The distance between writing and the outside world is often enormous. Why are writers bent with mental labor, away from the bustle of society? At their best, authors transform their longing into focus, and make life bloom between laptop keys and notebook spines: On the far side of lonesome toil exists a deeper, strange connection to the experiences of others.
Isolation is hardly an enemy in the work of Claire-Louise Bennett. Her lauded debut, the novel-cum-story-collection Pond (2015), elucidates the domestic existence of a woman living alone in rural Ireland, her independence literally verdant with broad beans, spinach, potato plants, and parsley. “… [F]or the first time in my adult life other people knew exactly what I was doing,” she narrates about gardening, a female too used to being labeled “eccentric.” Through oblique vignettes, Pond navigates slippery literary terrain: a character without motivation, and a story without incident. We follow Bennett’s avatar through composting rituals, cups of coffee, jaunts about why she needs to be drunk in order to enjoy men’s company, and idiosyncratic routines that convey the quiet domestic assuredness available solely to those who manage solo.
Bennett’s unhurried first-person is spiked with nervous tics, such as, “That’s right” and “Yes,” her characters unburdened by information, noise, or busyness; she seems like someone from another century. Computers are conspicuously absent from her masterful second novel, Checkout 19 (just out from Riverhead), perhaps because analog things are full of memory—and also since she sees them as low-key fetish objects:
At the beginning I wrote on unbound and unlined A4 sheets of paper my father brought home in blocks from work. Although he didn’t work in an office, from time to time my father came home from work with office supplies, such as the neatly enveloped blocks of paper I just mentioned, and slender twisty-up stainless steel ballpoint pens—red, black, green, blue—and staplers and staples and paper clips and bulldog clips, and I feel sure there were also small boxes of drawing pins that I liked to shake back and forth either side of my head.
Bennett’s tendency toward repetition echoes Swiss rambler Robert Walser, Austrian malcontent Thomas Bernhard, voicey Brit Ann Quin, and underknown Pole Witold Gombrowicz—though she’s often described in terms of suspiciously convenient influences, Joyce and Beckett. Born in southwest England, Bennett has lived in Ireland for virtually the entirety of adulthood, and publishers and critics initially grouped her with a couple of other budding, lingually gifted writers from her chosen country, Eimear McBride and Colin Barrett. For each of these compatriots, Beckett and Joyce made for compelling marketing boilerplate, and in Checkout 19, Bennett plays with perceptions of her nationality, offering up a working-class novel with an English setting and a sweep of sensibility and prose inspired by a larger swatch of the so-called British Isles. Like one giant, illuminating digression, Checkout 19 pretends to contemplate novels and writing but actually teaches us about people.
The first two of the book’s seven sections, which take place during the protagonist’s childhood and adolescence, anchor us. Bennett’s expert, concrete specifics allow her to barter with plotlessness, not to mention to shirk paragraph breaks. An ineffectual, calm teacher is marked by his “mellow tweeds” and “peace-seeking palm.” She tells us this about her narrator’s 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.” She has her menses in science class:
I very quietly told the girl beside me I’d leaked and without taking her eyes off the generator’s hair-raising dome she gave me something out of her bag which I immediately scrunched up and stuffed into my cardigan sleeve. Then I put up my hand, the hand that had nothing up its sleeve, and asked the teacher for permission to go to the toilet.
A goal of realistic fiction is that details will seem relevant to the lives of an audience—this relies, of course, on the subjective experiences of diverse readers. More interested in patterning language than building familiar environments, Bennett nonetheless has a disarming telepathy. “I’m not long for this world,” her protagonist recounts her grandmother saying, and though my grandmother grew up on the other side of the Atlantic, she not only used the same neologism but her grandchildren appreciated it for similar reasons: How the phrase’s slanted, odd grammar twists its meaning when repeated, from a statement about imminent death to one of childlike possibility. “I felt noble, mysterious, and independent,” Bennett writes about reciting her grandmother’s “mantra,” “As if I were only visiting this world in any case and had somewhere a million times better to return to.”
Even more surprising is her evocation of an instructor at school, Mr. Burton, who manages to match the boisterousness of his charges, earning their elusive respect. Like Bennett’s narrator, I fell in unrequited love with a similarly charming teacher when I was 16, attempting to commandeer the attention of a grown heterosexual by writing stories for him. What leads young people to art are often simple needs they can’t yet comprehend. Bennett’s log of how subtly such a fledgling crush can come to dominate an adolescent’s consciousness is extraordinary. When Mr. Burton offers writerly encouragement, the protagonist learns how literature can become a placebo for affection: “I gave him the stories on a Friday so they were in his home for three nights and two days…. All weekend I felt him with me, wherever I went, all day and at night.”
As Bennett’s chronological anti-narrative progresses, it spins away from realism. One lengthy section incorporates litanies of authors she’d read at points in her young adulthood, and those she hadn’t yet—often, the writers in the latter camp are women. Trying to replace men with books, the narrator finds out how men gatekeep writing: A lover shreds a story she’s laboring over, an early work that seems like a shaky maiden voyage into the heart of a male-dominated literary world. A friend, Dale, refuses to lend her his Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton collections, thanks to a belief that females “can’t withstand poetry.” Later, portended by his paternalism, Dale rapes her. At one point, the narrator describes herself at the Glastonbury music festival, reading Iris Murdoch “lying down in the top field with a paper cup of chai tea,” a woman alone yet surrounded by youthful conviviality, unwilling to sacrifice her desire to read for other people, or her life for reading.
Bennett demonstrates how literature provides many kinds of mobility. It leads the narrator out of a class-bound childhood in which the “future was mapped out … on the smallest scrap of paper.” Simultaneously, by casting images like gemstones in streams of prose, Bennett shows how books are portals through which Very Serious Adults inhabit their lust, gender, atavism, silliness, humor, and yearning for freedom. We carry books in jacket pockets to parties, read them on trains back from nights of drinking, lend them to unreliable and ardent acquaintances, need them because of a broken heart or when everyone’s busy on a weekend night. Such objects trace lines from person to person, house to apartment, dredging up brutal, gleaming memories. In the future, no doubt, I’ll bring up Checkout 19 at the wrong time, annoying people with my bookishness. This great work draws us out of our solitude and makes us commune with it at the same time. ❖
A regular contributor to the Voice since its relaunch, Daniel Felsenthal also writes frequent criticism for Pitchfork and publishes fiction, essays, and poems in other publications. In 2019, his novella Sex With Andre appeared in The Puritan.