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Funny goings on in the airlock

ORIGINAL BLISS by A L Kennedy Cape pounds 14.99
Few Writers would take a loving interest in the problem of zero- gravity male masturbation. A L Kennedy does: the weirdest story of her new collection, "Made Over, Made Out", concerns an astronaut named Kovacks who builds up to just such a prohibited act of onanism in the airlock of his spacecraft. The laws of physics are nicely respected, as the issue of Kovacks's self-love takes the form of perfectly spherical, floating blobs, whose incriminatory potential he erases by corralling and drinking them. But this is also the story in which Kennedy's usually pin-sharp language goes awry.

We hear of "the instant within an ascent when inertia broke to zero gravity", "the largest and loveliest loneliness this side of possibility", or even "the void between hope and massaged mathematics". This sort of thing may be interpreted generously as a sort of metaphoric mimesis: the exuberance of Kennedy's forms breaking from the gravitational anchor of sense, just as her characters are orbiting far above the Earth which hugs their responsibilities safely to it. But these images, so sloppily enamoured of their own alliterations and assonances, look more like projectiles just missing the target, as if compensating for an atmosphere which isn't there. The story is important, for it maps the limits of Kennedy's considerable ability. Space is the final frontier; in properly grounded flesh she is scintillatingly at home.

Flesh, here, is one with the mind. Passionate thoughts always begin in the body - this acute corporealisation of the mind skitters knowingly throughout the stories. "Kovacks felt an ignition of memory under his breast-bone"; "I ... felt something like a little stone, dropping the length of my spine"; or, in one of the most poignant examples, where a fading TV star has just failed even to try to seduce his pretty wardrobe assistant: "The wrong tune to close their scene with had begun playing, somewhere near his hips." In Kennedy's treatment of this idea there is no obscurantist, Lawrentian hyperbole. Just an abiding argument that "original bliss" is the perfect marriage of body and brain, the soul made bones, blood and skin.

The witty, knowing stories in this collection are all, one way or another, about men and women tied into self-imposed delusions, standing baffled before sudden dams in emotional conduits, settling for less than they want, or getting what they want by humorously perverse means. "Rockaway and the Draw", the first story and one of the best, is about a British woman, Suzanne, stranded in America with her hygienic, dentally precocious American lover Ben ("He constructed love faultlessly, as if it had never been a bodily function"). As she obediently trots the round of dinner parties and snowy city walks with him, she dreams of murder, of ramming pencils or sturdy biros in the ear. Kennedy is at her acid yet big-hearted best when exposing the cross-culture dynamics of modern sex, construed as a property transaction. The gentle, almost wistful comedy, wrought around the unashamed physicality of the subject, sums up Kennedy's great gift throughout for amused honesty, the clear-eyed dissection of sexual and emotional hang-ups that gives the book its rare cargo of resonance.

However, in the closing novella from which the book takes its title, doubts about Kennedy's thematic handling seep in. "Original Bliss" is the story of an unhappily married Glaswegian woman, Helen, who has lost her faith. She meets and falls in love with a famous psychologist, Edward E Gluck, ostensibly an expert on making yourself happy, but with a secret problem of his own: pornography addiction. As if Jimmy McGovern had rewritten Pride and Prejudice, the story contorts with nasty episodes of violence and sexual dysfunction, while simultaneously building a romance, and worrying at the question of religion.

At 150 pages, it seems over-freighted, unable to keep all its balls in the air. Still, it sparkles with beautiful observation: an episode in Helen's gradual awakening is described thus: "Something bloomed at the back of her thinking like an unpredictable pilot light." And, as throughout the book, Kennedy cleverly reverses tradition by hardly ever describing her heroines' appearances, while looking closely, and revealingly, at the men. The synthesis of so many disparate ideas may not finally work, but for Kennedy, God is certainly in the details.