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You Are the One

In her new WWII novel, A.L. Kennedy survives her own obstacles (chief among them, writing a WWII novel).


When you read A.L. Kennedy’s new novel, Day, you will be surprised to discover that you have committed a wide variety of curious acts of which you probably have no memory. You’ve firebombed Hamburg, for instance, and thrown bricks at your father’s head. (You feel terrible about the first but perfectly fine about the second.) You’ve urinated superstitiously on airplane tires, pummeled a Ukrainian Nazi and stolen his Luger, watched your best friend die in the German wilderness, developed a liking for burned toast, conducted a torrid long-term affair with another man’s wife, and fainted on the set of a very bad film. This is because Day, you see, is written in the second person—a narrative gimmick engineered to create an instant, if baldly coercive, bond between you the reader and you the character. Second-person narration is the fictional equivalent of telemarketing: It’s presumptuous and aggressive; it forces intimacy by violating your personal space. It bullies you into empathy. It’s like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book in which your adventure has already been chosen. This makes it deeply risky, since, having been forcibly dragged into the book, the reader will be on constant alert for false notes. The canon of the second-person novel is made up of odd, minor classics, from Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler to McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. When you write in the second person, you are writing on behalf of all of humanity, much of which is bound to disapprove.

On top of this, Kennedy has written a World War II novel—a genre that is, along with maybe the dog story, the most perilously cliché-prone in all of literature. Its tropes are exhausted but unavoidable: bands of brothers, courage under fire, enemy camps, doomed love triangles, postwar guilt. The clichés bob densely, like mines in an aesthetic North Sea, ready to detonate at the first hint of originality. In a mark of either deep courage or blind insanity, Kennedy has steered Day right into the thickest cluster of them—and she has hit, as if on purpose, every single one. After a terrifying round of explosions, the novel emerges bludgeoned, full of hackneyed holes—yet somehow, in a testament to the minor miracle of Kennedy’s talent, intact.

But let’s get back to you. You are, at least for the purposes of this novel, Royal Air Force Sergeant Alfred Day, a short, balding, shy, standard-issue sad sack, “biddable and sensible and ordinary, nothing more.” Your life story, which leaks out piecemeal via nested flashbacks, runs roughly as follows. A depressing rural childhood (drunken abusive fishmonger dad, meek abused mother) inspired you to volunteer for one of the deadliest jobs in the deadliest war in human history—tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber. You quickly adopt the Lanc’s crew, seven men who span the sociopolitical spectrum, as a surrogate family; together you drink many pints, sing many songs, and destroy much German infrastructure. Along the way you fall in love with a posh London girl in a bomb shelter. All of this, of course, comes rapidly and brutally apart, and by the end of the war you’ve suffered the death of friends and family and—most painful of all in Kennedy’s world—a broken heart. Naturally, this saps your soul and haunts your consciousness—so at age 25, in 1949, after some shiftless years in London, you return to Germany as an extra on a film about precisely the kind of POW camp you almost died in: fake guards, fake cabins, fake injuries, fake tunneling. You imagine this will be therapeutic—you lost yourself in Germany, so maybe you can find yourself there, too.

Day is often a dense read, mainly because—and here’s another thing you probably didn’t know about yourself—you tend to think in lyrical sub-Woolfian stream-of-consciousness-style interior monologues: fragments, run-ons, slang, and purple patches slathered with big tangled piles of dashes and colons. (It seems like not entirely a coincidence, anxiety-of-influence-wise, that Alfred’s idealized lover’s name is “Joyce.”) But Kennedy is a talented stylist, and her lyrical flights are often musical and rich and well worth the trouble—e.g., this description of the Lanc taking off, which (like an actual plane) picks up speed as it goes, until the rough bursts of prose smooth out into a final glide:

Starboard outer finally turning and she has to go, she couldn’t not, and so many noises in her great, hard, beautiful voice: the cycle of shivers and clatters inside her roar and something like the canter of horses—a dash of animals—and your hands feeling blurred but comfortable, resting on the bicycle grip, just so—yourself in your gunner’s shape and herself aching, twitching to run and drag you up—first off the ground, you’ll always be first off the ground—off it now, chasing, keen as fuck—tailwheel clear and her spine flexing—flesh and metal and crew and her and your blood and the new thing that she makes you, red and new.

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