Hmmmm, Stylish

Brian Dillon

  • Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
    Fitzcarraldo, 177 pp, £10.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 910695 09 8

There are many ‘nice’ things in Claire-Louise Bennett’s fiction. The narrator – she seems to be the same person in all twenty stories – is hardly up in the morning before the nice things press on her: ‘Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice,’ she says in ‘Morning, Noon & Night’. ‘It ought not to be too ripe – in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk, and if there isn’t, forget about it.’ Oatcakes too are very nice, and pears laid nose to tail and sometimes laced with redcurrants. Porridge also, though not when ‘the day’s too far in’, because late morning porridge is a ‘vertical’ sort of breakfast and will sit solidly on the mind all day. The nice stuff, it seems, is also nice in the sense of precarious: something that can easily pitch her into disarray.

The story in which this morning fret takes place, like most of Bennett’s pieces, drifts between half-formed plot episodes but is driven by its main character’s ruinous affinities and aversions towards things, almost all of them domestic. When her mind is not on what’s to hand – ‘Some sort of black jam in the middle of porridge is very nice, very striking in fact’ – it strays to the garden: ‘Truth is, I have propagated very little and possess only a polite curiosity for horticultural endeavours.’ Occasionally she is called away – to deliver, for example, an academic paper on ‘the essential brutality of love’. On this rare excursion, she meets her ‘upbeat boyfriend’, and is soon lying awake beside him, thinking of her potatoes, spinach and broad beans. Back home she writes him hundreds of lustful emails: ‘It was very nice I must say to every now and then take a break from cobbling together yet another overwrought academic abstract on more or less the same theme in order to set down, so precisely, how and where I’d like my brains to be fucked right out.’

This last sentence is a good example of her frank, funny and fastidious tone. Born in Wiltshire, Bennett has lived in Ireland since the late 1990s – mostly in Galway, where for a time she worked in theatre. She published little before Pond: a handful of essays and short stories. (It’s sometimes hard to say which is which, and Bennett claims she doesn’t know either when she begins writing.) In 2013 she won the White Review Short Story Prize with ‘Lady of the House’: the monologue of a young woman who stares from the window of her lover’s home and imagines a monster troubling the stretch of water below.

Like Bennett, the narrator of these stories lives in the west of Ireland, in a rented cottage from which she cycles into town to conduct her business, ‘such as it is’. It’s hard to know if she’s shiftless or manically productive. She spends her days thinking hard about an agglomeration of stones high up on a wall of her cottage, about the decline of reed beds along the River Shannon, about famine graves beneath the land on which she lives. She’s been working on a PhD, but ‘the inviability of my academic career eventually acquired a palpability of such insidious force that one day I came out of a shop unwrapping a pack of cigarettes and went nowhere for approximately half an hour.’

She is sometimes seized by sudden fits of energy, but time and again details get the better of her – also of Bennett’s prose, and possibly of her readers too. At the start of ‘Finishing Touch’ she announces confidently: ‘I think I’m going to throw a little party. A perfectly arranged but low-key soirée. I have so many glasses after all. And it is so nice in here, after all.’ She has acquired an ottoman, on which some of her guests might deposit themselves in the course of the evening, and there is one in particular she hopes will plonk himself there. It’s where she would want to sit if she’d been invited to a party in this cottage. But how to manoeuvre the guest onto the ottoman? The wrong person might be sitting there already when the right person arrives, ‘sitting upon the ottoman very comfortably, holding a full glass most likely and talking to someone standing up, someone also holding a full glass of wine’. Perhaps some kind of game is in order? No, the ruse would be transparent and even embarrassing. In the end, a man sits on the ottoman, but she no longer knows which man – perhaps all the men took turns.

In ‘Control Knobs’ there is the matter of her malfunctioning cooker: ‘I’ve been down to the last control knob for quite some time now, several months I should think, and it’s only lately that I have begun to see that this deceptively trivial defect is in fact no minor thing.’ She has known for ages that the final knob will probably break soon, but acting on this knowledge has proved a problem. Instead she rehearses the plot of (but doesn’t name) Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 novel, The Wall, whose female narrator, following an unnamed catastrophe, manages her dwindling resources with Crusoe-like economy:

Clearly my predicament with the cooker is not quite as dire as those redoubling aggravations that confronted the last woman left in the world, at the same time, once the final control knob splits and becomes useless, I will have no way at all of turning on any part of my mini-kitchen and so every known method of cooking food will be unavailable from that moment on.

She tracks down an address for the manufacturer, and writes: ‘Dear Salton of South Africa my cooker is on its knees please help.’

Pond is peculiarly rich in mundane phrases – ‘if you must know’, ‘in fact’, ‘to be perfectly honest’ – that recur so often they must point to some underlying torment. What about? Language itself, it seems, as much as anything else: ‘English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things.’ As a justification for the strangeness of the voice in Pond, this is putting it a touch preciously. Figuratively speaking the claim appears to propose an even more hampered character than her pronouncements otherwise suggest. With her conspiratorial style of address and snazzy (another of her words) vocabulary, this narrator is a deal more in love with the language than she allows.

At times that love expresses itself in an enviable verbal control. Here is almost the whole of ‘Postcard’, which is less than a page long:

It is raining now and a bra strap has slipped down which is perfect. The sound of the frogs now seems completely perfect at last. Like the sound of a vagina, because, after all, we would be cavorting now. It would be one of those times when I luxuriate completely and drew out everything – it is strange to absolutely know this, to feel this absolutely, and to do nothing but watch somehow as it goes by so very closely … All the windows are open and all the shutters are folded back and I can hear the rain and I can hear the frogs of course – they don’t sound much like you think they would, not at all – I would never have been able to find a way to explain to you this sound they are making – but now it is perfectly obvious, it is the sound of my vagina … It passed – I came off the bed and I walked to the window and blew two or three toenails out upon the wet roof of the very room where recently a dinner party to celebrate a birthday had occurred. The zip on my dress was long and gold, you see.

There’s an admirable level of precision here, and some vexing ambiguity. The rain, the frogs, the abandoned underwear and the stray toenails create apprehension. What tense are we in, exactly? What absence, or failure, is indicated by the repeated ‘would’? What is being suggested by the comparison of amphibian and vagina? ‘A dinner party to celebrate a birthday had occurred’: the vagueness and anonymity are typical. Then there’s the wink in the final sentence. As ever, Bennett’s protagonist seems wholly at sea and cheekily self-assured at the same time.

So, what is it she wants from language? She professes herself averse to metaphor, to the labour involved in describing one thing in terms of another. But what is the narrator’s – or Bennett’s – alternative? It’s not exactly attention to the things themselves. In place of figures of speech Bennett frequently moves between her character’s physical experience – of her own body or the environment – and various abstractions. In ‘Control Knobs’, walking home from a friend’s house, she experiences ‘a sudden upsurge of many murky impressions and sensations that have lurched and congregated in the depths of me for quite some time.’ Just as frequently the movements in Bennett’s writing seem to happen in the surrounding air.

If I’ve stuck here to the texture of Bennett’s thought it’s in part because Pond’s reviewers didn’t quite know what to do with her voice and style, or with the structural or semantic risks that mark some of the more extreme stories. She has somewhat misleadingly been set alongside Eimear McBride as representative of a modernist turn among young writers in Ireland, especially women writers. Misleadingly, not because they don’t share something – a commitment to voice, a syntax that is speedy, bristling and strange at first encounter – but because they sound so different. Among McBride’s achievements in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was her ability to stay locked in her narrator’s peremptory rhythms throughout; at times, that does seem truly modernist (or late modernist at least) reminding us of the suddenly loosed Mouth in Beckett’s Not I, blathering away in the dark. Bennett’s narrator is more restricted in her movements than McBride’s – and less marked by trauma, at least on the face of it – but the sentences are more daring, by turns languid and styptic. If there is a modernism of sorts at work in current fiction in Ireland, it’s less a return, in the manner called for by writers such as Tom McCarthy, and more an acknowledgment of the variety of experimental traditions on which young writers now draw.

For sure, there are aspects of Joyce and Beckett to be heard in Bennett’s fretful lyricism. ‘The Gloves Are Off’ resembles other stories in Pond – mundane circumstance, factious thought patterns – until it takes flight (or digs in): ‘Came then from the region of silt and aster, all along the horse trammel and fire velvet, first these sounds and then their makers. When passed betwixt and entered fully, pails were swung and notches considered. There was no light. No, none. None wzm wzm on that here piss crater.’ The Beckettian influence is heard less often in those passages in the narrator’s customary voice than in the stories that resemble stage directions. (If the narrator of Pond is to be credited, Bennett gave up theatre because the sight of people arriving on stage, then proceeding to babble away, began to annoy her.) In a few pieces, such as ‘Wishful Thinking’, voice and action merge into a pronoun-free shorthand: ‘Pads upstairs, scrapples about beneath ottoman, locates green flip-flop. Straightens, eyes bed. Thinks, hmmmm, stylish.’ At times, Bennett’s protagonist reminds me of one of those housebound wraiths out of late Beckett, or of Krapp, but stuck brooding on bananas and potential pratfalls.

The more pressing comparison is with Lydia Davis. A few of the stories seem to ape the crisp, elliptical quality of Davis’s short, very short, texts. They are among the funniest pieces in Pond. ‘Oh, Tomato Purée’ is a half-page ode to a tube of concentrate creased by who-knows-what disappointment: ‘Oh, Tomato Purée! When at last you occur to me it is as something profuse, fresh, and erupting. Alas, when I open the door and reach for you, the chill light comes on and shows you crumpled, cold and, despite being well within your sell-by date, in dire need of coaxing.’ ‘Stir-Fry’ is even more economical: ‘I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that, so I put in it all the things I never want to see again.’ Bennett captures how the failure of something small can cause an edifice to crumble, just as a broken control knob can evoke what is wrong with the world.

In a bristling essay on Elizabeth Smart for the Dublin-based literary magazine Gorse, Bennett expressed a dislike of ‘accomplished’ writing: ‘I have a fancy for a rather more dappled conflation of vagueness and exactitude, flippancy and earnestness, aplomb and disquietude, scintilla and shadow.’ At its best, in the longer stories such as ‘Lady of the House’ and ‘Morning, Noon & Night’, Pond is all that its author admires in others: a work of gorgeous stylistic and structural ambition, deadpan comedy and profound, that is to say profoundly odd, expression. She has fashioned a fictional voice that is all sensibility, all of the time.