||Collecting Extraordinary Ordinary Lives
by Irene D'Souza
Readers who expect Alan Bennett to turn in another opus as accomplished
as his previous works, such as The Talking Head' series on PBS,
will not be disappointed in the three stories that make up the
collection of The Laying on of Hands. Bennett, who has already
captured our loyalty and made us more attentive to the foibles of
being human in screen plays such as Prick up your ears, is never
preachy or sappy. He has an uncanny ability to get under the skins
of his characters. This versatile creative raconteur has honed his
skills at examining character and situation, capitalizing on his
Bennett is unafraid of psychological complexity. He never flinches
from probing the darker recesses of the human psyche, but also
provides his characters with a compassionate edge. The characters
may be funny and zany but they are whimsically drawn portraits of
ordinary people living extraordinary lives. His fascination with
ordinary life and the cadence of emotions are at the core of his
stories. With sentences crafted to bring the darker side of life
into sharp focus, Bennett creates alienated people drowning in
loneliness, desperately reaching for guidance in a world devoid of
moral and spiritual markers. Bennett once again demonstrates his
mastery at turning tragedy into comedy with his cast of unforgettable
thinking women and men. The stories are clever, alchemical-Bennett
begins by saying something about the state of contemporary England,
and gradually, moves to a discussion on race, class and the perils
Take the title story: Ostensibly about a memorial service for a
gifted young masseur, Clive, whose trademark hands have left an
indelible print on famous people from all walks of life, the tale
is actually a satire on all things religious, sexual and English.
Father Geoffery Jolliffe an Anglican priest with more than a passing
affinity for all things Roman, and who had fancied and known Clive
in the biblical sense, contemplates life, death, God, the afterlife,
sin and redemption. Not being apprised of the cause of Clive's
untimely death in this age of punishment for the unfettering of
one's carnal desires is the major concern for most of the congregation.
Many of the couples who were more intimate with Clive than each
other receive news of the cause of his death with orgasmic glee.
Bennett illuminates telling moments in his characters' lives.
"Irony was always the deity's strong point and to afflict a
transgressor as timid as Geoffrey with such a disproportionate
penalty might appeal to the Almighty's sense of cosmic fun."
The fact that this hapless priest is plunked down into a vocation
more loathed than respected beautifully articulates the balance
between choice and impulse. Bennett captures the giddy decadence
of the celebrity class, their transgressions, confessions and
resolutions. This story has all the right ingredients; Father
Jolliffe's half-repressed desires and conflicting sense of pride
and shame are realistically captured. His layered and tormented
character is vividly, fully realized. And the sham of the bereaved
congregation is farce at its best-rich, absorbing and so much fun.
"Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet", is a poignant and sobering
study of filial cruelty as well as the exploration of erotic tension
between a lonely unmarried department store clerk and an unconventional
podiatrist. Bennett movingly shows how humans manage to maneuver,
however clumsily, through the hazards of life, coming to terms with
the wrecks of their own psyches. Miss Fozzard has the dubious
distinction of looking after her stroke-affected ungrateful brother,
whose vocabulary consists of one word, cow', which he manages to
vocalize when his sister is in the vicinity. A non-entity at her
place of work, Miss Fozzard's only pleasure in life is getting rid
of her tinea pedis. When circumstances force her to forgo her
treatments; she gets a unique proposition and willingly accepts.
"I SUPPOSE THERE'S A WORD for what I'm doing butI skirt round
it." This quirky meditation on the fragile and melancholy world
of the unmarried, older sales clerk could easily have resulted in
clich or camp, but Bennett's heartbreaking rendition is grace
personified. Read it to understand that love in its many guises is
sometimes more than enough.
In "Father! Father! Burning Bright", Bennett chronicles
the unending dilemmas faced by adult children and their aging
parents. Sandwiched between a mediocre career and a less than loving
nuclear family, a man whose name is Midgley, keeps vigil at his
father's deathbed. Much to his wife's chagrin, Midgley refuses to
leave the hospital until the end. This is not about an emotionally
wounded loving son; it is about a man confronting his own mortality
and grasping for some excitement in his own life. Bennett depicts
not just the familiar sterile landscape of middle-age angst, but
the inner lives of those confronting the inevitable.
The stories in this wonderfully compact book resonate with honesty
as they neatly chronicle extraordinary ordinary lives. They make
for a most satisfying read.