AL Kennedy uses her new novel, The Blue Book, to take on some big questions about novels, narratives and fantasies. Do stories misrepresent the world? If so, does that matter? Is lying moral if it helps to heal the one lied to? She is evidently up for a challenge - and why not, given that Day, her last novel, was the Costa Book of the Year in 2007? Unfortunately, despite some strong elements, The Blue Book does not fully live up to its ambitions.
The Blue Book ostensibly tells the story of Beth, formerly a fraudulent psychic, who is taking a cruise from Southampton to New York. She is travelling with her boyfriend Derek, but it becomes apparent that her real purpose is to meet Art, her former lover and partner in small-time con jobs. Derek thinks that the cruise is a dream holiday and plans to propose, but it turns out Beth didn't mean for him to come with her at all. Instead, her plan was to reconcile with Art.
However, it turns out that the plot is more complex than this, to a bewildering degree - and the novel enjoys bamboozling the reader. For the first 80 pages we are led to believe that Art is an annoying stranger who has attached himself to Beth on the cruise. This is a private joke between Beth and Art and the reader is not let in on it. Then it turns out that the entire novel has been written by Beth for Art as a kind of "blue book", the books kept by psychics that, in her words, "keep the privacies of trades and crafts and carry years of practices made perfect". It is, in other words, intended as a kind of guidebook to human relationships. It also turns out that Beth secretly gave birth to Art's child years before the start of the narrative and that this child subsequently drowned in a household accident. Then everything gets strange. Beth gives the blue book to Art at the end of the cruise, so when exactly did she write it? Was there really a cruise at all, or is the whole narrative fictitious (but aren't all narratives? Aha!)? The book is not just a blue book but also a magical prop - its pages are numbered non-sequentially to allow it to be used in certain magic tricks, like the one Art plays on Beth at the very start of the novel - so maybe he was in possession of this very book all along. Did he really write it? What is reality, anyway? It's all very confusing.
This brand of confusion helps to raise the big questions with which the novel grapples. What is the morality of telling stories that are not true? When is it appropriate to categorise such stories as lies? The narrative fleshes out these questions. In particular, the text takes pains to show that Art only partially deserves to be characterised as a mere fraudster. On the one hand we see him fleecing the millionaire widow of a mining tycoon, deliberately setting out to get her "addicted" to his psychic communications with her husband in order to pay for his made-to-measure suit habit. On the other we see him working with Agathe, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. In this case Art's ability to seem to summon the ghosts of Agathe's murdered husband and son heal her trauma and free her to rebuild a devastated life. As the novel says, Art's work "might have been a type of manipulation when manipulation is usually wrong, although not always - not when it might make you happy, or satisfied, or keep you from being alone".
The novel's main idea is that con men and entertainers, such as novelists, are not terribly different from one another: both employ lies in order to get at bigger truths, but both are morally questionable. It might seem as if there is a clear line separating the con man from the entertainer. One pretends his lies are real; the other doesn't. This is certainly the view taken by Beth's father, a magician. For him, there's only one rule in magic: you can't claim that it really is magic - that's the lie you can never tell. However, the novel sets out to blur this line in a number of ways. First, it muses out loud about its own purpose: "Your book is an honest thing. It wants to be true for you," etc. Second, it plays a number of cons on its reader, concealing both the nature of Art and Beth's relationship and the existence of Beth's child. Finally it dramatises itself as a kind of con, a trick book to be used in illusions. But if the reader is moved by Art and Beth's story, can't The Blue Book be what Beth claims it is, a kind of primer on humanity? And isn't this true even if it is a kind of con - if, even within its own narrative world, there turns out to have been no cruise, or maybe even no dead child?
The Blue Book is a novel of ideas, a genre that commonly has to contend with two problems. The first is that novels dealing with grand philosophical concepts have to avoid annoying their readers by seeming heavy-handed or trite. Case in point: on a magnet on my fridge I have a quotation about how novels are fictions that tell truths. Do we really need a whole novel to tell us this? The second is that novels whose characters are ciphers for ideas have in most cases also to take care to make those characters believable as full-blown people. Kennedy does a decent job of managing the first problem, but not such a good one with the second. The Blue Book avoids heavy-handedness because Kennedy - a stand-up comic in addition to being a novelist - is very funny. Humour leavens the book's self-seriousness. Observations on life on a cruise ship are especially good - on how "light fitments are more aspirational" on one deck than on another, or on how "being annoyed in a queue is almost indistinguishable from being right wing".
The novel's real problem, however, is with the central characters, Art and Beth, who are fundamentally unconvincing. On the plus side, both of them act the way real people act. Kennedy has been praised repeatedly for her ability to write sex scenes, and one between her protagonists is extremely well rendered, lacking any of the euphemistic squeamishness or man-of-the-world-ish faux-candour that often characterises sex writing.
However, neither of them ever talks in a recognisably human voice. Instead, both sound writerly. This is a particular problem in a novel largely composed of either dialogue or interior monologue. One example comes in a passage in which Art confronts Beth about her relationship with Derek. Combining the novel's twin fondnesses for over-eloquent melodrama and serial clauses, it reads like an episode of Columbo written by James Joyce. This is not a good thing. Who talks like this?
Art and Beth's clunkiness must be deliberate. It is, however, still a mistake. Kennedy can write pitch-perfect dialogue, as her rendition of Alfred, the protagonist of Day, demonstrates. The thought here must be that, as fake psychics, Beth and Art's speech has a stagey ring to it that forms part of the book's thinking about truth and illusion. The problem for the reader, however, is that this makes it hard to believe in Art and Beth.
Part of the point of the novel is that if a story is not fully absorbing we cannot be beguiled by it. As the novel puts it: "Once you're tucked up neat inside a story, you can find all kinds of things convincing." However, The Blue Book never really tests its own contention, since its characters' awkward speech keeps jolting its readers awake - we never get a chance to be lulled into believing in its illusion, let alone questioning the morality of such a belief.
The Blue Book wants to make a case for novels. Some novels may have the power to represent human life convincingly - to be blue books of human behaviour. But this particular novel is not quite one of them.
Tom Perrin is an assistant professor of language and literature at Huntingdon College. He has written for The National and the Times Literary Supplement.