Real Fiction (I)

 

A.L. Kennedy

In A.L. Kennedy`s short story “Original Bliss” fiction is introduced as a powerful instrument that is able to stabilize situations, relationships and identities but also possesses a destructive and even perverse element. How fiction is treated here is one of those indicators asserting that what is so typical about postmodernism is questioned or simply neglected. Like many contemporary writers, Kennedy deals with a subject that seems to “belong” so inherently to postmodernism, but through her own and unique treatment of it, it experiences a completely new and unexpected turn. To make this clear I will start with a short recapitulation how a representative postmodernist writer is dealing with fiction (as a subject) before I jump into Kennedy`s short story.

In Pynchon`s The Crying of Lot 49, first published in 1967, Oedipa Maas, the heroine of the novel, feels basically trapped by several plots (conspiracy theories that suggest a “real” world behind a fake reality) that are challenging reality. Here, fiction is not to be trusted, it is completely out of control and is working behind your back: “That`s what could come to haunt her most, perhaps: the way it fitted, logically, together. As if […] there were revelation in progress all around her.” [1] The conspiracy Oedipa tries to unravel in Pynchon`s novel is exemplified by the “waste symbol” that pops up all around Oedipa (e.g. on envelopes and street corners). The fact that it`s named “waste” (the acronym for “we await silent Tristero`s Empire”) is quite telling, since it becomes evident that it is nothing more than a waste of time to follow this sign – it simply leads nowhere or, at best, follows a circle. Oedipa is floating helplessly through her world that seems to consist only of traces and relations that are all pointing towards the waste symbol. While floating, she hasn`t got any say in it or any form of authority. She cannot choose any direction, cannot take a break or give it up completely, since she always finds herself inside of it.

In Kennedy`s “Original Bliss” the protagonists are also surrounded by fiction. However, the borderlines, although permeable, exist for the most part. In addition Kennedy gives her characters a chance to master fiction to a certain degree. She lets them steer through and around fiction; (to float through fiction is even considered as addictive behavior).

Fiction, as it is treated in this short story, is closely connected to the term “bliss”. Helen Brindle or Mrs. Brindle, as she is mostly referred to, the protagonist, is a housewife that tries to accept that her life is supposed to be boring and that bliss is nothing more than a fleeting state:

She had been told that her life in its current form represented normality. Existence in the real world was both repetitive and meaningless; these facts were absolute, no one could change them. Ecstasy was neither usual nor useful because of its tendency to distract, or even to produce dependency.[2]

Contrary to the repetitiveness of life (reality) stands bliss – something that is seen as being only momentary, even false; however it is not attainable by her anymore. No self-help book, no new recipe can help Mrs. Brindle. But this is about to change. Bliss is introduced back into her life in form of another character whose name is – quite fittingly – Edward E. Gluck (which from a German point of view can be interpreted as the Scottish version of the German word “Glück” which is one way to translate the word “bliss”).

At first it seems that by the appearance of Edward E. Gluck we encounter some sort of romantic scheme. Helpless housewife is looking for some deeper meaning in her life and finds a love interest (who is the author of a successful series of self-help-books). Fiction can not only be applied here in terms of Mrs. Brindle`s imagination, but fiction is also presented by a common plot, so common in fact, that the expectations it creates are part of our everyday reality.

Kennedy undermines this romantic cliché quite humorously.[3] Mrs. Brindle is not that typical housewife. Although she seems to have relied on self-help books, she is aware that she is missing something more fundamental: She is at one time described as “the widow of God” – she has lost God and therefore has lost her faith (the ultimate form of fiction because it is transcendent).

There wasn`t a piece of the world that I could touch and not find Him inside it. All created things – I could see, I could smell that they`d been created. I could taste where He`d touched. He was that size of love. Can you imagine what might happen if a love so large simply left you for no reason you ever knew. One morning, you`re looking through the window and you can`t make any sense of the sky.[4]

From Gluck Mrs. Brindle hopes to acquire some sort of strategy to regain back her faith, something that Gluck himself calls “the Process”. She travels to Stuttgart, where Gluck is having a public audition. Following the romantic scheme, the superiority of Edward E. Gluck is established in several scenes that take place in different hotel bars in Stuttgart. Afterwards he reveals something about him that changes our first impression of him being a typical romantic white knight: In an (unromantic) late telephone call he admits of being addicted to pornography. Furthermore the pornography of his choice is quite violent.

Mrs. Brindle`s hopes and dreams about this all-knowing, capable author are crumbling. The romantic plot itself is undermined. In a conventional plot line, one would expect Mrs. Brindle and Gluck becoming a couple after mastering certain obstacles. She would be rescued by Gluck from her abusive marriage and Gluck might even overcome his addiction. But Gluck seems to be ashamed about his addiction (although this doesn`t stop him from talking about it extensively), which takes away from his installed superiority and Mrs. Brindle believes too much in the sacrament of marriage what prohibits her from leaving her husband.

But the romantic plot line hasn`t disappeared completely; it pops up again and is then treated with such a rigor that it becomes disturbing:

After returning home Mrs. Brindle decides intuitively to surrender completely to the role of the victim – she takes on the role of the passive female (that is supposed to be rescued). While restraining herself to passivity, she is beaten half to death by her husband who afterwards commits suicide because he believes he has killed her. For Mrs. Brindle the near-death experience is like a second birth. That it also rids her of her husband is kind of a “bonus”, that happened out of the situation and that frees her from her marriage without violating the sacrament of marriage. And that is not all – she seems to have recovered in an even greater sense concerning her loss of faith:

‘I got through. I was taken through. I mean, I`m alive, Edward. I believe in Something – or Something believes in me. And I believe in me and I can do any and every living thing a living person does. I am alive.’[5]

This seems to be a sudden result but it is also the result of a process. Since she returned from Stuttgart, she seems to have found help in the fiction of faith. Although she lost touch with God she is searching for little, simple things she still “knows” about God which are giving her a glimpse of the faith she once possessed. This method provides her with a kind of “minimum faith” that is supposed to grow over time and become more and more stable. (That`s Gluck`s plan, anyway.)

Her own reduction to a simple and negative identity, a fictitious identity – being an obedient housewife that holds the sacrament of marriage higher than her own safeguard – and her attempts to rebuild faith by fiction, are setting her free. Irritatingly and contrary to every romantic cliché, not with the help of a man and not even in a more modern way, out of self-empowerment, but in a masochistic, completely passive way. By surrendering to a fiction that her husband has set out for her, she regains her strength – and even more, her belief system is stabilized again.

Not only is it interesting to see how Kennedy establishes, undermines and then underlines romantic structures in “Original Bliss”, the treatment of fiction altogether is remarkable in Kennedy`s work. As in most contemporary literature, especially in postmodern literature, the line between fiction and reality is blurry. This is also evident in “Original Bliss” when Edward E. Gluck, a self-help-book guru, talks about masturbation fantasies he is having about a potential love interest:

The closer the two of us get, the more acceptable our fantasies become, until they grow up into facts and instead of the dreams that kept us company, we have memories […] one huge demonstration of how the mind affects reality and reality affects the mind […] Our interior lives have seismic effects on our exterior world.[1]

This quote shows that the blurriness of these borderlines is, in fact, intended. The interior life that Gluck is referring to is the basis for his whole “philosophy” that he calls “cybernetics”. Gluck thinks, that by imagination alone one can change one`s world and life: “We are both equipped with minds to perceive and alter all possible worlds […]”[2] The blurriness is in this case something that is willfully approached, a product of your efforts rather than a mutated reality in which you are a helpless victim.

Ironically, the story “Original Bliss” itself proves from the beginning what a huge impact fantasies have on the characters, because it is only a fantasy – triggered by the photo on the back of a self-help book and a radio show – that makes Mrs. Brindle contact Gluck in the first place.

Gluck`s relationship to fiction is a very interesting and unique one. For Gluck bliss lies not in God, but in the way God is approached – by faith or imagination, depending on your viewpoint. His own belief system is a bit more worldly than Mrs. Brindle`s: He believes in “goodness”, and especially in the goodness that is presented by the movie star James Stewart. He completely identifies with James Stewart and even uses him in his scientific theories (that are supposed to have Nobel Prize potential). Gluck`s ultimate goal in life, his version of paradise, would be to create something he calls “Bailey Park” – a fictional park in the film It`s A Wonderful Life – by the power of mind alone:

Bailey Park was the housing estate that George Bailey [James Stewart] built in It`s A Wonderful Life. People left their overpriced, rented slums […] and they went to live in the houses that George had built them with the money they`d invested in the good old Building and Loan. It was like a possible Promised Land. Good houses and good people, doing good things […][3]

This fictional park can be created and inhabited by everyone – that is what Gluck is claiming, however:

[…] our minds were made to give everyone the chance of Bailey Park. The place we take with us, wherever we go – the place that is us – we can build it into Bailey Park, we can live in bliss.[4]

Imagination or fiction is the only way to experience bliss. But fiction is not an escape, it is not challenging reality, it is part of the world, that part that belongs uniquely to the creative human mind.

But, as I already mentioned in the first part of this piece, fiction can be quite dangerous or even “weird”, in a perverse, sexually implicated way. A few examples: Mrs. Brindle`s reaction to the romantic plot line turns her into a masochistic figure; also her relationship with God that – as long as she lost her faith has to be sustained with fiction – has sexual connotations; and Gluck himself is addicted to fiction in form of pornography, which endangers his “Bailey Park” -goodness (his whole life concept; his personality), because he is only stimulated by violent sexuality.

Although Kennedy`s characters are surrounded by fictions and also determined – Mrs. Brindle travels to Europe because of a radio show; Gluck builds a scientific theory around the idea of a movie star – the characters themselves seem to “steer” around this world quite freely. Fiction is perceived as an almost normal part of reality. It belongs to reality, it serves certain needs. Fiction is used – either in form of self-help books, pornography, films or even God – it seems only to be important to steer these fictions into the right direction. And with this steering element a certain kind of control is reintroduced again. Something that a postmodern character like Oedipa Maas from Pynchons The Crying of Lot 49 can only dream of.


[1] ibid., p. 154

[2] ibid., p. 179

[3] ibid., p. 213

[4] ibid., p. 214

[1] Pynchon, Thomas: “The Crying of Lot 49″, London: Vintage Random House, 2000, p.29

[2] Kennedy, A.L.: “Original Bliss”, in: Original Bliss, London: Random House, 1998, p. 162

[3] which Kaye Mitchell discusses convincingly, and to whom I owe the main ideas concerning the role of romantic plot lines in Kennedy`s work, in: “So I am Glad, Original Bliss and Everything you need”, in: A.L.Kennedy, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, p. 67-93

[4] Original Bliss, p. 181

[5] ibid., p. 301

Top image by Campbell Mitchell; www.negscratch.com

Other images: Flickr.com; Tower.com