All three of these stories have a deeply satirical flavour, with dry, mostly successful humour and pointed observations on the various absurdities and hypocrisies we live by.
“The Laying on of Hands” describes a memorial service for a masseur to the rich and famous, at which everyone (including the priest) is secretly worrying about whether the man died of AIDS. It’s told in omniscient third-person narrative, mostly focusing on the priest’s thoughts and perspectives but also dipping into the mind of a straight-laced canon sitting at the back and occasionally those of other people in the congregation. It deals nicely with the emptiness of church services at which most of the congregation don’t believe in God, and also takes a few swipes at the cult of celebrity, but the main theme is how the characters deal with death – not that of the man who actually died, but the possibility of their own.
The premise of “The Clothes They Stood Up In” is bizarre but very interesting. A staid, late middle-age couple, the Ransomes, go out to a Mozart concert one evening and return home to find that the whole contents of their flat have been removed. Not just the valuables, but every piece of furniture, the fitted carpets, the curtains, the lights, the kitchen appliances – everything. While Mr Ransome seems unaffected through the whole story, Mrs Ransome finds that the loss of all their belongings makes her go out into the world more rather than being imprisoned by her possessions.
“Father! Father! Burning Bright” is a prose version of a BBC TV film from 1982. Bennett says he wrote the story to understand more about the main character, Midgley, who he played in the film. The opening line is fantastic, one of the best I’ve read: “On the many occasions Midgley had killed his father, death had always come easily.” The story goes on to tell the reality of Midgley’s father’s death. Midgley goes to the hospital and waits doggedly for his father to die, determined not to fail him as he has always failed him before. Spoiler alert – look away now if you don’t want to see the ending! The ending is a little predictable for me, and the manner of it a little contrived – he is having sex with one of the nurses and misses his father’s death, incurring one last triumphant smile from his father: he failed again. There’s nothing remotely attractive or appealing about Midgley’s character and the random sex with the nurse just doesn’t feel plausible. But I did like the story overall, particularly the feeling of frustration and injustice. MIdgley is a character you should really despise, but because the world despises him and treats him so badly, you end up feeling sorry for him and being on his side. The hospital staff are wonderfully disapproving, self-righteous, callous and officious, and the whole experience of being Midgley for a while is so depressing that you can understand how he ended up so weak and self-pitying.
One thing I did notice in all three stories is that Bennett’s style works wonderfully when the humour works, but there were a few moments where the jokes didn’t work and the style irritated. In the first two stories, also, there were a lot of fussy comments about young people and their bad grammar and American talk-show style of speech and thought, sometimes with the same examples – complaining about the misuse of “hopefully” for example. They were mouthed through the characters, but felt more like Alan Bennett’s pet peeves. Apart from those minor points, though, I enjoyed these and want to read more by him. I really liked “The Uncommon Reader” too – I read it in the London Review of Books, not sure if it’s the same as the full book-length version as it didn’t seem that long.