I reviewed The Blue Book for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Ordinary Magic: A.L. Kennedy’s Transatlantic Tricksters
July 17th, 2013
LET ME ASK: Do you like tricks?
Watch as I put a coin into my right hand. Which hand is holding the coin? You guess the right. I show you an empty right hand. You guess the left. I show you an empty left hand. The coin is in my ear.
What is your reaction? Do you feel manipulated and annoyed, or outsmarted and amazed? Your answer will tell me quite a few things about you — including whether you will appreciate A.L. Kennedy’s new novel, The Blue Book.
Beth, the novel’s protagonist, is on a cruise from the UK to New York. Her boyfriend Derek suffers on the rough mid-January seas and becomes bedridden. Arthur, Beth’s ex-boyfriend, mysteriously appears on the ship and disappears again. His game is clear: he wants her to come after him. The plot features as much action as a cruise in mid-January can afford, which isn’t much. A person strolls on the deck. One person takes a seasickness pill; another only thinks he did. The buffet is visited, and so is the movie theater. Strangers, seated together in the dining room, have in common only that they are trapped aboard a ship.
But we don’t read an A.L. Kennedy novel for the action. What keeps the narrative moving is Beth’s changing perception of her relationships and herself. Derek is a safe option, and may be about to propose marriage. Beth knows that Arthur, who clearly wants to win her back, is emotionally toxic, and she is torn. But instead of a traditional marriage plot, in which a woman chooses between two men, this is the story of a woman’s struggle to choose something else entirely. The layers of this story — including Beth and Arthur’s past posing as mediums who conned the bereaved — are slowly peeled back. Before our eyes, Beth’s character elegantly unfolds.
As we read, The Blue Book constantly reminds us that we are holding a book written by an author — one who is trying to trick us. The book itself addresses us, like a wayward character interjecting itself into the narrative. Near the beginning, the book soothes, promising the reader, “[Y]ou’re a good person at heart.” It vows that it won’t deceive us, admits that it wants to play with us, claims that it doesn’t understand the concept of belief. This is a postmodern narrative that calls attention to its artifice and construction, but the form has a purpose. Kennedy uses tricks to show how an author’s practice is not unlike that of a con artist or fake medium. The best performances must draw us in, gain our sympathies, and make us believe that the tricks are real. This book ties together theme and form by playing tricks, but also by showing how tricks are played.
The more overt tricks in the novel appear throughout the text. Each page is numbered twice, with one set of numbers along the top of the pages and another along the bottom. The top numbers are the tricky ones; they repeat, skip ahead, double back on themselves, disappear. For example, the page number 7 appears twice in a row, but page number 8 not at all; the 18th page of the book is numbered as such, but the 370th page is numbered 9. What does all this mean? I flipped around, tried to guess as I read (and at one point it occurred to me to slice the book up and place the pages in the correct order across the floor), but could identify no obvious pattern. There are also extended passages in italics, and bolded words throughout the text. Convinced I could find a reason for those, I read them out loud in the order that they appear, and came up with sequences like could/in a queue/wrong/here/cruise people/no quoits and gin slings and rubbers of bridge people?
But while I did realize that I was involved in a grand trick, I also savored each word.
Kennedy’s prose, always elegant, never showy, remains so in The Blue Book. Everything is viewed from her particular sideways gaze: things on the ship are “damp” and “scruffy,” electrical appliances are “unconvincing” and meat has a “disturbing weight.” In lesser hands, the tricks in the book might be an exercise in frustration, but the author’s writing is unflinching, even-keeled, beautiful, and true.
The Blue Book has the mark of a Kennedy novel: her willingness to delve deep down into the psyche of her characters. While the extent of the typographical tricks might be viewed as a slight departure, it is thematically in keeping with her previous work. Paradise is about an alcoholic who falls in love while falling wildly off the wagon. So I Am Glad tells of an emotionally frozen woman who falls in love with the ghost of Cyrano de Bergerac. In Day, an RAF airman finds himself lost and, after the war, working as an extra on a POW film. A few common themes thread through these works, but one that stands out most clearly is the sometimes hopeless, often desperate, always painful search for connection — with another person, with the world, or, in the case of The Blue Book, with one’s self. Here we see Beth come to terms with the events of her past and become able, for the first time, to be forthright with herself and others. Kennedy’s meticulous, relentless parsing of Beth’s process links this novel to her past works — and also sets it apart from other, similar narratives.
As in previous works, in The Blue Book Kennedy writes about her characters with affection and compassion. Quirks are treated as ordinary and experiences ordinarily hidden, like awkward sex or aching tummies, are brought into the open; we are allowed to see inside Beth’s mind, even those thoughts which are ugly or odd or strange. We all may think our secrets are unique, but, her books assure us, we are not alone. We are all odd creatures, and, in this, we are all the same.
What separates this novel from Kennedy’s other works, though — including five previous novels and six collections of short stories — is this idea of getting into the mind of the main character. If I have a misgiving about The Blue Book, it’s that it is a difficult story to engage with emotionally. Whereas in Day I was given access to Alfie’s decline, and in Paradise I felt what it was to crave the drink that would kill me, in The Blue Book the main character always feels at arm’s length, even as we are granted access to her inner life. But that is also, I think, part of the point: Beth feels disconnected from her own life and the people in it; she calls herself a “non-working human being,” referring to a traumatic event in her past that has left her feeling isolated and empty. In keeping us at a distance from Beth, unable to connect with her, Kennedy makes us feel as detached and alone as the character does.
What con artists of all kinds have long known is that while it is impossible to read a person’s mind, it is possible to ascertain what she is thinking. An example from The Blue Book: when asked to think of a number between one and 10, many people will choose the number seven. The experts are divided as to why, but it is thought that seven is the first odd, prime number and two-thirds of the way through the given range. There is no guarantee that a person will pick seven, but if one needs to make a prediction, going with the number seven will greatly increase the chances of guessing correctly. These tricks work because, as Beth says, in “the places where we think we’ll be unique, we are anything but.”
In this way, the tricks of The Blue Book serve the story; they reproduce in us the experiences of breathless belief and furious betrayal (such as a reviewer might feel taping her deconstructed copy back together, the mystery of its spell still unexplained). A magician can make us believe something false, a medium can conjure up our dead, and an author at the heights of her powers can predict — and direct — how we feel. That’s what I take from The Blue Book: A.L. Kennedy can read my mind.