Novel of the week
Everything You Need
A L Kennedy Jonathan Cape, 576pp, £16.99
Nathan Staples is a successful writer of gory splatter novels. He is also possessed of a powerful impulse to self-mutilation and suicide, as his mind spends its days circling "the shameful hollow of himself". For the last few years, Nathan has lived on Foal Island, a writer's colony and religious retreat off the Welsh coast. He is tortured by the departure of his wife and young daughter 15 years previously, neither of whom he has seen or heard from since. He lives alone, but shares the island with five other writers, among them a performance poet with a shark fixation; a depressed crime novelist with a deformed arm; and Lynda, the crime writer's wife, a "splendidly sluttish, mediocre women's-novel novelist". Her pierced labia majora have become septic and she likes, the novel hints, to be penetrated by her partner's withered limb. Into this band of depressives, suicidals and nymphomaniacs comes 19-year-old Mary Lamb, an aspirant writer. Brought up by her gay uncles in small-town South Wales, she is the recipient of Foal Island's first writer's fellowship. Nathan Staples is to be her mentor. He is also, unbeknown to Mary, her father.
The novel is excellent on life's brute physicality. Its strains and pains are depicted in elemental terms, reflected in vivid phrases: "a raw gale was dumping rain in gravelly armfuls against his western window". Kennedy is attentive to the general "smeariness" of existence ("smear" is a favourite word of hers), its mess and uncertainty. More often than not, she leaves questions of motive open: thoughts and actions slip and slide into each other, while characters fumble and flap at crucial moments. Nathan, the central figure, is reduced regularly to stammering incoherence, his words disintegrating when he needs them most. Kennedy is terrifyingly alive to the human need to make sense of the recalcitrant world, and to the fallacies, sops and delusions that fleetingly transform chaos into order. Yet for the most part, Foal Island is a place whose inhabitants have stepped out of the pages of T S Eliot's The Waste Land: "On Margate Sands/I can connect/ Nothing with nothing."
The first hundred or so pages of Everything You Need are vital, the prose pungent. There is no doubt that Kennedy is a prodigiously talented stylist. She is certainly in the premier league when it comes to profanity; she swears more profusely and creatively than almost anyone I have ever read. In a powerful sense, it was the harsh eloquence that carried me through this bloated conceit of a novel. Nearly every paragraph sparkles with some jagged diamond of a phrase; in one of the book's rare comic moments, Mary wakes from a blissful post-coital slumber to discover her uncles smiling benignly at the end of her bed: delightfully, "they had padded into her unbuttoned room". On another occasion, we encounter a man whose snorting laugh made him seem "as if he were eating his own amusement".
The novel offers up minute and pitiless attention to our deepest needs and fears. Kennedy's characters grapple with metaphysical complexities that most other British novelists would struggle to look square in the eye, let alone attempt to animate.
But it is overkill that ultimately defeats: the unremitting scatology, the obsessions with pain, desperate sex, wounds and death bludgeon us, and become dull and dulling. What Kennedy seems to have forgotten is that if angst is everywhere, then it becomes stripped of its meaning. There is something indulgent, even puerile, about compiling such an arduous catalogue of suffering and degradation. Nathan could be speaking about the entire book when describing his own work thus: "I suppose the material is, quite fundamentally, unfunny. Suicidal impulses and wholesale death - with me they'd always raise a laugh - but not with everyone, I know."
There are problems, too, with the characterisation. If Nathan Staples sometimes seems a near-impossible confusion of poetry and inarticulacy, stridency and insecurity, blunt anger and eggshell fragility, then Mary Lamb is even more improbable. The novel requires us to believe that this perfectly likeable, vivacious teenager is a great writer in the making, although she never says, does, reads or writes anything remotely arresting, nor does she have any discernible interests. Despite her cheery good sense, she apparently has no objection to spending five years surrounded by this collection of hollow men and women. Her career as a writer blossoms as the novel progresses, though we have no sense of her honing her craft.
Kennedy's touch is equally unsure when she describes Nathan's relationship with his deranged and sybaritic publisher, J D. Towards the end of the novel, J D's dipsomania drives him to procure alcohol enemas from a friendly male S&M prostitute. Rather than accepting money for services rendered, the prostitute prefers as his fee to extract one of J D's teeth while the publisher is pole-axed by the rush of booze. J D's conversations with Nathan are full of empty repartee, as if Kennedy is not quite sure what a book editor does - perhaps the case, given the wearisome length of the narrative - and, more importantly, how men of this age and in this kind of relationship might actually speak to each other.
As the horrors of the book become familiar, we do not, at least, come to view them as comic: Kennedy's vision is far too bleak for that. But Everything You Need lacks any sense of wider society. The characters are thoroughly de-socialised and seldom interact in groups. When they do congregate, red mist begins to rise from the pages, as Kennedy's prose finds new levels of furious violence. In this sense, the comparison with other writers is instructive. Critics have suggested that Salman Rushdie is unable to keep his novels on a human scale. Kennedy does not share that problem: she has a vision of all-too-human proportions, but struggles to calibrate accurately events in the social sphere.
In a novel as long and static as this, Nathan Staples' agony begins eventually to seem singular and irreducible. After almost 600 pages, we can recognise his desire to feel whole and empathise with his bitter loneliness but nevertheless struggle to offer an account of him as a man. Instead we are left simply to watch him writhe.