Claire-Louise Bennett’s Women Without a Story

The lady doesn’t have a title. Or, relatively, she does, however not one we’re aware of. We meet her first within the hazy world of childhood recollections, as she drifts via and refines her recollections of transient, seemingly insignificant moments. She doodles in school, badly, as a result of she doesn’t wish to draw resemblances, solely what issues are “really like.” She is normally “I,” typically “we,” not often “she,” and even, generally, “you.” And she is, lastly, the narrator and heroine of Claire-Louise Bennett’s “Checkout 19” (Riverhead), a novel that’s deliberate in its development, all the way down to the person phrase, and but aggressively immune to definition.

“Checkout 19” is a coming-of-age story wherein nobody comes of age, a home novel with no mounted deal with, and a depiction of somebody who, for good and for ailing, each clings to and disowns her life. Dissected and reconstructed, it yields a typical sufficient story: that of an clever working-class lady, in southwest England, who is inspired to jot down by considered one of her lecturers. She goes on to a miserable college in London, and dates males who’re poorly suited to her. One, who “liked me being a writer, but didn’t very much like me to write,” destroys a manuscript she’s engaged on; one other reads tiresome biographies about “very eminent men.” In this lacklustre world, our narrator’s closest pal is Dale, a poet, a fellow working-class transplant, and a budding alcoholic. He, too, ultimately betrays her.

Bennett, an English author dwelling in Ireland, appears to attract many of those particulars from expertise. But to position them so as, or to match them to autobiography, is to overlook most of what makes “Checkout 19” singular. Bennett is not within the form of a life however in its substance. Her début, “Pond” (2015), was a assortment of linked tales about a lady who abandons her tutorial profession, strikes to a cottage in Ireland, and putters about, composing odes to tomato purée. Bennett’s narrators are sensualists, exquisitely attuned to style and to texture, with appetites they prioritize over their very own well-being. (In “Checkout 19,” the narrator drinks gin “until it came back up into my mouth . . . as if I really was filled to the brim.”) For them, life is present in sensation: lengthy baths, the sharpness of an orange, underlining their books in jewel-toned inks. They don’t have any clear story to narrate to us, however of their strangeness, their sense of formality, their incapability to reply exactly as wanted, they draw us in.

It’s this final high quality that’s most on show in “Checkout 19,” from the narrator’s musing that the colour of her menstrual blood is “very pretty—it’s a shade of red I’ve been looking for in a lipstick since forever” to her saying, to Dale, who has raped her, “Don’t dwell on it, I don’t, I hardly ever think of it—I think it’s OK.” Detached from what ought to matter and drawn to what mustn’t, she exudes a specific allure. Even her namelessness appears apt. If she had a title—Alice or Janet or Stephanie, say—it could evoke different folks we’ve met, whether or not in life or in literature. Because she doesn’t have one, our expertise of her is pure.

But unfiltered expertise is hostile to expression. Like our doodling protagonist, we’re caught with the issue that illustration stays illustration, irrespective of how a lot nearer we predict we’ve acquired to the guts of a factor. Even the vivid colours of abstraction are selections. There is not any strategy to lower to the true, no strategy to present us a beloved trainer or a long-ago pal with out selecting what points made them who they have been, summed them up, and—within the emotional sense—named them.

Of the various containers into which we match the stuff of life, “Checkout 19” considerations itself with two: the ebook and the house. Bennett’s ladies have an anarchic, nearly feral domesticity; their abodes are filled with moldy cups of tea. But these are usually not locations of neglect. The objects inside them are fastidiously noticed—handled, in truth, as topics, exerting their very own will and company. “Things hold life in place,” the narrator tells us. She goes on to explain some recollections from childhood: “Party dresses with smooth sashes. And oxblood loafers and argyle socks and a rosebud pitcher and bowl and croissants on Sundays . . . ”

Yet at the same time as she tells us about this stuff she lets slip that she is at all times dropping them; and the life the issues have been meant to carry in place has been misplaced, too, “wrapped up in newspaper and put into separate boxes.” Much is invested in robes, a silver lamé skirt, eggplants “tightly sheathed in a shining bulletproof darkness.” Still, like a spider that builds its dwelling between a chair and a wall, our protagonist has a relationship to those gadgets that isn’t considered one of assured possession. Things are vital, totemic. But she is just not their grasp, by no means at dwelling.

Homes recur always in “Checkout 19,” whether or not in idiom (issues are sometimes described as being “at home”), metaphor (“the dark, where sleep has its house”), or of their literal and stable kind. Bennett is aware of that, for many of us, these are buildings to which we adapt, not locations we construct from the bottom up. We ditch the furnishings we thought we’d have for years; if we lease, we’re going to discover nails within the wall, small put in enhancements. We are at all times to a point interlopers, harnessing someone else’s designs for our functions. (One of the tales in “Pond,” for example, is devoted to the knobs on the cottage’s range, that are breaking and inconceivable to exchange.) To be at dwelling can also be to be dislocated, in between.

Unsurprisingly, our narrator, who stays in mattress for days on finish, believes the cleaner the house the extra doubtful the sanity of the particular person inside it. “Modern homes, now frequently referred to as bases and living spaces,” she says, “are becoming lighter and brighter, homogeneous in their increasing need to be increasingly operational”:

And who, precisely, is doing many of the work required day in day trip to make sure that all these houses are unfailingly lighter and brighter and operational? Convenience replaces ritual, gadgets change daydreaming, spotlights change shade, and the discord between one’s internal world and their speedy environment goes via the roof. . . . And whoever lives inside there may be bewildered to her wit’s finish that she experiences such a penetrating and abiding—nearly accusatory—sense of estrangement in a place the place she is unquestionably purported to really feel impressed and comfy. When all the pieces is illuminated and the shadows have been sanitised, the place goes the creature inside and what occurs to her want for reverie? . . . It appears to me totally indefensible that anybody ever thought it vital and proper to ship an electrical present blazing via the furrows of anybody else’s thoughts with a view to dazzle the intimate blackness at its core into fast extinction.

From the house we slide out of the blue into the thoughts—one other place the place we’re generally at peace and generally at odds, a place we inhabit however don’t management. The prized darkness on the heart of the human thoughts, the place the place no matter is basically actual about us resides, is what “Checkout 19” dedicates itself to defending. There is nowhere to go however inside, and but what’s inside is what should be saved from illumination.

“Sorry, if you want access to my emotions, you’re going to have to subscribe to my Patreon.”

Cartoon by Jerald Lewis

Indeed, for all her digressive self-narration, her imperiously delivered opinions, it isn’t at all times simple to know what our protagonist feels in regards to the occasions of her life. When she reassures Dale that she barely thinks about what he did, she appears to be telling the reality, however within the aftermath she can not actually decide if she is upset or not, at the same time as her physique shakes—which, to this reader no less than, is a response that ought to present some sort of reply. What it means to be upset is bodily expressed however not articulated as emotion. Our narrator is in a technique totally dedicated to the challenge of dwelling out who she is, leaning into her tastes and proclivities. But this comes at a sure value, and, for her, the fee is self-knowledge.

“Checkout 19” attracts its title from a job the narrator had as a teen-ager, working as a cashier at a grocery store. We’re instructed only one story about her time there, in two other ways. The first is pretty simple. A Russian shopper arms her a copy of Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil,” and she or he displays that her arms resemble the arms of the lady on the quilt: “My hands were like hers, exactly like hers, and I couldn’t help but believe that the Russian man must have thought so too.”

The second time, the encounter is framed nearly as a fairy story, wherein the Russian man retailers as if “the splendidly arrayed shelves of pickled vegetables were in fact the stalls of a magnificent Viennese auditorium,” and that he have been being watched by an viewers that adopted “his astonishing hands.” The response of this viewers turns into more and more erotic; a spouse takes her husband’s fingers and sucks on them to the foundation. The Russian “can feel oh so clearly that the women are emboldened, that the women are ready for anything,” and the story once more ends with the present of “Beyond Good and Evil.” This time, although, the narrator experiences it as a shattering intrusion: a stranger has seen “through my ruffled yet unbroken flesh . . . into the quickening revolutions of my supremely aberrant imaginings.”

Books, Bennett’s second vessel of expertise, are a web site of each concern and obsession. Much area is dedicated to our narrator’s studying: Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows,” E. M. Forster’s “A Room with a View,” the diaries of Anaïs Nin, Françoise Sagan’s “Bonjour Tristesse.” In the novels she reads, life is generally depicted via occasions and motion, one factor that results in the subsequent. But there’s one other sort of novel, one with “a kaleidoscopic sort of prose that is constantly shuffling the distinction between objects and beings, self and other, and conceives of the world in terms of form and geometry, texture and tone.” This is the narrator describing the work of the British author Ann Quin, and it’s her conception of what working-class literature ought to be: writing that displays a sense of getting no future, no privateness, no management.

It’s additionally, in fact, a good description of Bennett’s writing, which goals to seize expertise with out revealing its core. This is the Russian’s violation: he exposes the narrator to herself. She is someone with starvation and ambition, regardless of appearances, and past the bounds of her class. Thinking of herself and of Dale, the narrator feedback that they “read in order to come to life.” Literature means one thing completely different to them than to their rich classmates; it’s extra visceral, extra of a want. Books create a world wherein there are indicators, omens, and guarantees, wherein issues occur for causes, wherein folks will be singled out as particular, laden with potential.

But potential, or promise, can imply various things. Perhaps it means you’ve got some sort of future, a pure blossoming that’s mendacity in wait. Or maybe it’s merely an phantasm—years cross, and also you turn into no matter they made you. Books first seem in “Checkout 19” as issues, saved shut for his or her prospects however by no means learn. “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,” the narrator recollects. “That was nice. It was actually.” Here texts and other people face the identical conundrum. Once opened, they inevitably remodel into one thing tidier: a story.

The story our narrator writes—the one which her boyfriend destroys—follows a rich wanderer named Tarquin Superbus. He lives in an ambiguous time, however in a single location: his condominium, which is positioned in any variety of cities in response to temper. (When he’s triumphant and “licking his fingers,” Vienna; when in want of consolation and a little delusional, Venice.) Tarquin is extravagantly home, delighting at nighttime luxurious of his dwelling, which is replete with the colour of eggplants. One day, hoping to impress a pal, the Doctor, he acquires a huge library. But when the Doctor arrives, he discovers what Tarquin would have identified had he opened his books. Every one is clean.

The Doctor softens the blow: someplace within the library, he says, is a sentence that unlocks the secrets and techniques of the universe, ushering a particular person into transcendence. This sentence can’t be learn, solely seen; and, as soon as seen, it disappears, making it inconceivable to share. Tarquin, initially elated by this information, is rapidly flattened by its implications. The limitless potential of the library is an excessive amount of; wading via its blankness to seek out enlightenment, insufferable. He dumps the books into a courtyard, units them on fireplace, and immediately is aware of that he has made a mistake. Smoke rises, and the story ends—not as a result of it was meant to, however as a result of it was right here that it was stopped.

Neither the clean books nor the bonfire can soothe Tarquin’s soul: it’s actual books he wants, with their actual rigidity between sacred thriller and plain that means. We typically say that books are “about” one thing, however, strictly talking, books merely are. They are usually not homes for concepts or gestures towards a level. Like a title, like a thoughts, they’re experiences in their very own proper, they usually stay opaque regardless of our makes an attempt to sum them up—as one should in (for example) a evaluation.

Still, fully yielding to this thriller, obliterating even the potential for understanding, doesn’t create pure expertise. Experience resides between incoherence and definition. Bennett’s narrator, although intent on defending her “own little bit” of “all-consuming darkness,” the unseen kernel that makes her who she is, typically returns to moments in her life, solely to seek out that she reads them in another way. Some issues matter greater than she anticipated them to; others lose their lure. If she is fleeing being identified with a view to defend one thing necessary, she can also be making an attempt to see what’s necessary, with a view to protect it.

Perhaps it was incorrect to carry language into what had been a cheerful animal existence. But it has arrived, and it’s right here to remain. We should now say and repeat, signify and signify once more, draw the figures of our lives in several methods to attempt to get at the true factor, not in a single go however in a thousand sides. It’s becoming that Tarquin’s story—or the story of his story—ends in destruction of a completely different type. It’s ripped to fragments by one other man, one who hated not that the pages have been clean however that they’d been written on. Instead of limitless promise, they contained one thing else—one thing like life. ♦


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