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March 2022 Issue [Reviews]

Peculiar Things, Yet Intimately Familiar

The elusive fiction of Claire-Louise Bennett
Nightstand 4, by Aubrey Levinthal © The artist. Courtesy M+B, Los Angeles, and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York City

Nightstand 4, by Aubrey Levinthal © The artist. Courtesy M+B, Los Angeles, and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York City


Peculiar Things, Yet Intimately Familiar

The elusive fiction of Claire-Louise Bennett

Discussed in this essay:

Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett. Riverhead. 208 pages. $16.

Checkout 19, by Claire-Louise Bennett. Riverhead. 288 pages. $27.

“I didn’t want to exist in books,” declares the narrator of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19, and yet she is surrounded by them. Checkout 19 is, among other things—ostensibly a novel, for instance—a series of essays on reading, and books of all sorts flock through its pages. “I hadn’t yet read a single word by Italo Calvino, Jean Rhys, Borges, or Thomas Bernhard, nor Clarice Lispector,” the reader is told. “I had read Of Mice and Men, and Lolita, and ‘Kubla Khan,’ and The Diary of a Young Girl.

Like Pond, Bennett’s 2015 debut, Checkout 19 comes heavily buttressed with epigraphs. Pond begins with quotations from Nietzsche, Natalia Ginzburg, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. Checkout 19 starts with Ingeborg Bachmann and E. M. Forster, then provides a quote for each chapter: Milton, Annie Ernaux, D. H. Lawrence, Clarice Lispector, Anaïs Nin, Bachmann again, Ernaux again. “Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones,” we read before reaching a word of Bennett’s first book. And, in her second, “One cannot see the future of something learned.”

Usually, such swarms of citation would be a bad omen, a first glimpse of ponderousness and pretension. But Bennett’s work is precisely the opposite—it is sly and strange and deceptively casual. As it reveals itself, the mass of quotation begins to seem less like a weighty clearing of the throat, and more like padding for something new and vulnerable, or a gate enclosing something wild.

Reviewers, likewise, have seemed to need plenty of landmarks to navigate Bennett’s books. Pond alone brought her comparisons to everyone from W. B. Yeats to Lydia Davis, Samuel Beckett to Emily Dickinson, Knut Hamsun to Henry David Thoreau. (I, equally desperate, might add Nicholson Baker, Fleur Jaeggy, and Gerald Murnane.) It’s not that she is doing so many disparate things, but that what she is doing is so elusive, and many pins are needed to get the specimen onto the board.

Pond was presented as a collection of short stories, yet it feels as much like a novel, a memoir, and, at times, a series of prose poems. Its twenty sections, ranging in length from a few sentences to a couple dozen pages, concern the day-to-day life of an unnamed woman living alone in a small cottage in the countryside. Bennett herself moved from England to Ireland in her early twenties and lived for some years in a cottage near the west coast, so we might assume the book’s narrator is similarly situated, though this is never made explicit. In fact, almost everything about her is left obscure: her name, her age, her past, her family, her plans, her job, her relationships, most of her desires (we assume), most of her emotions (we hope)—Pond sets all these to one side.

Instead, the book follows the narrator’s consciousness through little curlicues of reverie and fixation, a flickering play of “small things,” like the fact that the knobs on her cottage’s tiny stove are breaking one by one:

When the first one goes it’s no big deal, it’s easy enough to slide off one of the other control knobs connected to a part of the oven not in current use, but, when the second control knob split, things got trickier.

The stove turns out to have been made by a South African company, leaving the narrator to scour secondhand shops online and call a kitchen appliance company in England. Finally, she gives up: “I feel quite at a loss for about ten minutes and it’s a sensation, I realise, that is not entirely dissimilar to indifference. So, naturally, I handle it rather well.”

Another section, “Finishing Touch,” begins “I think I’m going to throw a little party,” then spends much of nine pages in contemplation of an ottoman—where it should be placed at the party, who might sit on it, or fail to sit on it, how that might be rectified:

What kind of a calamity would it now be if as it turned out the person I have very much in mind does not in fact sit upon the ottoman but leans in the doorway, for example? . . . Would it appear so very eccentric if I suggested to them that in fact the ottoman is a very nice place to sit? Well of course it would. . . . Of course I could devise some kind of game that included everybody and involved me appointing each person a place in the room—that could work—that would work—but it would be stupid, even if they thought it was sort of charming and zany I would know it was absolutely bogus and stupid, and how would I live with myself for the rest of the night after that exactly?

In the event, “For a long time a man sat on the ottoman, I don’t remember which man . . . and of course that wasn’t at all what I’d had in mind.” Though it’s narrated in the first person, the reader is kept at a certain remove from this tiny drama of anxiety and disappointment, never fully clued in to what is at stake. We’re outside, watching through the windows as the narrator bustles from room to room.

The effect of Pond’s minutiae and rumination is, in part, exactly what you might expect: a soothing, gently amusing, pleasingly inconsequential nattering-on. It is cozy, intimate, often charming, sometimes exasperating, sometimes antic and funny (“Oh, tomato puree!” begins one of its shortest sections, titled “Oh, Tomato Puree!”). It occasionally offers the pleasures of precision, of the sort that animate Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine or Kay Ryan’s poetry—the satisfying click of diction and object joining perfectly, most audible when the object is especially mundane (the observation, for instance, that en suite bathrooms are to be avoided because “it’s much nicer to leave a room entirely before entering another”).

But only occasionally. More often, Bennett’s language is a strange mix of the exact and the commonplace, silted up with pat phrases and linguistic filler: “if you must know,” “quite frankly,” “as a matter of fact,” “well really,” “by the way.” Sometimes they add conversational rhythm to what might otherwise be simple descriptive passages, and sometimes they come so thick and fast it’s as if the book is being narrated nervously to a stranger, or by someone unexpectedly called on to speak in public. Then suddenly the pinpoint beauty returns. Near the end of “Control Knobs,” the narrator, walking back to her cottage, reflects on how moving to a new town leaves you vulnerable to its history: “If you are not from a particular place the history of that particular place will dwell inside you differently to how it dwells within those people who are from that particular place.” The language is engaging yet constrained, with its repetitions of “particular place.” And then, after a paragraph break, it flares into bright, particular life:

And so it comes at you directly, right through the softly padding soles of your feet, battering up throughout your body, before unpacking its clamouring store of images in the clear open spaces of your mind.

It is a thoroughly discombobulating effect, a narrative voice that is both unstable and unified, commonplace and unique, drab and hypnotic. It can feel as if this work of fiction is being disassembled and reassembled as you read it, bent nails left protruding from beautifully polished wood. Or as if, in addition to the many everyday objects she devotes her attention to, Bennett is treating words themselves as another set of things to be considered. Some are rare and precious, while others are dingy, tattered, secondhand—the kind most writers do their best to avoid, but here remain worthy of a spot on the shelf.

At times, Bennett refuses description entirely. “Everyone has seen a sunset,” the narrator declares while observing one, and therefore she will not describe it.

Neither will I set down any of the things that scudded across my mind when the earth’s trajectory became so discernibly and disarmingly attested to. Peculiar things, yet intimately familiar.

This is a little contradictory, of course, as a vivid picture is given of at least one thing that the sunset brings to mind. But the gesture pervades the book.

In Checkout 19, Bennett’s narrator makes a passing reference to Milan Kundera’s “gallant essays in Testaments Betrayed which I read with a great deal of pleasure.” In one of those essays, Kundera observes that “nonsentience is consoling” for “a soul’s sorrow. . . . the world of nonsentience is the world outside human life; it is eternity.” Pond spends so much of its time on nonsentience, on mundane, inanimate objects, that the reader begins to assume that it is an effort at consolation, that there must be some sort of sorrow underlying it all.

There are hints at the narrator’s personal life and mental state. “If you don’t do something today, now, how will you find anything out about how you feel?” she wonders. And, elsewhere: “What’s all this been about if not panic? What other way is there of describing it?” A walk along a country road turns into “an alarming thing” when a young man passes by, “a most alarming thing that set my blood and organs into crashing disarray”; fear of “a defiling affront” turns into “horror . . . towards my own twisted longing.” But nothing happens, and they stroll their separate ways.

At one point she finds an old letter with a conspicuous masculine pronoun attached: “And there it was, from him, in my hand again.” She considers how it got there, with special attention, naturally, to the old purse it turned up in. She imagines, briefly, some scenes of the two of them together—in a cove near the sea, or sitting on “great big rocks that struck out over a lake.” The next paragraph recounts her asking him to define the word “cantilevered”:

And he explained to me what cantilevered means and it must have been that my face still looked concerned because he held his hand flat out in front of us and he took my hand and placed it vertically beneath his so that my fingertips connected with those little mounds where his own fingers began and, just like that, everything came together. That’s it, he said, that’s cantilevered. And of course the picture that fell into place only highlighted the life he had and the hopelessness of me supposing I could ever be a part of it.

But that’s the most we get. Glimpses of what might be loneliness, confusion, despair—even a yearning for self-destruction—appear for just a moment. A lost love half-surfaces then returns to the depths, and Bennett leaves us above the water, watching the rippling surface. In this sense, Pond is a genuinely strange, novel concoction: a book whose true subject is left unnamed and offstage, sensed but never seen.

All this withholding could be cloying or frustrating, but it isn’t. The chattering is constantly varied, shifting from casual and intimate to goofy to lyrical and abstract, and it all adds up to a multilayered, unexpectedly natural voice—baffling and mysterious the way a real person is.

Checkout 19 comes labeled as a novel, but as with Pond, the term is inadequate to the book itself. (Bennett, discussing whether it was a novel or a story collection, said, “It’s either both or it’s neither.”) The narrator is again unnamed, and again seems to lead a life resembling Bennett’s own.

In most ways, though, Bennett’s second book is far less oblique than her first. It has a clear subject—the narrator’s relationship to books and writing over the course of her early life—and though it takes plenty of detours, proceeds more or less in chronological order. The sorrow lying beneath much of this story is eventually made explicit, though in complicated and unexpected ways.

It begins with a kind of prelude, an account of the physical act of reading a book, with Pond’s use of banality and repetition pushed to an incantatory new level:

Turning the page and holding the book up a little higher. And the reason we do that, now that we are reflecting on it, is because once we have turned the page we feel inclined to lift our chin and gaze upwards. . . . By the time we get to the bottom of the right page we have aged approximately twenty years. We are no longer holding the book up. No. No. The book has dropped. Our face has dropped. We have jowls. We do. . . . Turning the pages. Turning the pages. When we turn the page we are born again.

Next comes childhood, a look back at her school days, from a scam that involved stealing textbooks and then returning them for chocolate bars, to menstruation (“On the first day the colour is very pretty—it’s a shade of red I’ve been looking for in a lipstick since forever”), to, crucially, her first experience of someone reading her writing. A teacher, the universally beloved Mr. Burton, finds a story she has written in the back of her exercise book, and asks for more of them. “I experience,” Bennett writes, “every few years, an urge to recall this moment and the events that preceded it. Not only to recall it, but to write it down, again.” As the book becomes more direct and personal, one often feels that its words come not from some abstract, fictional narrator but from Bennett herself (and, indeed, Bennett has confirmed in interviews that at least some of it is autobiographical).

Her encounter with Mr. Burton is a triumph, of a sort:

He wanted more of something that I created, that I had, that I was—I couldn’t tell these things apart—it is the attention of a desired man or woman that will blur the lines that distinguish them.

This is probably the most familiar section—a writer finding her calling amid the confusions of youth—but it is still far from conventional. It has a shifting, spiraling structure, like someone mulling over memories, but also a momentum and an insistence on the tactile—the rough feel of pen on paper, the way “wearing another girl’s knickers . . . changed the texture of the day”—that keep it from feeling hazy or languid. And the ambiguity that creeps in even during the “precious moment” with Mr. Burton, the involuntary conflation of literary attention with personal desire, is fundamental to the rest of the book.

Elsewhere, we are told of similar encounters the narrator has had with men and literature. She works at a supermarket as a teenager, and a “large Russian man with long white hair” who would “always come to my checkout” (the checkout 19 of the title) but “didn’t ever say anything” suddenly gives her a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. The cover features a painting of a topless, large-breasted woman:

and it was funny, the way her hands rested down like that, exactly like the way my hands rested down on top of the dark brown lid of the till when there was no one there and nothing for me to do, so even though my small breasts did not resemble her large dusky-looking ones at all, my hands were like hers, exactly like hers, and I couldn’t help but believe that the Russian man must have thought so too.

At college, she has a friend named Dale, who isn’t her boyfriend but “often behaved just as if he were.” Dale is a classic collegiate type, the self-serious wannabe poet, smoking and drinking to feel older, with “a suitcase full of band T-shirts pressed just so by mother.” He “revered” Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but tells the narrator not to read them. “Women can’t withstand poetry, seemed to be Dale’s view.”

Dale first appears in “Won’t You Bring in the Birds?,” Checkout 19’s longest section, as well as its funniest, strangest, and most surprising. The bulk of it is spent recounting a piece of fiction the narrator began writing in her early twenties but never finished, “about a man named Tarquin Superbus . . . a very elegant sort of man who lived in a very elegant European city sometime in a previous century.” This story is a ludicrous, intoxicating improvisation, in which the writer can’t quite decide which previous century or which elegant European city the wealthy dandy Superbus inhabits:

Whenever Tarquin Superbus was triumphant about something, pleased as punch with a new filigreed trinket, or undulant with amorous joy over an erotic bauble perhaps, he was most certainly in Vienna.

On the other hand, “If he is sulking and feeling hard done by, he is in Venice.”

The telling of Superbus’s story—or rather the summarizing of it, with on-the-fly revisions and explanations and the actual, original story kept just off-page—is interwoven with bits of the narrator’s life in this period, including her dealings with Dale and with ecstatic lists of books she read, or would read later, or decided not to read any more of, or will never read. These are weirdly thrilling passages, and at the very least will make one want to immediately read Forster’s A Room with a View, and Berg, by the English writer Ann Quin, and to avoid dating men who “read out bits from Herzog” during picnics.

Each time it seems like this is going to fully become a bibliomemoir, Superbus returns, ever more ridiculous, the story ever more Borgesian and self-reflexive. His taste for luxuries is clearly the author’s taste for luxurious words: the “scrumptious ball of green pistachio marzipan snuggled inside a toothsome wodge of nougat which itself is attired in a slinky thick coat of the divinest dark chocolate” that is his “most favourite confection,” the “lustrous black shelves . . . inlaid with opals, Tahitian pearls, and ivory” that fill his library—or rather, “his bespoke ebony athenaeum.”

Superbus buys an enormous quantity of books to fill these shelves—“that was the story’s chief event,” we are told—but unlike his author, he is no reader, so it takes him an embarrassing amount of time to realize that he has been swindled, and that all the books are blank. Or no, not quite all: this vast collection of wordless books is in fact an ancient, supernatural artifact, Superbus is informed by his learned adviser, “the Doctor,” and somewhere within it is a single page that “has upon it one sentence . . . and this one sentence contains everything. Everything. Whoever comes upon it undergoes an immediate and total awakening.” But try as he might, Superbus can’t find that page, and eventually decides to burn the entire library. (“Had I seen at that time the photographs of the book-burning in the Opernplatz in Berlin on the tenth of May, 1933?” asks the narrator. “I don’t think I had.”)

The story doesn’t end there—“it was perhaps just getting started”—but the climax turns out not to be what happens in the story, but what happened to it. “One afternoon I came home to the bedsit I was living in with my boyfriend at the time,” and found “a heap of torn-up paper in the middle of the floor”—the entire work-in-progress, destroyed. “My boyfriend liked me being a writer, but didn’t very much like me to write.”

It is a quietly shocking act of violence, and Bennett has prepared us for it carefully—not just with those censorial Nazis, but with all the other men telling her what to read and what not to, and even the tiny, welcomed, yet nonetheless real violation of Mr. Burton poking around in her notebook: “It shocked me. . . . He’d been somewhere he ought not to have been.” Here we have the sort of emotional unveiling that Pond hinted at but ultimately withheld, as Bennett makes clear that what we have been reading is not just the story of a young woman coming to love literature, but fighting to maintain that love, to build a safe home for it, as fists bang on the door.

There are other violations in Checkout 19, several more directly violent than this. There is a suicide, and a sexual assault treated with a powerful ambiguity, a willful lack of drama that is as convincing as it is unnerving. “I don’t know what it must feel like,” she thinks as it is happening, “to be right the way inside a woman who likes you a great deal but really doesn’t want you to be doing that and has said so and isn’t moving a single muscle.” And, afterward: “Do you feel awful? Is this terrible? Are you going to cry? . . . Or are you going to make yourself cry because you feel you should cry?”

In another book, this violence would be the most memorable element, the center around which the whole thing turns. But Bennett manages to incorporate it, without ever minimizing it, into her larger project. Like many contemporary writers, Bennett has expressed an impatience with the traditional forms of fiction and drama, the settled shapes and “psychological realism” we inherited from the nineteenth century. In Checkout 19, she attempts to find a shape that matches the experience of memory, its “unevenness,” as she puts it in an interview, “that going back over things, and never really arriving at a definitive place or interpretation of what happened,” not so much “fragmented” as “layered” and “constantly shifting.” And so the book spins out fantasies and lists, lingers on its own hesitations and the sensory moments that surround the story, even as it does, in the end, tell that story as well.

Similarly, Bennett began writing Pond while fed up, after years of working in the theater, with “this fixation on human activity and human dilemmas and human relationships”—what Calvino has called, as Bennett notes, “anthropocentric parochialism.” She was drawn, instead, to the “many other things in the world,” the “stones and cows and gates and comets and bananas and dog turds and blankets left out in the rain.” What emerged was not quite the antihuman literature that implies, but a focus on the immediate contact between those things and the surface of the narrator’s mind, the play of sensation and speculation that sparks into being as she putters around her room or looks up at the sky.

The two books differ in their effects—and you may, as I did, find yourself preferring the cooler mysteries of Bennett’s first book to the chattier, more expansive explorations of her second. Pond says less, but grows as it sits inside you. Reading it offers a recalibration of one’s attention, a new awareness of how porous the mind can be, how it slides away from observation, how it gets tangled up in the world and vice versa. Checkout 19 is more approachable, more immediately satisfying, but also more familiar. They do not feel, however, quite like separate books, but like two installments from a longer, ongoing effort—both, in their quiet way, on the trail of something new. Bennett is trying out a new method of depicting consciousness, one that is less definitive than the usual fictional mode, and as attentive to what can’t be known as to what can: the mind not as settled fact or smoothly flowing stream, but as a hastily improvised construction, sliding and skittering, made of nonsense as much as thoughts and feelings. And she is inviting us to view it from a peculiar new vantage point, somehow both inside and outside at once—less like an omniscient observer, or an author up on a pedestal, or a character blinkered and constrained, and more like a reader.

 is a contributing editor of The New York Review of Books.

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