‘Seductive, funny, and revealing’ – Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
Bennett’s début is billed as a story collection, and sure, you can read it piecemeal – the individuals pieces are great, and they’ll certainly make sense one at a time – but we’d recommend, instead, that you take a very, very deep breath, clear your schedule for a day, and blast through the lot in a dizzying rush. Pond might be presented as a collection, but it’s really more like a cascading series of overlapping soliloquies than it is discrete accounts of particular events or moments of epiphany. While there’s enough continuity of detail for us to safely assume that the narrator is the same throughout, Bennett hasn’t done the usual linked-stories job of using each piece to flesh out incidents from the past so that we end up, jigsaw-like, with a fragmented portrait of that narrator’s life-story – rather, she’s given us a set of apparently random ruminations that come together to illustrate a state of mind. So, while it is about a singular life, it’s less about historical progression and the accrual of plot, and more about how the layering of haphazard thought-processes and incidental detail gains significance in the formation of a (narrating) consciousness.
The stories display a hyper-focus, Nicholson Baker-style, on the minutiae of the narrator’s life – one is a riff on the glories of tomato purée; another goes into great detail on the unexpected flow of ink from an old fountain pen – and they lay out brilliantly, too, her often panicked and furiously irritable chains of thought: in fact one of these, her disgust at the ‘sort of moronic busy-bodying [that] happens with such galling regularity throughout childhood’, whereby, for example, somebody sticks a sign saying ‘pond’ beside a pond, gives the book its title. The same observation also
acts as a sort of mini-manifesto for the book’s (apparently) disjointed form, when the narrator adds that ‘one’s [vital] facility to really notice things’ becomes, over time, ‘thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts’ that make everything, ultimately, ‘quite formidable’. Pond, then, refuses to present a life in such a literal, designated way – even the bookending adolescent reminiscences (the only two not clearly in the first-person singular) don’t really anchor the reader in distinct periods or incidents – and the meandering style, rather than itself feeling formidable (with its lack of plot, its refusal of trajectory) is actually seductive, funny, and revealing.
Despite the cleverness, then, this isn’t a difficult or confusing read: roughly speaking, it’s about a woman who retreats to live in a restored old cottage on the west coast of Ireland following (probably) the collapse of a love affair, and it tracks a period of her mostly isolated life there, from her solitary mealtimes to her choreographed parties, from her diary-writing to her sexual fantasies (and anxieties) during her nightdress-clad walks through the fields. The pieces range from a coupe of lines to twenty pages (give or take) long, and though they’ve mostly eschewed ‘story’ (if story’s seen as plot), they’re nonetheless compelling in the same way as Saramago’s lengthy and digressive sentences are compelling – they’re wry and cutting and very much rooted in a recognizable world, even if it’s one distorted by a microscopic lens and a pretty idiosyncratic narrator. (Who hasn’t, after all, felt the pathetic irrelevancy of getting dressed, ‘knowing that the fingers pushing the buttons up through the holes would be the same fingers that would later push them back out again’?)
Kind of predictably, other reviewers have picked out resemblances to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing: they’re both identified as Irish writers (Bennett’s lived in Ireland for many decades) and both books play with interior monologue. If you accept, though, that this is really because they’re both experimenting with narrative form to some extent, a closer contemporary reference point might be Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation – like Offill’s book, Bennett’s works with almost aphoristic reflections on daily life and female experience in particular, as well as with the idea of creative production, though Bennett is less concerned than Offill is with constructing an overarching narrative. Like Dept of Speculation, Pond is also similar, in a good way, to Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and in fact, Bennett’s narrator’s eschewal of particular expected behaviours – she’s antisocial, un-domesticated, rather nomadic – is closer to Adler’s than to Offill’s. Bennett’s tone, too, reminded us of Lydia Davis’s very short, very dry, fictions, and her narrator’s often neurotic and sometimes manic stylings weren’t a million miles off those of Lynne Tillman’s (actually unstable) narrator in American Genius.
Any Cop?: Yes, definitely, as long as you’re willing to forgo action for contemplation and to accept that this doesn’t imply any loss of ‘readability’. It’s ultra-sharp, very funny, and unstintingly surprising – and it’s more evidence that, firstly, The Stinging Fly have their collective heads screwed tightly on when it comes to literary talent-spotting, and, secondly, that if you’re looking for innovative new English-language fiction, that you really need to be looking to Ireland.
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- May 14, 2015 / 9:00 am