In A.L. Kennedy’s marvelous new novel Paradise, drunkenness is a hardy vocation, “like being a miner, or a nurse.” The job comes with fearsome physical hazards and stacks of overtime, but it’s not without perks, including frequent spontaneous travel (at any given moment, you might come to in Budapest, London, Dublin, or Montreal) and unique derivation of personal fulfillment: “Because once you’ve begun to have blackouts, you’ll never stop and so before and after don’t exist—you’ve mastered the art of escaping from linear time.”
A lucid first-person account of severe alcoholism, Paradise opens in some hotel, near some airport. We might be coming or going from anywhere, which happens to be Hannah Luckraft’s permanent residence. A nominal sales rep for the Cardboard Products Group, 36-year-old Hannah is foremost a spectacular drunk, with countless frames and entire reels missing from her sputtering life movie. Like the vengeance-seeking amnesiac in Memento, she is forever blinking into the white light of an apparently new situation and then absorbing the blinding bolts of nauseous recognition. The persistent sad sack in the hotel breakfast room turns out to be the previous evening’s sexual partner. A stool at the bar transforms into an armchair in the living room of her appalled parents, long in mourning for their wrecked child.
A life composed of sudden starts “keeps you bright and springy, alert,” Hannah claims; the constant improvisation and rapid-fire processing generate a crackling animal nowness, which temporarily fends off the guilt, shame, and attendant existential horrors also sliding into focus. Boxed into a perpetual present tense, Hannah doesn’t conceive of a future beyond the next procurement of spirits—until she finds her supposed salvation, fellow alcoholic Robert, a married dentist with a propensity for disappearing acts. Together they get thrown out of every pub in the British Isles, briefly get straight, and perfect their lengthy Categories of Drunk: chocolate drunk (as in, you feel so delicious you’d eat yourself), ghost drunk (what you’re seeing), sand drunk (what you’re walking through), blessed drunk.
Written by a woman about a woman, Paradise is thus doubly unusual among the annals of alcoholics in fiction, veering far from the romanticized machismo of Bukowski or Hemingway and sitting slightly askew from the mordant, detached fatalism of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas or Malcolm Lowry’s mescal-soaked Under the Volcano. Kennedy refuses any tidy explanation for Hannah’s illness. Her drinking is not a poetic mission or a rebellion. She is not suicidal; she is not a tortured artist. No demons or rogue genes run visibly riot among Hannah’s supremely functional family, whose anguish leaves the most blood on her shaking hands:
Now when we meet we are not people: only unfortunate reminders, bodies of bad evidence. The money they kept on lending me, the money that I took, the falling asleep with my face in the Sunday lunch, the endless trail of lies and breakages and stains and the dirt and the damp and the unnamed disease of myself, at large in their house, more than naked when they saw me, more than obscene, stinking of animal will and sawdust.
Kennedy’s prose, a concentrate of acrid wit and sorrowful precision, is astonishing as always, achieving both a prehensile immediacy of sensory experience and a sidelong spiritual journey. Hannah has her own personal God, a linen-suited, absentminded fellow who smokes non-tobacco cigars and occasionally lobs a thought Hannah’s way, as when she walks through a construction site and (“I can actually taste God now, I can feel Him lean his thumb down on my neck”) half knowingly sinks her foot onto an exposed, filthy nail. Divided into 14 sections based on the stations of the cross, Paradise enacts the profound solipsism and self-willed physical suffering associated with the throes of religious ecstasy—a recurrent albeit submerged theme in Kennedy’s fiction. (Hannah’s s/m relationship with the bottle often evokes the passion of Nathan Staples, the guilt-battered novelist in Kennedy’s Everything You Need, who mortifies his flesh with hanging ropes, glass tables, and spring traps.)
Paradise takes its biggest risks in the head-spinning final sections, which send Hannah on a train ride that shape-shifts into a sinister bacchanalia but is destined for a state of grace. As Kennedy fearlessly roams this internal terrain of Inferno and—as promised—Paradiso, Hannah stumbles toward the unmapped realm of the blessed drunks: “I assume that its bliss comes mainly from this absence of yourself—it burns you up completely and grants you the grace of a temporary death while it curls up and rejoices in your soul.”