Claire-Louise Bennett is unpacking her library. Yes, she is. The books are not yet on the shelves. In fact, she doesn’t really have any shelves (she prefers to let the books pile up around her, a habit that gets her into trouble with at least one boorish lover). She has moved so often over the years that half her books are lost, having been packed into boxes and left in unremembered attics. Nonetheless she is considering how she will order her collection, along with the memories it harbours. Bennett – or her narrator – is just as interested in the outside of her books as the inside. It’s not just that the covers (austere, gold-embossed, ugly like the cover of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or lovely like the cover of a biography of Virginia Woolf) offer clues to genre and style; it’s not just that they recall us to the bookshops, the bedsits, the libraries, the schoolrooms and the towns where we first read them, and the friends who first recommended them. It’s the promise they offer. Bennett seems almost to prefer the unopened book, its potential undimmed. As a child she would take home with her as many books as she could borrow from the local library, only to feel defeated by the force of what they might contain. ‘No matter what book we had in our hands we found it simply impossible to refrain from wondering incessantly about what kinds of words exactly were inside the other books.’ In response to the vertigo induced by all that possibility, ‘we soon lost the habit didn’t we of taking out lots and lots of books. Yes. Yes. Yes we did.’ Instead she opted to spend time with a single, closed, book:
As if the only thing you could do with a book was read it. That’s right. We could sit for a long time couldn’t we with a book beside us and not even open it. We certainly could. And it was very edifying. It certainly was. It was entirely possible we realised to get a great deal from a book without even opening it. Just having it there beside us for ages was really quite special. It was actually because we could wonder couldn’t we about the sorts of words it contained without getting ourself worked up into a ridiculous state. With just one book in the grass beside us we sat there wondering about the sorts of words it contained in a really tranquil and expansive kind of way that in fact enabled distinct images to emerge all of their own accord from who knows where. That was nice. It was actually.
This passage comes early on in Checkout 19, Bennett’s second book of linked essay-stories (essories?) that, as in her previous book, Pond (2015), explore the territory between fiction and autobiography, or between the life inside and outside books. This isn’t a metaphor, or rather, it’s not only a metaphor. Bennett’s books are firmly ‘material’. They are a form of currency: at school the kids return their unread books for bars of chocolate; a pile of books is the catalyst for an encounter on a street in Tangier; a story gets written in the back of a school exercise book and becomes the conduit for a writerly correspondence; a disregarded copy of Paul Bowles’s Let it Come Down lolls on the counter of a pub, a gift already regretted; another gift, received from a stranger by the 17-year-old narrator while she is working on checkout 19 at the local supermarket, sits unopened by the till:
I put the book on a shelf beneath the printer that printed out receipts all day long and the book was written by Friedrich Nietzsche and it was called Beyond Good and Evil and on the cover was a painting of a woman with large naked breasts and her hands are resting down, her hands are resting down because she is a sphinx, a sphinx as depicted by Franz von Stuck in 1895, 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.
And at the centre of the book lies an extraordinary story, written and re-written by the narrator over many years, about a rich man called Tarquin Superbus, living in the Renaissance, or possibly in the 19th century, in Venice or possibly in Vienna, who buys an immense library of books, the pages of which turn out to be blank except for one single, constantly disappearing sentence, the key to all mythologies. In effect he buys a set of covers. Superbus is a wildly inventive creation, a vehicle for all kinds of descriptive hi-jinks (I consistently read his name not as a Latinate version of Tarquin the Great but as an extra-special mode of public transport, which only added to my enjoyment), and his enigmatic library serves as the platform for a series of dizzying, ouroboral digressions on the relationship between experience and meaning. Pond was an exhilarating read – Bennett’s odd mixture of deflationary storylines (almost nothing happens) and highly charged, baroque vocabulary created an atmosphere in which objects and surroundings (stones, cows, fruit, tomato ketchup) had agency and even intention and people mostly didn’t. In one of the pieces the broken knobs on an old oven lead, by way of a story about the last woman in the world, and reflections on whether a Baby Belling is large enough to get your head inside, to the rotted bodies of the famine dead and all that history coming ‘at you directly, right through the softly padding soles of your feet, battering up throughout your body’. Pond got under the skin, but Checkout 19 goes deeper: it is a profound and very funny book about growth and promise, and how not to kill them off; about women reading and writing and how they survive.
The epigraph to the book’s first chapter, in which Bennett learns how not to spoil books by not reading them, is taken from Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story: ‘One cannot see the future of something learned.’ The rangy first-person plural of Bennett’s opening (‘we could wonder couldn’t we’ … leading to that snagging ‘ourself’) could put us in mind of the ‘we’ that animates The Years, Ernaux’s socio-personal history of 20th-century French womanhood. Both women come from what I quite deliberately call ‘unpromising’ backgrounds. Ernaux’s descriptions of her pinched childhood as the daughter of small-town Normandy shopkeepers is echoed in Bennett’s (or rather, her narrator’s) account of growing up in a dull Wiltshire town which appears to be Swindon. Her father is a plumber, we think, and her mother works in retail, she spends time with various grandmothers, goes to a not very good school followed by a not very good sixth-form college and finally becomes ‘a dismayed student in London’, soon after which the novel ends.
A tale of ordinariness, then. But despite that all-encompassing ‘we’ and despite an excursus in a later chapter to the idea of the ‘world soul’, Bennett isn’t especially interested in the way her personal story is echoed in other people’s. She’s interested in getting this particular story right. Her prose is full of little assurances, checks, correctives and adjustments, as though to establish things once and for all, to settle the matter. ‘That’s right’; ‘it was actually’; ‘couldn’t we’; ‘didn’t we’; ‘yes we did.’ Everything is pinned down, returned to, re-worked and clarified by way of an exacting lexicon. Although the effect of ‘it was actually’ is to make the reader think the opposite: it puts us squarely in fiction and fabrication.
I don’t know that I have ever read a book containing a higher proportion of adjectives. The most unlikely nouns have one attached, and sometimes several. Take this description of her grandmother’s Victorian crime paperbacks: ‘Sitting in proximity of those slashed and mangled corpses rendered in delicate monochrome made my heart thump its way into my throat in the manner of a maimed troll heaving its smeared bulk up a wishless well by the mulish efforts of its one remaining weevil-ravaged fist.’ A beetle crawling across the cover of a book is ‘quite unable to find a way to properly immerse itself in the moody scene’s alluring sagacious gloom’. These sentences seem to have been constructed with the help of a celestial mental thesaurus – thesaurus superbus. Period blood is ‘globuliferous and clingy’ (there are at least four pages devoted to period blood and this phrase isn’t even from that section); chestnut cream has a ‘sweet gioioso aroma’; we get ‘pale ensorcelled fingers’ and ‘acetous sweat’; we get the stabbing by a Florentine fountain in A Room with a View styled as ‘this sudden melodramatic Latin laceration’.
The narrator has been doing a lot of reading, and she’s determined to put it to good use in unashamedly writerly prose. The Latin laceration appears in the middle of a long digression away from Tarquin Superbus (by now seriously nonplussed by the absence of words in his numberless array of expensive books), when the narrator (who we would do well to remember is Tarquin’s creator) recalls her pilgrimage to Florence, aged seventeen, with two schoolfriends, on an overnight bus paid for with the money she has earned from checkout 19. She has been doing A Room with a View for A-level and she wants to experience, as it were first-hand, the scene when the postcards get thrown into the River Arno. She is about the same age as Lucy Honeychurch and she even has the same duvet cover as Helena Bonham-Carter, who plays Lucy in the film – greater identifications have been built on less. At any rate she feels just as trapped, or rather more trapped, because (unlike Lucy) she is all too aware of what’s at stake. She has Lucy to help her know. ‘Lucy Honeychurch has promise. Well we all have promise, don’t we? We all feel it thumping in us, especially around that age, seventeen, and it’s irksome. What are you going to do? Everyone wants to know all the time what you are going to do and nothing makes them quite so cross as when you don’t want to do anything at all. Do something! Do something!’ Her sentences are poised just this side of ironic deflation:
Death as they say is a great leveller, and surely this sudden melodramatic Latin laceration has cut through the suffocating façade of Lucy’s Edwardian middle-class life? What are they? What are they really? They are a young woman and a young man in Italy for goodness sake, and doesn’t death make that gloriously apparent?
One could, at least at first, mistake Checkout 19 for a story of coming-of-age via literature, a genre so often done badly that it can be hard to recognise when it’s being put to more imaginative uses (as it is, for example, in Anna Burns’s Milkman). But Bennett’s narrator turns out to be more interested in the shape the story takes than in what anyone is ‘really’ beneath the façade. She remembers the moment with the postcards leaving something ajar, and it’s that feeling of irresolution she wants to get back to. She describes writing about her schoolgirl trip to Santa Croce and the Arno ‘for the umpteenth time’. What she wants to grasp is the moment that her 17-year-old self understood that you don’t have to decide – you don’t have to do something, you don’t have to slip into plot. You can throw postcards into the river in a gesture that says: ‘I toss it all up into the air. I want it, but I don’t want it yet. No, not yet. Not yet.’
It turns out that she has misremembered the plot of Forster’s novel. It is not Lucy who throws the postcards into the Arno, but George.
Perhaps there has been operating in me a belief that men do not throw anything into water besides hooks and stones. That the impulse to release a thing into the drift is a female one. Perhaps I consider that impulse to be exclusively female because I understand it to be an immemorial tremor, somewhere between rebellion and collapse. Not quite knowing how to rebel, but nonetheless wanting to, very very much. Or perhaps we are perfectly well acquainted with the available ways by which we might outwardly demonstrate dissent, but we notice in them the same stereotypical connotations that bind us to the very position we are desperate to cast off. Perhaps there is only the abyss. Formless and interested.
What kind of form fits the drift of a woman’s life, or her desire for drift? Must we deliver on our promise through the narrative plots set up for us? Must we decide? Must we ‘do something’? Bennett doesn’t specify the kinds of stories that women might be desperate to cast off, but she doesn’t need to. Relationships, career, children, ‘creativity’. Whether we collapse under the weight of expectation or rebel against it, we are still caught inside the logic of plot. And at the edge of it all lies the abyss, twinkling, unplotted, blessedly free of narrative, inviting us in. One of the thrilling things about Checkout 19 is Bennett’s total contempt for the idea that storytelling is a kind of journey, or that it gets you anywhere, that naive and cosy notion that structures the narrative arc of so much contemporary fiction, often – though not only – by women. The idea of finding the right story to live by sells well, of course, but Bennett knows it’s a bogus response to the immemorial tremor. Still, the abyss is a tough alternative. Is there another?
Bennett’s narrator asks these questions by reading but she answers them (and she does have some answers) by writing. At first she reads books by men. Graham Greene, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘that man who wrote Heart of Darkness, whose name escapes me’.
I hardly ever saw so much as a glimpse of myself in any of their books and I didn’t care to. I didn’t want to exist in books. I liked how the men talked to other men and I liked the places they went to. I liked being able to go with these men wherever they went and they went everywhere of course, all over the world, hardly ever really liking each other, so often paranoid, so often out on a street near the water last thing, or walking first thing down avenues churning with blossom, dying, dying weakly beneath a thin lapel, dying on the vine.
She comes to books by women later. Her university friend Dale won’t let her read Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton because they are too dangerous – though not for him.
Women can’t withstand poetry, seemed to be Dale’s view. Women are beautiful and tender creatures and poetry breaks them, of course it does. Poetry rips right through you, makes shit of you, and a man can be made shit of and go on living because no one really minds, not even the man. The man likes it in fact, likes to be made shit of so that he can sit there and drink his head off and declaim one epithetical thing after another and all the other interminably taciturn men believe he is an exceptional man, a man taking a hit for them all, a hero really, a ramshackle hero they’d love to raise up upon their shot-to-fuck shoulders or else roll about in the muck with, for wasn’t he a down-to-earth sort of a fellow after all? But it’s dreadful to see a woman who’s been made shit of due to her messing about with poetry. And what kind of a woman anyway is drawn towards poetry? Only a warped sort of a woman who wants to be made shit of, or else has been made shit of already and wants to lay out the nuts and bolts of it and in that way not keep it at arm’s length any longer.
Dale is ready to save her from the abyss, but the narrator chooses to steer clear of Woolf and Plath for a different reason. She doesn’t want to read them, she explains, because she doesn’t want to be estranged from her ‘own bit of occasionally all-consuming darkness’. If she allows herself to be overrun by their visions, how will she recognise the bit of the dark that belongs only to her? It’s the danger of too much identification. Later still she doesn’t mind so much. She reads Ann Quin, Anna Kavan and a host of books written ‘when this or that woman was sad or was reflecting upon a time when she had felt sad and when I say sad I’m being coy of course, but what else can I say? Adrift? At odds? Displaced? Out of sorts? Out of her mind? At her wit’s end? From another planet?’ These are not books in which characters find their way or make good on their promise. Instead, they embrace what Bennett calls ‘visible darkness’, after Tanizaki; they accept, like Kavan, that ‘light in the wrong place can be a poison, that she felt quite at home in the dark’.
There may be a storyline for darkness, or for giving dimension to the dark, but what is the storyline for drift? Checkout 19 has a plot of sorts. There are hints early on of devastation in the narrator’s family life. She shares a joke with her mother during ‘one of the last summers’; later a picture of a duck (‘my mother had painted it’) appears on the wall of the bathroom; and later still her parents’ things get packed into separate boxes. The duck is not a symbol, nor is it a cause of anything. It’s a thing that happens, one of a number of things that might happen to people who live in modern homes, especially women.
Perhaps she takes to her bed, perhaps she throws furniture, perhaps she draws on the walls, perhaps there is suddenly a duck, perhaps one day she simply leaves it all behind her. Communing with the dark, in all its primordial and transformative potency, is somewhat unsettling, certainly.
The duck may be a version of tossing it all in the air. What Bennett won’t do is make a storyline out of it. Nor will she load significance onto the death of a young man that occurs late in the book, an echo of the death of the man in Piazza della Signoria. Another writer might make much of the parallels between life and literature, but Bennett just lets it be. She doesn’t try to turn it into something well-made, or even made. Unlike Dale (whose ‘sense of narrative after all had always been much stronger than mine’) she doesn’t force any sort of resolution. The only thing this episode makes gloriously apparent is that Dale is a bit of a dick.
These stories are baggy and digressive. Their narrative arc is one thing after another. There are large-scale departures and deviations that sometimes circle round again as the snake finally finds its own tail, but not always. There are repetitions and wholesale rewritings of the same material in a different key. Not all of these work – by the third encounter with the Nietzsche-wielding Russian in the supermarket I’d had enough. There are stories that try to come to an end but won’t. The tale of Tarquin Superbus ends the first time with the spell broken and Tarquin vowing never to enter his library again. ‘Then, less than two weeks later, little things start to go wrong.’ In the second ending, Tarquin and his cook decide to get rid of the books and they build a terrifying fire, which causes darkness and evil to roam the streets. Third ending: Tarquin breathes in smoke from the fire, and the darkness disappears. Evil is purged and vanquished. Or not. Fourth ending: Tarquin coughs up the dangerous sentence, or whatever it is, over his Venetian balcony. ‘But that is not all. Down below in the street, while Tarquin Superbus is sleeping, the disgorged blob of phlegm grows.’ And so on, and on. ‘No, it wasn’t finished by any means – it was perhaps just getting started.’
This is a truly odd story, powered by a sequential rather than consequential logic. One of the things Bennett is concerned with in this book is keeping going, accepting the narrative force of one thing after another. Life isn’t a well-made thing. Things get damaged and broken off. Narrative and significance don’t cohere. Hence the importance of writing something for the umpteenth time. In Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story, the narrator describes her attempt to write about a formative experience she had at a summer camp in 1958. She drafts and redrafts, leaves it alone, comes back to it. Finally, many years after the event, she approaches it by practising a sort of daily anniversary writing, like Freud’s patient Anna O., who recovers feeling in her arm by recounting the events of each day exactly a year later. Through this practice of drafting and redrafting Ernaux discovers, 45 years later, that there was no secret meaning to the event, no narrative arc. It is the writing that bestows meaning, and this is a cause for relief: ‘It is the absence of meaning in what one lives, at the moment one lives it, which multiplies the possibilities of writing.’ And, one might add, the possibilities of living.
Bennett’s book explores some of those possibilities. It turns out we don’t have to make a choice between living or dying, narrative or the abyss. We just have to keep writing and reading the story, one page after another. Early on in Checkout 19, the narrator, speaking in the first-person plural, discovers that the left-hand pages of her books seem more hopeful to her than pages on the right. As you turn a page and look to the top your head lifts a little higher, your spirits rally. Who knows what will you find? Left-hand pages are expansive, while right-hand pages, especially near the bottom, are full of hurry and anxiety. Your head sinks lower on your neck and your face drops. But then you turn the page and start again.