You Are the One

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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.

Kennedy is particularly good at the crew’s teasing banter, which feels authentic and alive, and at the distinctive grain of Alfred’s mental voice. When he is angry or stressed—when, for instance, his plane is shot down—he reverts to his childhood dialect, “a mumbled chain of Black Country noises” in which “yo day” means “you didn’t.” (This makes the novel’s title, depending on Alfred’s mood, alternately a surname or a statement of negation.) But while Alfred, whose brain you share, usually feels complex and satisfyingly human, Day’s minor characters tend to be generic stand-ins—loving mother, loutish father, capering comrades, idealized lover. Far too often they launch, with no prompting whatsoever, into tearfully eloquent Meaningful Speeches. (A conscience-stricken Good German, having apparently just left a seminar on Buddhist rhetoric, tells Alfred, “I allowed them to make me what allowed them to make me.”) And the novel’s vision of love seems to have been borrowed from a romantic comedy; laid end to end, its proclamations would make an excellent Rod Stewart song: “She is the first good hurt he’s known.” / “Your broken heart, it’s still not right.” / “The man you might become, she’d known all that: she’d understood the way you’d be complete.” / “She was a place to live. My place to live.

For such an introverted, style-heavy novel, Day manages to build a plot with surprising momentum. As it cuts back and forth between Alfred’s real-world war experience and his simulations of that experience on the film set, the two narratives start to gallop suspensefully in tandem. Unfortunately, Kennedy squanders the book’s most promising source of potential drama. Alfred’s most consistent antagonist at the film camp is Vasyl, a displaced Ukrainian soldier whose voice “made you feel some part of him had died.” Vasyl begins the book as a menacing wild card with a knife in his pocket, pissing on a patch of grass he insists is Himmler’s secret grave. By the end, however, the threat has entirely fizzled: He’s become a toothless, implausibly talky symbol of the degradation of postwar Britain. He seems, paradoxically, to be both the repository of all the novel’s evil violence (“I understand people—they hold blood,” he tells Alfred) but also completely and inexplicably harmless.

The reader of any novel keeps an internal balance sheet. With Day, it’s a close tally between the freshness of its voice and the familiarity of its content, the depth of its hero and the slightness of his foils and friends. Despite its handful of obvious deficiencies, the novel works because—having forcibly seized control of your subjectivity—Kennedy does an impressive job with it. The view from the cramped turret of your and Alfred’s twinned consciousness is vigorous, intense, admirably sustained, and occasionally spectacular. Your life, though cut—as your actual life probably is—from a very familiar pattern, matters. You are subtle and convincing. And that, in the end, is all you can really ask for.

Every decade, Granta presents the Twenty Best Young British Novelists, all under 40. Born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1965, A. L. Kennedy appeared on the 1993 list following her acclaimed short-story collection Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains. Other 1993 nominees included now-well-known authors such as Louis de Bernières and Kazuo Ishiguro. Though she published seven more books of fiction in the decade that followed, Kennedy has yet to hit it as big (she did, however, create a second career in stand-up comedy). Perhaps Granta felt bad about this: In 2003—at 37—she popped up on the list again.

By A.L. Kennedy. Knopf. $24. 274 pages.

You Are the One