia, and even jet lag.

Flotation tanks perhaps enjoyed their biggest boost with the 1980 release of the film "Altered States," based on a novel by Paddy Chayevsky. Starring William Hurt as a zealous psychological researcher, the film opens with a shot of Hurt floating in a tank, electrodes attached to his head. In one particularly dramatic scene, he regresses to a primitive state after ingesting hallucinogenic substances in the tank, then breaks out of the lab to feast on a sheep in a nearby zoo. Although this scene is clearly science-fiction, it is based on a real experience that Lilly had while floating, when one of his colleagues outside the tank began having an intense drug reaction and commenced screaming and jumping up and down. When Lilly later asked him what had happened, the scientist replied that he had "become" a pre-hominid man trapped in a tree by a leopard!

The flotation tank is very much a product of its time: in the 1950s and '60s, scientists increasingly began exploring altered states of consciousness, often by implementing the hallucinogens that were still legal in the United States (LSD and psilocybin were outlawed in 1968, mescaline in 1970). Lilly himself claimed to have had powerful, life-altering experiences while taking LSD in the tank. However, flotation therapy today has repositioned itself as an "alternative" practice most commonly found in spas rather than in murky laboratory basements. While some people become claustrophobic in the tank, many relish the opportunity to block the constant flow of external stimuli that bombards them and to enjoy their own altered state, floating as weightlessly as an astronaut in space.

Reviewed by Marnie Colton

This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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