If you want to read something different read Rachel Kendall.
Her collection of short stories ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ is a dazzling assortment of polished dark prose that inhabits the traditions of surrealism and existentialism.
Rachel Kendall writes with a mature assured narrative voice that is evocative and disturbing in the way the best prose that seeks to challenge us is. She uses physical detail and experience to conjure a symbolic sense of alienation and the fragmentation of identity.
The opening story ‘I Know You’ instantly captures the scene and is a good example of her writing
”Every hotel room is the same, its sterility as conducive to forgotten memories as the white scent of fresh linen. Totally devoid of character: not a single picture hangs on the magnolia walls.”
The story describes what appears to be a commercial or casual sexual encounter in a hotel yet Rachel Kendall keeps the reader guessing by omitting the details that realism demands. The narrator’s statements are Kafkaesque
”I need nothing. I am not a caryatid. I am not the backbone of the state. I am the state.”
The narrator loses control dramatically in the story.
And this is the brilliance of the author’s writing, she leaves you wondering if this is about a prostitute who has picked up a trick and ended up being damaged by him or simply a sexual encounter that illustrates the objectification that is implicit in the opening description of the hotel room and its utilitarian control.
Rachel Kendall is highly skilled at writing surrealism, the kind of uncanny nightmarish prose that you find in the darker corners of Dostoyevsky.
In the title story childbirth is described in terms that convey some visceral horror attendant to it.
Rachel Kendall offsets environmental detail against extreme existential panic
”The wallpaper in the room is white with pink roses. The bedspread is caramel. There is an off-white teasmaid next to his side of the bed, a brown television set with an indoor aerial and a bulbous screen. ”
She takes the reader into the underbelly
”And there it is. The baby puddles out onto the wet bed under cover of blood and mucus. Three, maybe four seconds pass before Adam comes to his senses and rushes over, looks at Anne, and picks up the tiny bundle. It really is small, very small, and sticky with grime. He swaddles the thing (boy? girl?) in a hotel towel, turning it red, and tries to delicately wipe the eyes and mouth, clear the airways, hear a cry. Only then does he begin to see the shape of things. The mouth’s protrusion, the random feathers piercing the body like needles jutting from veins, the webbed fingers and four toes, one extending backwards to the heel of each foot. This is a travesty. The eyes are black. One on each side of the head. And the beak is fleshy and pink. It doesn’t breathe. ”
Rachel Kendall’s style reminds me at times of the Comte de Lautreamont yet it is starker and more mature. It also reminds me of Baudelaire in its challenge to the ‘hypocrite lecteur’. This is not because she is derivative. Far from it, she has a unique voice. She has inherited and is innovating within these literary traditions. She involves the reader in a way that challenges the voyeurism of reading. She disturbs inbuilt bourgeois complacencies.
There is a strong sense of George Batailles with his exploration of sexuality in ‘L’Erotisme’ and also the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who explored the knowability of the universe we inhabit in ‘Simulations’. He saw we inhabit a simulated version of reality and this sense is present here.
There is the constant sense of that unknowability and the threat that poses.
In ‘Penny Whistle’ a circus performer describes how the show has used her. Her experience entertaining others has crossed into a privacy that once again illustrates the theme of use and the uses society puts people to
”And when he removed his top hat and his black hair sprung out at odd angles, I looked into his soft kind eyes and saw my admirer. I let him undress me as I had before in my dreams. When he took a pair of handcuffs from his top pocket I lay down still and let him cuff my wrists to the bedposts. As he brought out my walking cane from beneath the bed my breathing shallowed and my body swelled. As he pulled out a string of handkerchiefs from his sleeves I opened my mouth wide to let him stuff them inside. And as he beat me across the face till I bruised and bled, I felt whole and beautiful, and free as a bird.”
The theme of spectacle, of show is played with.
The sexual extremes of the Marquis de Sade are here too but not in some cheap way, in the way that Hegel illustrated the conflict between master and servant in ‘Phenomenology Of Spirit’ or Strindberg in his play ‘Miss Julie.’
These stories are effective because they refuse to let you settle on a realism. They refuse to comfort you with a point of reference that will take away your unease, or as F Scott Fitzgerald said ”crooning there are no wolves outside the cabin door.” There is a strong theme of utilitarianism in this collection, of the objectification of men and women by the state and this is conveyed through symbol and situation. Rachel Kendall never politicises to the point where you feel she has drifted from story telling.
The use of physicality to draw the reader into a layer of meaning is a constant in these stories, and is well illustrated in the final story ‘Reduction’
”Starting with the extremities, the furthest of the appendages, the fingertips that could crawl inside of me. The only way to be. To become. The tongue, the penis, inside they can be healed. The perimeters, the lines carved out. With my knife. The jutting ankle bone that heralds to my lips as I press them against. . . the Achilles heel, the weak spot, the place that might snap, like your wrists, or mine. With one fluid gesture, or one too many fast flicks in my direction. ”
I think Rachel Kendall is a major voice. She is a highly talented author who should be read.
“The Bride Stripped Bare” is available at these online shops:
In the US: Lulu
In the UK: Dog Horn Publishing; Waterstone’s; WHSmith
Rachel Kendall’s website is here.
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