Arts & Writing Craft & Culture Reviews

Book review:  Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett

Claire-Louise Bennett rolls out her vocabulary with playfulness and honesty, writes Andy Charman in this book review.

There have been occasions when I’ve met literary agents who use their linguistic prowess as a badge of status. These are the sort of people whose sonorous tones deploy the multi-syllabic where simpler words would do as a way of flaunting their easy comfort with a Latinate lexicon; It says very plainly that they’re at home with their sophisticated Norman origins and their ruling class background, while you — dear peasant — are still wallowing in your Anglo-Saxon roots, all guttural and monosyllabic.

By contrast, when Claire-Louise Bennett rolls out her vocabulary, she does so with playfulness and honesty. Her enjoyment of language hasn’t a hint of exclusivity about it; she is inviting us to join in and to play along. Yet, importantly, she doesn’t compromise in order to make the invitation appealing. She’s quite happy to explain how her ‘cognition’ is ‘fractured’, she’ll quote Nietzsche and Sartre and she’ll refer casually to London galleries and Venetian palaces without stopping to explain or apologise. She does this with a breezy conversational style that boasts such flamboyant over-the-garden-fence vernacular that no-one could ever mistake her dazzling displays for attempts to garner status. Her writing uses the tone, rhythm and whimsy of a slightly batty West Country gossip who has no-one left to talk to but herself. She refers to herself in the plural, repeats herself constantly and adds reflections in the manner of a monologue while still managing to throw in phrases such as ‘commodious proportions’ and ‘sublime prestidigitation’, and she will do this in service of meditations on subjects like the merits of the expression ‘you wouldn’t think it to look at her’.

The combination of colloquial tone and highbrow vocabulary allows her to be audacious because, as a reader, even if we have no idea why she might be piping us along a particular (and peculiar) narrative path, she is doing so with such a delightfully melody, we are happy to follow.

But where Bennett really stands out among experimental writers, is the playful thoughtfulness that sits behind her approach. When commenting on the origins of her collection of short stories, Pond, she explained how she sought to replace the dull tedium of semiotics with the experience-rich wealth of phenomenology. This is a startling claim to the intellectual-artistic high-ground no less daring than smoking a filterless Gauloises in Peckham; an illustration of her audacity. Upon first reading this (in an interview by Philip Maughan in The Paris Review July, 2016) I was equal parts shocked and inspired, not least because seeing phenomenology as a framework for fiction that describes our experience of in-the-world phenomena — of everything from bananas to ponds — is both a brilliant justification for Bennett’s flow-of-consciousness style and an intellectual ambition that she manages to realise. Setting out the ambition would be daring — achieving it is dazzling.

The front of my copy of Checkout-19 quotes booker-shortlisted novelist Deborah Levy calling Bennett ‘a major writer’ and for me this majority is justified by Bennett’s ambition and her intellectual aims — heavily qualified by her ability to wear them so very lightly. Her writing alone is enthralling, but the thrill is doubled seeing such literary gymnastics coming, not so much as the result of theorising, more the result of intellectual serendipity.

Even so, if you either didn’t know or didn’t care about the phenomenological basis of Bennett’s, writing, it wouldn’t make a lot of difference. There are alternative bases, other than the sheer reading pleasure, for admiring her work. There is currently a small ripple of writers who are experimenting in literary form while reflecting fine arts in their output or at the very least using art as a springboard for literary exploration. Sue Rainsford’s Follow Me To Ground draws on artistic expression to create a fantastical but instinctively recognisable expression of earthly femininity, and her more recent novel, Redder Days reverberates with echoes from artistic approaches to embodiment and expressions of power. Eliza Clark gave her shocking but ultimately conventional novel, Boy Parts, the context of a fine arts graduate mixing work and pleasure. And although she denies a conscious artistic connection, Rebecca Watson’s recent form experiment Little Scratch has a clear spiritual affiliation with contemporary art world in attempting to capture life in a single day with a multi-threaded flow-of-consciousness narrative (one can’t help imagining Little Scratch among the selection of books on sale at the ICA). In interviews, Bennett emphasises the influence of theatre, but she also bridges literary and artistic worlds, having written for art reviews and having been a writer-in-residence at a London art gallery. Whereas Sue Rainsford seems to take art as a context, or landscape to reflect, Bennett shows herself more interested in the way ideas manifest themselves as images. But what she has in common with Rainsford is the curious result that by moving her focus away from dialogue and character interaction alone — the conventional approach to fiction — she manages to obtain a closer relationship to the lived experience (as, incidentally, does Watson). This works extremely well when it is focused on a specific visual subject within a constrained context. Bennett’s Juxta Press published piece, Fish Out of Water, illustrates this perfectly; it offers a number of interwoven textual responses to a single art-work, rebounding with associative and unconstrained narratives that draw on personal events to represent the writer’s experience of the painting. The result is a sort of triangulated meditation rebounding between the visual art form, personal recollections, and a synthesising common experience. It is a trinity that also served Bennett well in Pond where the narrative would often move between everyday objects (banana, pond), shared responses, and highly idiosyncratic ideas, often informed by literary or philosophical sources. In an interview with Sebastian Barry for the Arts Council of Ireland, Bennett quoted Thomas Mann – “Is man’s self restricted to and tightly sealed within his fleshy ephemeral boundaries. Don’t many of his constituent parts come from the universe outside and previous to him?” Pond explored this proposition with respect to the aspects of the ‘outside and previous’ with the emphasis on the outside. Checkout-19 moves the emphasis to the previous.

The question of how much of Checkout-19 draws on actual experiences can be triangulated from fragments of memories recalled in Fish Out of Water and anecdotes that also pop up conversationally in her interview with Sebastian Barry; these are the moments that make full a theatrical show of it in Checkout-19; she isn’t making this stuff up; even when the topic at hand is her making stuff up.

What carries all this is that sympathetic, characteristic voice, the playful, fulsome vocabulary and the courage to use it. But whether that voice can carry the weight of a full length two-hundred page novel is (clench your jaw as you read it) more questionable. The heart of Checkout-19 beats to the rhythm of a coming-of-age story. It is Julian Barnes’ Metroland, James Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man;it is Louise May Alcott’s Little Women and Dickens’ David Copperfield. It is a Bildungsroman since it tells us the story of how the child became the writer. This process, evidently, involved a teacher that the narrator had a crush on, the inability to draw, a scribbled out portrait, and the spooling-on of the pen that was partly to blame for the inability to draw to a fabulist’s scene in which a child turns from seamstress to conflagration. It has many of the necessary elements of a Bildungsroman, including a figurative — or maybe symbolic — representation of the death and rebirth, even though it battles, in every other manner possible, to defy its own genre.

Yet, with all the defiance in the world this is still a book about how Claire-Louise Bennett became a writer. It lists a good selection of the books she read en route and provides ample examples of her varied approaches to reading them. It defines books as the social fabric that bound her friendships and it offers a very small sample of the practical requirements for writing (pens, paper and a desk). But because it is so uncompromisingly subjective, Checkout-19 alsoaccommodates Bennett revisiting her own earliest stories. One of these features Tarquin Superbus, a cipher with more superficial emotional monotonality than Amor Towles’ Count Alexander Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow; which is a long-winded way of saying the character lacks depth. Perhaps, in time, Bennett will crush any criticism of the Superbus sections by explaining — I don’t know — something about how the fable exemplifies Derrida’s methodology of deconstruction by demolishing the notion of an indefinable ‘essence’. But in the meantime, until she does so, I feel the Superbus sections take shine off the otherwise superb Checkout-19.

About the author of this post

Andy Charman was born in Dorset and grew up near Wimborne Minster. His short stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, The Battered Suitcase, Cadenza, Ballista and other periodicals and anthologies. He lives in Surrey with his wife and daughter. His first novel, Crow Court, was long-listed for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2021.

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