“Original Bliss” takes as its theme a situation prevalent in many of A. L. Kennedy’s short stories: A frustrated female character, hemmed in by the mundane routines of her life, must enter a period of struggle in order to maintain her identity in a world that would deny her the opportunity to be anything other than the sum of her domestic roles. Kennedy’s portrayal of these struggles relies on a detailed depiction of psychological turmoil. Many of her stories end at a liminal moment, a moment at which a leap of faith must be made. Kennedy’s stories are generally open-ended, abandoning her protagonists at the crucial juncture where they must either choose to take responsibility for themselves or regress to their earlier state of hopelessness.
This novella is the title story of Kennedy’s 1997 collection. The novella focuses on Margery Brindle, significantly referred to for much of the story simply as Mrs. Brindle. Margery Brindle’s life is controlled by her husband, a masculine archetype, who requires that she fulfill certain prescribed roles that almost wholly involve serving his needs and whims. Mrs. Brindle is able to cope with these restrictions thanks to her particular conception of God, a hybrid figure who performs the functions of lover and confidant, as well as being a moral guardian and vengeful disciplinarian.
The story follows the repercussions of Mrs. Brindle’s loss, not of a strictly orthodox religious faith but of this specific conception of God. Kennedy shows that Mrs. Brindle’s mind is beginning to rebel against its own self-imposed shackles, which have been constructed from the limited ideological material she has had access to in her circumscribed life. Mrs. Brindle’s life, however, is bearable only because of her apparent adherence to guidelines set down by this higher power. Without any sense that her God, purveyor of part moral guidance and part mortal fear, provides an overarching set of moral and spiritual guidelines, Margery Brindle’s life becomes an existentially oppressive void of monotonous routine tasks.
The novella begins as Mrs. Brindle, unable to sleep, attempts to evade the dark hours by watching television. The program she happens to see introduces her to Professor Edward E. Gluck, a leading academic in the field of cybernetics and the author and practitioner of a self-help regime he refers to simply as “The Process.” Margery is attracted by the fact that Gluck appears to understand perfectly the conditions of his own existence and their link to his constant psychic and spiritual contentment. Gluck becomes an omnipresent figure, appearing on Margery’s radio and in the magazines she reads. Encouraged by his claim that she too can be “the miracle that makes itself,” she lies to her husband about a visit to a sick relative before traveling to a conference in Germany at which Gluck is the keynote speaker.
Margery’s uncharacteristic flight begins her journey away from her old life and into a moral maze. She and Gluck become friends, though the erotic tension between them causes the return of Mrs. Brindle’s personal God, which at first, she relishes. Gluck’s Process, too, proves to be fallible: Despite his ability to help others, he is unable to cure himself of his addiction to hard-core pornography. After they return to their previous lives, a growing need develops between Margery and Gluck as both of them become increasingly unable to deal with the conditions of their own existence. After Margery is subjected to Mr. Brindle’s domestic violence, she again takes flight from Glasgow and arrives at Gluck’s home in London. Once there, Margery is not required to act as a servant, while her presence prevents Gluck from using pornography. It is here, though, that Margery makes the discovery that sex can be a form of need rather than a duty or requirement. Gluck’s tentative moves toward a consummation of their relationship, however, involve elements of his deviant sexuality. In a symbolic scene, he attempts to shape and possess Margery in a way that reduces her identity and is thus comparable to her subjection beneath Mr. Brindle’s will. Faithful to her marriage vows, and as her God reasserts himself, Margery again flees Gluck’s presence and returns to her old life.
In “Mr. Brindle’s House,” Margery awaits guidance or punishment from her personal God. After a torturous wait, Margery decides to initiate the inevitable violence herself. She is severely injured by her husband, who then takes an overdose of painkillers and dies. Gluck and Margery are reunited in the hospital, and she is discharged into his care. The novella ends as Margery and Edward consummate their relationship under the watchful eye of a “Jealous, Patient Love”—a God of their own mutual creation and the culmination of their Process.
“Original Bliss” shows Margery Brindle’s move toward catharsis through a series of incidents that can almost be described as purgatorial. She and Gluck must learn to live both with and without one another in order to test their love and, crucially, their faith. The novella essentially charts the relationship between two badly damaged individuals who, despite their vast differences in life and lifestyle, are able to use their juxtaposition to achieve a kind of spiritual equilibrium. The ending of the novella, however, remains ambiguous. Margery and Edward have, to this point, enjoyed a relationship based on its illicit nature: Both have used the relationship as an escape from a particular conception of reality. It remains to be seen whether they are capable of forging a relationship now that its function as emotional outlet has been exhausted. It is characteristic of Kennedy’s style that the removal of the impediment to the relationship, Mr. Brindle, does not amount to resolution. Kennedy’s characters live in a complicated world, and there can be no final escape from its demands.
Kennedy, A. L. Original Bliss. London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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