Twenty-four long hours, two lonely people, one city in decline. This is the premise of A.L. Kennedy’s new novel Serious Sweet, a work full of anger at what has happened to London since the Thatcher revolution and concern for the city’s isolated, impotent inhabitants. Kennedy’s representative Londoners are Jon, a divorced and fusty civil servant, a ‘passed over man’ plagued by failure, and Meg, a bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic who jokes at her own expense that she is ‘Fine: Fucked-up Insecure Neurotic and Emotional’. The novel takes in many contemporary bugbears — the loss of civility, state snooping on private lives, misogyny and child abuse — but like the city itself, these are largely in the background or filtered through the minds of Jon and Meg. The plot of Serious Sweet, such as it is, lies in the vast interior landscapes of Kennedy’s suffering, self-lacerating protagonists.
As with other recent explorations of 21st-century individualism (Knausgaard, Yanagihara), Kennedy thinks that it takes a big novel to show just how distended the self has become. But in her case, the pursuit of people who are traumatised and adrift, and whose language is often banal (‘Fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him’, is one of Meg’s not untypical thoughts), means that it isn’t only her characters, but Kennedy’s novel itself that suffers from a sense of exhaustion: endless sweary tirades are intended to show how frustrated Jon and Meg are, but the cumulative effect is deadening, making their voices indistinguishable and undermining what is nuanced and sensitive in Kennedy’s writing.
The epigraph to Serious Sweet comes from Matthew Arnold: ‘to see the object as in itself it truly is’.