Inventing men behaving badly

Jenny Turner delights in a blend of caritas and eros; Original Bliss by A L Kennedy, Cape, pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
So the men you see around you bore you? Well, you have an imagination, don't you, woman? Why not conjure a better one out of thin air? In her last novel, So I Am Glad, A L Kennedy tried just such a thought-experiment and came up with Cyrano de Bergerac, swordsman, poet and dignified loser extraordinaire. The result was interesting if a bit one-sided, what with Cyrano being long dead. She tries the spell again in her new book, and women everywhere will thrill to what she has made: Edward E Gluck, popular scientist and self-help guru. A cyberneticist and neurobiologist, with an adorable fixation on the Jimmy Stewart of It's A Wonderful Life, he is a hunky, brilliant and kindly mixture of Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones.

A couple of years ago, I had an argument with a colleague about Kennedy's books. I loved the image of life they suggested: a woman, probably in Glasgow, pottering about on her lonesome ownsome, dreaming of nuns and penguins, worrying about God. This colleague, however, smelt a rat. He felt that ALK, if she wasn't careful, was headed for emotional anorexia. Her and her bloody feelings, he said: all she does is cling to her precious feelings. He didn't say that what she needed was a proper going-over, but that was what he meant.

Two years on, and which of us is winning? Well, me, obviously. And him, too; because we were both right in our way. When ALK started publishing in the early 1990s, it was wonderful to read a young woman writer who didn't labour at being hip and raunchy.

The early Kennedy wrote about charity, about the insights we may find if we plug our ears against the l-want-l-want clamour of erotic desire. But it would, as my red-blooded colleague saw, have been terrible if she had stayed the way she started out. It isn't healthy to miss out completely on eros. It's also a bit vain. And, anyway, eros has a habit of outing itself, no matter how hard you suppress it, in strange and twisted ways.

Her new book is made up of ten short stories and a long one. The shorter pieces are faint and provisional, like pencil-sketches for the big picture yet to come. And then she does it: "Original Bliss", the 150-page title story. Here is the woman shuffling about in Glasgow. The worries about God. Dessert recipes and Open University broadcasts and sharp little obiter dicta about why Scottish people just can't help being stylish and why modern dance just can't help being crap. And the bottomless need for eros, and its diversion into perversion. "Original Bliss" is a revelation. It's the best piece of writing A L Kennedy has yet done.

Edward E Gluck is an excellent guy, properly man-sized, big of brain and heart and wit. Only Edward, as the heroine discovers, has a bit of a problem. He is addicted to really nasty hard-core porn. He likes pictures of women being fucked by two men simultaneously: "On video, they pulse in and out of time, like something feeding, a fuck parasite." He likes pictures of women being fucked by dogs. He can only get off, and is compelled to get off ever more furiously, on pictures of women being hurt. He hates himself for doing it. But not even his self-help guru resources can show him how to stop.

Along with the shuffling and the worrying about God, there has always been a streak of violent sexual fantasy in Kennedy's writing. It's been there in both her novels, although readers seem to choose to ignore it. And it's very much there in Stella Does Tricks, the ALK-scripted movie shortly to be released. This streak has never been well integrated into the body of her writing. It has sat like the scum on the top of a soup- pan, which is why it has been so easy for the dainty-stomached reader to skim it off.

But you won't be able to skim off the violent sexual fantasy in this one. And that is a wonderful thing: it brings Edward alive in a way Cyrano never managed. It brings the heroine who tries to love him full-bloodedly alive as well. It also makes the current fashion for kink-by-numbers stories look pretty thin and stupid, though that is an incidental concern. Caritas without eros is empty; eros without caritas is blind. I've never been so delighted to leave an argument only half-right.