Feb/Mar 2008

Screen Test Pilot

An RAF gunner stars in his own biopic in A. L. Kennedy's novel

Steven G. Kellman


If history repeats itself, the second time around, pace Marx, is less likely to be farce than film. Consider the superannuated outlaws and Indian chiefs who showed up as extras in early westerns, placed on the studio payroll to impersonate themselves. Or Josef von Sternberg's 1928 silent gem The Last Command, in which Emil Jannings plays Grand Duke Sergius Alexander Dolgorucki, the commander of all Russian armies, who is forced by the revolution into exile and indigence. The deposed grandee makes his way to Hollywood, where he ends up in front of a camera, playing a czarist general and earning his wages by waging a battle he lost the first time.

Alfred Day, the eponymous protagonist of A. L. Kennedy's fifth novel, recapitulates on film his experiences in a prisoner-of-war camp. A turret gunner in the Royal Air Force, Day is shot down during a bombing run over Germany. He spends the remainder of World War II in harsh captivity. In 1949, he returns to the same prison camp, to play a POW in a war movie filmed on location. The guards are fake and so are the prisoners, but pretending, like reading, somehow makes it real. An inner voice tells Day: "The trouble was, after a while tucked up in the Luftwaffe bag, you had truly felt fictional and afterwards it didn't leave you." He is, of course, fictional, though such metafictional touches throughout remind us that, in some ways, all the world's a movie set.

Over several days, Day and the other extras are worked hard simulating forced labor. Mustered to a roll call one morning and commanded to stand at attention, Day faints. The swoon impresses the director as dramatically effective, and he incorporates it into the final script. However, he chooses another man to do the fainting and spends two hours rehearsing his fall. "He is undoubtedly better than you are at being you," Day, whose sense of self is never steady, concludes.

David Niven as Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946.

For its POW scenes, at least, Day might pass for the British counterpart to Groundhog Day, a cosmic comedy of personal liberation through repetition: A twenty-five-year-old veteran is ultimately freed from servitude only by reenacting it. "It was a fine game, filming," scoffs Day, in a novel that is in part a sly ekphrastic lark, a playful, self-conscious attempt to represent cinema in prose, even as each medium struggles to translate human experience into its own terms. Day is a cinematic novel not only because its main character ends up in a movie but because it employs many of the techniques—flashback, voice-over, crosscutting—native to filmmaking. The resulting structures and textures make Day quite unlike anything else in print or on-screen.

At forty-two, Kennedy, who was born in Dundee and lives in Glasgow, is seasoned enough to have outlived her designation by Granta, in 1993 and again in 2003, as one of the twenty "Best of Young British Novelists." Day confirms her as simply one of the best. And Kennedy is versatile enough, publishing short stories and essays, as well as doing stand-up comedy, to resist designation merely as a novelist, even as her latest sly fiction defies reduction to a linear plot. Day grows up despising his abusive fishmonger father and adoring his vulnerable mother. When war breaks out, he, seeking escape from his dreary life in the Midlands town of Wednesbury, enlists. His bombing crew—Molloy, Miles, Skipper, Pluckrose, Torrington, and the Bastard—form a sassy surrogate family; the others call Day, only five feet four, Boss. Together, they almost succeed in completing their thirty perilous sorties against Germany.

Day is a book to savor, not consume. Kennedy plants speed bumps along the way to impede and discourage mere browsing. Skimmers risk impalement on her honed, barbed prose. Laced with Brit slang (bostin, clemmed, bint, mither, sprog), the prose simultaneously attests to authenticity and invites awe at its literary tour de force. The narrative voice varies, sometimes abruptly, among the third, first, and second persons, all of them stratagems to enter and evoke the tormented mind of the protagonist. Kennedy's technique of confounding past, present, and future leaves the reader, too, disoriented. From one sentence to the next, the tale jumps among times and places—Day's childhood in Wednesbury; basic training for the RAF; bombing runs across the Channel; the POW camp; the bookstore where Day, a proud autodidact, works after the war; the set. During a short leave in London, Day bumps into a young woman in a bomb shelter. Though Joyce Antrobus is married, to a military officer who is missing in Asia, she and Day develop an intense relationship. Excerpts from Joyce's letters are scattered throughout the novel, amid encounters with Vasyl Mishchenko, a treacherous thug who is released from a Ukrainian displaced persons' camp to work on the set. Also woven into the text is a premeditated murder that Day commits and postmeditates on.

Forever on the verge of violence or despair, the former gunner, who watches while pieces of a comrade's splattered carcass are hosed out of their plane's fuselage, suffers from what would now be called post-traumatic stress. For Day, though, the trauma seems mostly to have been birth. He is often ready to accept a friend's repeated onomastic jest and "call it A. Day." He announces: "Human beings, we're the worst stink in the world, like a disease. It's in us. Like a disease." The misanthropy, though, is tempered by the context. At the time, Day is trying to shake off the charitable attentions of an intrusive stranger, and he succeeds; after Day's aspersion on their entire species, the busybody replies: "I won't talk to you again. . . . I don't know you. You don't know me."

Yet if there is one thing that the troubled characters in Day do seem to know, intimately, it is the vanity of human wishes. In a second-person assertion that implicates the reader with Day and the rest of the wretched race, we are admonished: "However skilled you are at tucking what you care about away, however low you lie, however trained and fine you make yourself, it doesn't matter—you are a small, soft thing and the world is full of fire and hardness and if you are scared, alert, distracted, bored with your job, the bullet hits you all the same. It doesn't mind."

Ivor Sands, who employs Day in a dying little London bookshop, is cynical about any principle but self-interest: "All the rubbish my mother used to talk about this and that class––it doesn't matter. It's only that whoever crawls to the top of the heap will always think the rest of us are scum. That's the only law." However, the scummiest character in Kennedy's cast is Vasyl, a psychopathic shape-shifter who prowls the set in search of unguarded plunder. During a break between scenes, he confesses to having been a gleeful participant in a pogrom. Vasyl offers a grimly reductive definition of bodies: "I understand people—they hold blood. That's all they are: they're things to hold blood." Reminders of how bloody boggin Homo sapiens can be are scattered so widely throughout the novel that the effect is droll, making the situation seem only that much more grotesque and grim.

Kennedy succeeds brilliantly in evoking wartime England, a nation under siege and attacked by firebombs. She is particularly impressive in conveying Day's suppressed desires and his sexual initiation. But Kennedy was born twenty years after Day returned to England from captivity, and if it is a general rule that historical fiction is always a veiled statement about the present, it is not hard to find contemporary analogues to elements in this story. For example, Pluckrose, the crew's upper-class navigator, broods about the imprecision of their air strikes: "Trouble is, even when I'm on the ground, I can get a fix that's accurate to maybe five miles, possibly one or two. . . . What am I dropping my bombs on? Am I right? How often are we right? And if we're not right . . . "

The possibility of error is too disturbing for Pluckrose to allow himself to draw out the conclusion, but not for a reader, mindful of "collateral damage" caused by British and American attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, to contemplate. The spectacle of Day beaten, starved, and tortured by his German captors conjures up more recent ghosts, of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. More generally, the unrelenting terror of London under siege and of an RAF gunner over Hamburg is a prologue to our post–September 11 world.

Nevertheless, as dreadful as it is to behold a world at war and a man at odds with all, Day is a triumph of despondent levity. It does not give too much away to reveal that the novel concludes on a hopeful note, in the future tense, with a word of mirth: "And you will feel like laughing." Yes, you will.

Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005) and was recently awarded the National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

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