SO I AM GLAD
By A.L. Kennedy
Knopf. 276 pp. $23
Most of us think of Cyrano de Bergerac--if we think of him at all--as the swashbuckling, fictional poet with the enormous nose in Edmond Rostand's play, the eloquent suitor who wooed the beautiful Roxanne on behalf of a handsome ninny and kept up his torrent of beautiful words to her even after that ninny was killed in battle. Rostand's Cyrano was the one who referred to a kiss as the "rosy dot on the 'i' of loving," who was so adroit with sword and word that he was able to duel and compose poetry at the same time: "Then, as I end the refrain, thrust home!" He was fearless, gallant, miserable and devoted to ideals of romantic love.
There was a real Cyrano as well, a 17th-century French poet who was a contemporary of Moliere; Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy plucks him from history and uses him here for her own distinct literary purposes. How would a warrior-poet with all manner of antiquated rhetoric and bravery fare in bleakest Glasgow in the last years of this past oh-so-bleak century?
The best thing about bad circumstances is that they lend themselves to the making of good fiction, and contemporary Scotland has been gleefully portrayed as a pitiless, postmodern hellhole by a whole flock of her new and talented writers. Kennedy is relatively easy on her homeland. She sees it as scarred, broken, sad, filled with vagrants and wreckage, but it could be worse. In a dying city, Kennedy constructs a jerry-built "family" of four rootless singles living separate lives under the same roof. The front yard is filled with chunks of concrete and wire and various flotsam. The roommates drift, with varying energy, through their isolated lives: Pete is off doing good in Romania, Eve has a boyfriend who keeps her out all night, Arthur is a baker who hates his job, and Jennifer is a part-time radio announcer.
It's Jennifer who notices one day that they seem to have a new roommate, a fill-in for Peter. Wasn't this man's name going to be Martin? Isn't this Martin Somebody-or-Other the man who's sitting at the kitchen table? But isn't there something kind of strange about him? For one thing, "he is far more visible than he has any right to be. When he opens his mouth for any length of time there is a pale gleam. . . . An unnatural, static blue flash. His hands and face are simply burning." And "Martin" doesn't talk like your run-of-the-mill roommate: "The point," he says, "when a point has been made, you will feel it like nothing else and any explanation is no longer to the point--it is beside the point. Which is a beginning of getting an impression of the true point." He seems to feel that he fell into this place from the sky, perhaps the moon. He looks frail; he feels peaked. He's Cyrano de Bergerac, of course.
Jennifer doesn't care at first. It could be said that she doesn't get the point. She's too involved in the bleak circumstances of her own dismal life. She's calm, she tells us over and over. She's free of emotions or bereft of them. She's had a trying childhood; her parents were locked in an expensive and showy S&M relationship and needed her to be a witness (luckily for the narrative, they've already died in a convenient car crash), and she herself is prone to fall to the seductions of handcuffs, belts used as whips and the comforting artifice of pretend language. As "Captain Bligh," Jennifer doesn't have to focus on her own horrid loneliness or even her own cruelty: It's only play or perhaps a play.
Beneath her stated calm, Jennifer is consumed with rage. She hardly knows where it comes from or what it's for. She watches her own scandal-ridden, incompetent government, her own wretched country, and seethes; she observes the whole of Europe and shudders; she observes the world, and despairs. Only this not-very-articulate, semi-luminous roommate finally gets her attention. And he's in worse shape than she is.
This Cyrano is frightened to death of cars. He's shy about leaving the house. He develops an addiction to the tranquilizer Ativan. He's obsessed and remorseful about the people he's killed in his previous life. He's having trouble beginning to write again. He's deathly afraid of being rejected. He's touchy, in the extreme, about his appearance. And while the old Cyrano was nothing if not a swashbuckler, this new one is feeble and weak, holding on to this new life by no more than a couple of threads.
Are human beings capable of any change through generations? Can we manage, in any way, to avoid our cruel and bloody destiny? Jennifer deplores the pervasive nastiness of the larger world, but--all on her own--has managed to beat a hapless co-worker and lover almost to death. Cyrano, with whom she's rapidly falling in love, deplores his dueling past, but dueling is all he really knows how to do. In perhaps the one piece of action that feels too contrived here, he decides to transform their rubbish-filled front yard into a garden, but Cyrano is no Candide. In this world, gardens are made to be trashed by thugs. The question is: Will Cyrano have learned the restraint to keep from killing in blind retaliation?
This is a very private book. Oddly enough, the story feels taken from life; the author seems to have fallen deeply in love with her protagonist. The scenes, even inhabited by a 300-year-old ghost, pulse with reality. This is a lonely, lonely story. It's a hard world when the one you love has to come to you from such a distance and so far away in time. The only thing worse would be to remain becalmed and emotionally dead. Luckily, Jennifer avoids that fate.
Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.
Upcoming In Book World
The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:
RIGHTEOUS VICTIMS: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999, by Benny Morris. Reviewed by Thomas W. Lippman.
MY GARDEN (BOOK):, by Jamaica Kincaid. Green thoughts in a green shade, from the Antigua-born author of "The Autobiography of My Mother." Reviewed by Nina King.
THE MISSING MIDDLE: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy, by Theda Skocpol. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.
THE COMING OF THE NIGHT, by John Rechy. A novel fixated on anonymous sex in the city (Los Angeles) circa 1981. Reviewed by Rick Whitaker.
APRIL RISING, by Corene Lemaitre. In this novel, a young woman returns home after a two-year absence and discovers an interloper in the family. Reviewed by Carolyn See.