The Phallic Construction of Social Reality and Relationships in A. L. Kennedy's Short Stories

Article excerpt

Exploring the possibilities of feminist postmodernist criticism from political sciences perspectives in the late 1980s, Jane Flax argued that

Feminist theorists are faced with a fourfold task. We need to (1) articulate feminist viewpoints of/within the social worlds in which we live; (2) think about how we are affected by these worlds; (3) consider the ways in which how we think about them may be implicated in existing power/knowledge relationships; and (4) imagine ways in which these worlds ought to and can be transformed. (55)

This formulation of the task of feminist criticism provides a framework for assessing the transformational possibilities suggested in two short stories by the Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy: "Indelible Acts" from the collection with the same title, and "Rockaway and the Draw" from the collection Original Bliss. (1) The ways in which these stories address the reciprocal influence of social and personal realities invite a feminist analysis. As Sarah Dunnigan notes in a critical appraisal of Kennedy's longer fiction, however, this writer refuses "to be pinned down to any literary 'philosophy' or credo of gender" (144). This does not preclude critical engagement with Kennedy's writing from feminist perspectives. As Alison Lumsden points out, the themes of Kennedy's first short stories collection, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, announced the writer's lasting interests in "both physical and emotional parameters and the spaces available to women within patriarchal 'geographies'" (157). Kennedy's work after Night Geometry evinces a constant interest in the psychosocial construction of women's identities. This interest informs both "Rockaway and the Draw" and "Indelible Acts" in their focus on constructions of women's bodies as objects for satisfying masculine desires and on the resulting constructions of women's identities in disempowering configurations.

In her 1997 review of Original Bliss, Amanda Craig compares the status of A. L. Kennedy and Jeanette Winterson as contemporary women writers:

Jeanette Winterson and A. L. Kennedy are two of the leading writers of the new generation. Both are female and have won many prizes. One has gone from wild popularity as an outspoken lesbian to a chorus of (largely male) disapprobation; the other received the accolade of being a 1996 Booker judge, and benefits from the current exaltation of Scottish writing. A. L. Kennedy has been compared to Winterson, and both, as it happens, have written about passion and physics in their present books. (47)

Taking cue from Craig's review, one may argue that the narrative treatment of the relation between passion and physics in these writers' work offers a resolution to the conflict between sense and sensibility, inherited from the masculine literary canon. Rather than being preoccupied with asserting sense over sensibility, or sensibility over sense, Kennedy, like Winterson, focuses on feeling and sense-making as interdependent experiences. Thus, on the one hand, Kennedy's stories are concerned with the passion that drives one's fantasies of the self, posing the question: what sense is made in the fantasies that constitute the realm of sensibility or feeling? On the other hand, the stories are concerned with the physics of passion: how do these fantasies engender that which is sensed, sensibly or rationally, as the realness of reality?

The narrative treatment of these questions in the two stories analyzed here leads to an engagement with social myths conveyed in discourses derived from patriarchal traditions. These discourses define the realm of signification as a masculine domain and stake claims on women's personal, physiological, and social spaces. In engaging with these discourses, Kennedy's women narrators explore the ways in which masculine authority is disseminated and find possibilities of re-creating the ethos of the myths that draw on, and in turn legitimate, this authority. …