What Becomes, By AL Kennedy

The deadpan art of humour with heartache
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The Independent Culture

AL Kennedy is one of nature's Eeyores. Her fictional territory, staked out in a sequence of technically ever more impressive novels, is grim. To criticise her work for bleakness would be missing the point, like bewailing the lack of sex scenes in Anita Brookner. She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.

In a lovely moment in one of these tales, a heroine bludgeoned and bloody from some extreme dentistry is accosted by a drunkard on the street. He asks for the inevitable cup of tea, "And I turn to him with my bleeding mouth and my lazy eye and my dodgy arm and my swollen tongue and I say, 'I don no. Havin a biddofa bad day mysel'." Her insights from the front line are Beckettian in their sunless humour.

In bald summary, the plots sound unremittingly grim: a couple devastated by financial disaster eat en exquisite meal they cannot afford, a pair of strangers have sex all night after a pick-up in a hotel bar and the balance of power and pleasure between them is far from equal, a woman lies in a flotation tank recalling a trauma. The men and women in these 12 stories are nearly all either entering a crisis or emerging from one, loves curdled, marriages broken, lives without purpose.

Yet the experience of reading them is far from depressing. Not that they're exactly uplifting; not for Kennedy the confected uplift, the phoney epiphany beloved of so many short-story writers. Like Eeyore, she's a born comic whose shtick is never to crack a smile once she has the room cracking up.

These stories are peppered with precisely the sort of deadpan humour we resort to in extremis. Wild improvisations would not be out of place in an Eddie Izzard set – notably a delirious passage expanding on the rumours that certain celebrities have used gerbils for sexual gratification to imagine a plumbing-style industry built around such gratification. Her writing also evinces a quiet humour that's less comedy than recognition of fellow-suffering, in moments that have the reader re-reading to analyse how she describes something so precisely as it is.

If What Becomes ultimately isn't depressing, it's because these are, for the most part, stories of people enduring and part of that endurance consists in continuing to observe, to maintain a lively curiosity. In "As God Made Us", a group of amputee veterans who have formed an ambiguous friendship go swimming in a public baths full of staring children and insensitively flinching adults as Kennedy, unflinching, records their outrageous, defensive humour and heroic persistence.

The strongest stories deal with love and marriage, or love then marriage. In one of the most haunting offerings, "Whole Family With Young Children Devastated", an insomniac woman watches television and fields anonymous calls. Gradually we realise that she knows the caller (and his vengeful wife) and that failing to sleep and relishing early-morning television is what these lovers do since parting. "Marriage" is a micro-masterpiece in which, by some sleight of hand, she conveys a wife-beater's terrible understanding of the cycle of violence, need, outrage and pretence in just nine terse pages.

Patrick Gale's 'The Whole Day Through' is published by Fourth Estate