This is the quality of many of the short stories in AL Kennedy's masterful new collection that are persistently tangential and almost always unnerving.
One starts worrying about these characters before given explicit reason to, partly because one knows this is what Kennedy does, and that even if a character is lying in a hotel bedroom, sitting on the platform of a railway station, walking on a beach or having sex with the help in the kitchen, their mind is wandering and will eventually fall upon the raw, nagging itching kernel of things.
The book purports to be a collection of love stories, and I suppose that is one way of describing a ramble through the outer reaches of the needy human psyche. This is love as longing, anxiety, loss, pining and occasionally redemption. Illness lurks in the background, death too; but not romance. And actually, for Kennedy, that is upbeat territory. What Becomes, her last short story collection, was thoroughly miserable - it had, she quipped, "a definite commitment to misery, rather than an inadvertently high level of misery."
Here she seems to have toned the misery down. All is not utterly bleak. There are a few stories that seem very nearly optimistic and almost happy. A blind date, which seemed an awkward, disappointed mess, heading towards only disappointment, transforms (awkwardly of course) with a small observation that "repositions everything" into quite the opposite. A boy recovering from a serious head accident has an almost transcendental sense of his future manhood and glories. A couple who are scared they are falling apart find that actually what is between them has not broken.
Of course there is darkness and despair. A man clearing out a flat where he used to live with a woman - which has become dark and scruffy, untended, populated by blowflies - thinks of how he wants to hold on to the good times by not letting it and its contents go or change. A woman retains a tight fury at being sold a sex toy she did not want, though this is just her way of sealing herself from thinking about what happened before the sex shop.
But even the despair is not always asking to be taken totally seriously. In All The Rage, a man stands on a railway platform with his wife, half-contemplating, or perhaps just playing in his mind, with "suicide as an alternative to marriage". His suicidal thoughts seem, possibly, to be a game.
Kennedy's stories appear to roam, chaotically, like the mind, but of course they are neat, perfect messes. Her stories go a long way from their start point, and that is the thrill. You never know where they might dart. Many of her characters meanwhile crave order, cleanliness, the impersonal - belongings and paperwork are frequently being sorted, only to send those untidier thoughts bubbling up to the surface. She writes mostly as she long has done, deftly shifting inside and outside, moving between italicised interior monologue and close shouldering a character - her people are always talking to themselves, thinking about thinking - all the while placing the hard, inflexible surfaces of physical surroundings, up against the darting, amorphous mind.
She is also delightfully unafraid of the embarrassing silliness of the stray human thought. "Old bloke sh****** the help, and cracking interior single entendres," one character says to himself, as he ponders the ways in which sex with his cleaner is shaggy and dog-like and "something comfy and tousled, sturdy, reliable, warm-muzzled, panting".
But, of course, Kennedy is also a politically engaged writer, so we also find in this collection the brutality of the military and also lost idealism - or perhaps never quite found idealism. In All The Rage a man recalls the joy and horror he felt at being invited to a demo by his lover. He is a journalist, rendered cynical and compromised by his work. "She wanted me to sit on the grubby turf with her, take in the scene, listen while the converted doggedly tried to convert the converted. But I'd done that before. When I was her age. I'd already disappointed myself back then and didn't intend to again."
There are other people who write better about the commonplace, who speak more resonantly about the nature of longing or long-term living together. But Kennedy has a liking for extremes, not commonplaces: a boy recovering from a head injury accident, a woman who has gynaecological cancer, a soldier who saw things at Abu Ghraib he can't forget. She also does not pretend to the ordinary, but rather is seeking out other, less explored perspectives. She is, indeed, rather like one of her characters, a woman who "sought out oddities wherever she could in order to ensure their continuance". It's as if Kennedy is trying to do just that: to keep the undocumented oddities of love alive, keep them going by giving them voice.
AL Kennedy will be at the Aye Write! festival on Tuesday April 8 at 6pm. For details see: www.ayewrite.com