Claire-Louise Bennett’s second novel, like her first book, Pond, enacts a quest for quiddity – the syntax that embodies a cast of mind, the phrase that nails a sensation, the narrative structure that feels like life as it is lived or anyway processed. At times the effect is exhausting. Bennett’s unnamed, 40-ish narrator, raised in south-west England but resident in Ireland, holds forth in fevered, looping, breathless prose, and displays a tendency to travel long and far down the blindest of alleys. She can be arch and even twee. But whatever challenges the book poses to breezy reading are the product of unswerving fidelity to its own raw spirit.
If what we’re being offered is some kind of credo or apologia, it’s one with an unusual emphasis on reading, smoking and lying around. Personal interactions are rare and mostly regrettable. A description of Charlotte Bartlett, the older cousin in A Room With a View – this is a book full of other books – contains a strong hint of self-comparison: “She has spent a lot of time on her own and certainly that makes a person susceptible to overthinking simple transactions and occasionally losing perspective.” Bennett isn’t much beholden to a psychology of origins. A sibling goes unmentioned until the final pages, and total clarity about the narrator’s parents’ marital status arrives at a similar point. The most traumatic incident occurs during adult life. But it’s clear from the opening 50 pages that she grew up feeling at odds with her background, especially the schoolmates who refuse to read the books issued at the start of term and then “felt no compulsion whatsoever to bring them back”.
Engaging with literature is presented not as a distraction from “life” but as a guide and complement – a form of action, and a spur to it. The narrator’s first encounter with A Room with a View, as a schoolgirl, prompts a package holiday to Italy. And, though she wasn’t thinking about Ann Quin during a visit to Brighton – she hadn’t yet met the man who tells her about Quin’s work – she cannot recall the trip without mentioning her later encounter with a novelist whom she emphasises as being both working-class and avant garde. Observations from novels – on the difficulty of being idle from Alan Sillitoe’s A Start in Life, for example – are tested against first-hand experience (and in this case entirely vindicated: “very few people are naturally in possession of the gumption and fortitude necessary to pull it off”).
Gradually, a kind of analytic project emerges. The phenomenology of near-to-hand experience – menstruation, what the eyes do when presented with a page, the unlikely things that prompt memory of the first world war, the enjoyment derived from the texture of aubergines – is a tool for revealing a sensibility, worldview and way of being. Though Checkout 19 isn’t much like anything else, it shows a certain generic allegiance to the Künstlerroman, the novel about an artist. Along with the part-time jobs and indifferent holidays, the stint at a London university, the 20s drifting and the constant consumption of Penguin Modern Classics, there are acts of creation. The narrator recalls the writing of a Calvino-like fairytale that she embarked on in her early 20s, about a European from a shifting past named Tarquin Superbus. It’s typical of Bennett’s taste for immersion, her belief that the meaning of things is indistinguishable from the forms they take, that the account of composing the Superbus story mutates into a retelling.
As she goes, the narrator sketches a rough genealogy of her own finding or fashioning of self and voice. The sense of vocation is closely allied with personal identity, her status as a woman defined by autonomy and curiosity. (At one point, her grandmother compares her to Marilyn Monroe – because she has always got her head in a book.) There is an emphasis on works that render thought – reflection, response, ratiocination – in prose tailored for the purpose. Three of the novel’s epigraphs derive from Ingeborg Bachmann’s blistering 1971 novel Malina. The narrator worships Anaïs Nin (though exaggerates perhaps the rarity of this position), while Forster is embraced as a creator of female characters. As well as Quin, there’s praise for another autofiction-inclined English late-modernist, Anna Kavan. And though Renata Adler – the author of two extraordinary first-person associative collage novels – is named only in passing, in one of the book’s many lists, it feels like a telling reference point.
“We read in order to come to life,” the narrator asserts, a past-tense formulation that could be read as present continuous. But coming to life isn’t confined to becoming a writer. An immersion in literature serves to inspire in a larger sense, to inflame a feeling of wonder and possibility – a dynamic not only evoked but also achieved by this elatingly risky and irreducible book.