Confused by A. L. Kennedy

So-I-Am-GladFunny how words and sentences and language work. The title to this post could mean at least two things:

1. The ingenious Scottish novelist A. L. Kennedy wrote a new book titled Confused.

2. The ingenious Scottish novelist A. L. Kennedy writes in such a way that many readers are confused.

See how troubling this is? Since I enjoyed Kennedy’s dark, alcohol-fueled dream Paradise, I thought I’d give the critically-acclaimed So I Am Glad (Knopf, 1995) a shot (that’s right: #1, above, is false).

The narrator of So I Am Glad, Jenny, is a young woman who risks love by way of a mysterious man (“Martin”) who turns up in her flat. Along the way we learn about Jenny’s traumatic childhood, an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend, and her rather antiseptic occupation as an audio narrator. Throughout, the novel induces a state of bewilderment: the character dialogue is as pedestrian, random, and spasmodic as most conversations of everyday life, and even when Martin’s true identity is revealed, the reader remains uncertain and distrustful to the end.

Kennedy’s works are artful—brilliantly constructed—but certainly not for everyone.

Suffice it to say that when I finished the book I took a spin over to Goodreads—just to see what other readers thought. I quickly discovered that I am:

1. One of the few readers on the site to pick up the book and actually finish it.

2. One of the many readers on the site to find Kennedy’s whiplash dialogue construction confusing (there are few identifying references to guide readers, e.g. “said Martin,” “I stammered,” “he shouted,” etc.).

With reference to #1, I rarely fail to finish books I start reading. I also clean my dinner plate, watch through the end of the credits of most movies, and hate it when baseball games are called due to rain or darkness. I prefer to think of this as a virtue rather than a vice. Let’s call it faithfulness; the challenge keeps me going.

With reference to #2, I admit I had to reread the first thirty or forty pages of So I Am Glad more than once to make sure I was tracking the dialogue. Three times, actually. I suppose it’s a badge of honor that I eventually came to understand and even appreciate this rather depressing (and sometimes quite violent) fantasy of love and coming-to-terms-with-the-past novel. Reading this work helped me to see a development in Kennedy’s style that made me appreciate the stream-of-consciousness construction of Paradise all the more.

So I Am Glad . . . Sure I was confused, but you knew that by the name of this post, didn’t you?

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Technology and the Loss of Memory

The latest research claims that attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, particularly with the advent of modern (online) technology and the increased use of social media among young learners. Against this commonplace, however, consider Robert Southey’s warning to S. T. Coleridge in 1809:

southey_r“I know not whether your subscribers have expected too much from you, but it appears to me that you expect too much from your subscribers; and that, however accurately you may understand the diseases of the age, you have certainly mistaken its temper. In the first place, Sir, your essays are too long. ‘Brevity,’ says a contemporary journalist, ‘ is the humour of the times; a tragedy must not exceed fifteen hundred lines, a fashionable preacher must not trespass above fifteen minutes upon his congregation. We have short waistcoats and short campaigns; everything must be short—except lawsuits, speeches in Parliament, and tax-tables'” (Letters of Robert Southey: A Selection [London, 1912], 170-71).

It’s common to complain that things are “getting worse” (“worse than when?,” we should ask). However, if Southey could confidently relay complaints about 15+ minute sermons and overlong dramas in the early nineteenth-century, perhaps attention spans haven’t changed so much in our world of 140 characters after all.

Devolution of the species seems hardly to blame. We’ve only forgotten what’s past because we’ve stopped paying attention . . . and there’s nothing new about that.

Niffenegger’s Raven Girl and the Image of God

Raven GirlTwice, in the short life of this blog, I have written on Audrey Niffenegger’s synthesis of visual and poetic arts. The Night Bookmobile—a terrifying exploration of the “dark side of reading”first captured my attention. Later, I compared her work to William Blake in the imaginative The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous Sisters, describing her creations as “stories of anger, resentment, love, longing, loss, and escape . . . morality tales of transformation embodied in the strange and paranormal.”

Her latest graphic novella, Raven Girl (Abrams ComicArts, 2013) continues to shape Niffenegger’s growing reputation as a leading figure in contemporary storytelling. The book originated in a request from the Royal Ballet for a “dark” tale to be developed for production. A fairy tale at heart, Raven Girl follows a postman who falls in love with a raven (an intriguing reversal of Coleridge’s Mariner & Albatross). The two eventually have a child—a raven girl. She looks like a girl, that is, but her skeletal and other biological systems have some features that are more bird than human. She cannot speak human languages, but neither can she fly. Raven Girl is an exploration of the bodily dysphoria the girl experiences and the quest to attain functional wings of her own.

rg_13_raven_girl_arms_wings_final_72Among several themes raised in the story, Niffenegger’s work encourages reflection on the meaning of the image of God in the person. Through the voice of an antagonist—a young man who falls in love with the raven girl, only to violently oppose her efforts to change her body through surgery—Niffenegger challenges the belief that our bodies should be treated as immutable, in some sense, due to their creation in the divine image.

Readers of Raven Girl who reduce the story to a simplistic morality play of contemporary bioethics, however, may fail to see other opportunities for literary and theological reflection. While the tale invokes a discussion of body and identity, Raven Girl also encourages meditation on the relationship between the divine image and creation as a whole.

Raven Girl is, in many ways, a tragic story of isolation and estrangement—from the self and others. The postman and raven fall in love, but they do so while experiencing, to varying degrees, alienation from their respective communities. The raven girl, though surrounded by other children, grows up without friends and others who nurture, shape, and care for her development. Loneliness, isolation, and longing surround these characters, even amidst moments of tranquility and joy.

While the bodily dimension of the story deserves our attention—our bodies, and what we do with them, matter—readers should attend to the social dimension of the story, too. True humanity is discovered in the demonstration of love—the love of God, neighbor, and all creation. In fact, Raven Girl unexpectedly affirms the deeply Christian belief in created relationality in its final pages. The love of the raven prince who seeks out the mysterious girl affirms a wider vision of reconciliation, community, and restorative relationships. Through their love, the enmity between alienated beings is put to rights.