DECEMBER 29, 2016
“I DO NOT have the courage to take the risk,” writes Claire-Louise Bennett in “A Little Before Seven,” “To risk turning entirely and coming to face something very ordinary. I couldn’t stand that so I stay twisted.” In Pond, her collection of stories, Bennett contorts language into new configurations, twisted such that each piece in the collection brings the reader to face a literary frontier and a singular character. Fractured, voice-driven, and prone to modernistic meanderings, Pond is the sort of avant-garde opus destined to put its author on the map alongside modern-day prose stylists of the highest order. Upon its release with two small publishing houses (first Stinging Fly Press, then Fitzcarraldo Editions), the book received rave reviews in the Guardian, the Financial Times, The Irish Times, and elsewhere.
Experimental and fragmented, the collection is not an obvious choice for one of literary fiction’s largest, most prestigious imprints. Riverhead Books, whose canny editorial taste has launched such heavyweights as Emma Straub and Marlon James, has been known to vault a new writer to astronomical critical and commercial success, but Bennett’s style hews closer to Virginia Woolf’s than Lauren Groff’s, forgoing plot in favor of observations and musings that function like an iris, stretching and shortening time and space. The book is neither easily categorized nor easily digested, and it is unclear whether or not American readers will be ready to do the work required by this set of stories, where the rats and the weeds and the reeds “zigzagging to and fro” take on alternate parts splendor and squalor. Can Riverhead volley this quirky book to the same commercial success as its front-list brethren? In an age of Anthony Doerrs, Donna Tartts, and Adam Johnsons, in which action undergirds each chapter, will this be the little modern set of radically written short stories that could?
Arguably Pond, with its whiplike language (The New York Times boasted that it will “ward off mental scurvy”) might indeed fit the bill. The tilt of Bennett’s pen (or the stroke of her key) lends gravity to anything it touches. She muses on stone walls, malfunctioning cook stoves, and the “humid bovine nostril” with the same electricity and verve, drawn so painstakingly one can almost feel the animal heat. “Wishful Thinking,” for example — a scant 10 sentences long — is a story comprised of artifacts — a still life. Bennett writes,
Foxford blanket, textured cushions, suave bolster, a bit of broderie anglaise and so on. Then: have I had breakfast? […] Sees empty bowl and smeared spoon at the edge of the desk. Next to a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic. Factor 15. Thinks, perhaps that was from another day.
These objects furnish entire universes; so, too, does the outside world, described in its acute verdancy. Pond is rife with flora and fauna, provoking the feeling that grass is bristling between the walls. In “The Gloves Are Off,” the narrator spends a rapturous paragraph imagining the source of a bundle of reeds in the driveway that will soon be thatched to her roof, romanticizing their journey from river to cottage only to discover that they have been harvested differently than she imagined.
These stories shift and stutter on the axis of voice, following the nameless female narrator’s thoughts and observations in a rural Irish cottage, in which nature is hell-bent on taking over. In “First Thing,” the narrator is woken by the ratcatcher but has slept through a procession of other animals, including birds, horses, cows, a donkey, a fox, and the rat itself. She makes them both coffee, and the broken prose — one paragraph dangling willy-nilly without proper punctuation — captures her hangover, her state of being intruded upon. This discrepancy between inner and outer weaves its way throughout the collection, as the narrator holds her oddities up to the light for the reader to observe.
In a portion of the book that is simultaneously disturbing and humorous, a woman goes out walking and daydreams about being raped by the stranger strolling in the opposite direction. The scene is an odd turn for a collection that deals primarily in small, quiet moments, whose brushes with violence are mostly restricted to a stir-fry thrown fitfully into the bin. The fantasies are bookended by the pastoral — dozy cows, raindrops, the lace trim of her housedress — which makes their intrusion in the collection all the more startling. Without ever referring to the act directly, she muses, “Would it really be such an upheaval — such a defiling affront? Perhaps on the contrary it might actually seem fairly recreational, like the way dogs are, and not in the least bit vile.” She goes on to speculate about the possibility of pissing herself in the act, so detached and inquisitive that it lends the piece both eeriness and wry observation, pinpointing the kind of mental calculus women regularly figure when strange men meander past, absurd and necessary.
Bennett’s stateside debut refuses to stoop, to explain, to tempt its reader with superficial ploys. This collection is for wiseasses and weirdos, a cathedral of strange sentences and unfocused meditations built upon the singular experience of being a human being. It contains only sharp observations and a constant juggling between beauty and decay, moments stretched and skewed like leaded glass.
Bennett’s language morphs and devolves, moves from straightforward to nonsensical, playful to menacing. The last lines of “The Gloves Are Off” encapsulate this violent beauty: “None whoosh whoosh on that here burnished cunt. Oh, the earth, the earth and the women there, inside the simpering huts, stamped and spiritless, blowing on the coals. Not far away, but beyond the way of return.” However, the author’s prodigious sense of poetry elides her skill at cutting to the meat of the matter, getting to the heart (of the heart) of the thing in question. Some sentiments here are not coherent. There are some ways of speaking that eclipse easy summation, because the ideas at their center are just as complex — sometimes, even, poetic.
Still, Bennett’s stylistic tinkerings are far from self-serious, and the author injects moments of humor that surprise and delight. Remembering the allure of giving the cold shoulder to a chosen target for no reason at all, the voice muses, “what could be more arousing than inexplicable disdain my God.” Describing her fraught relationship with what might best be called dating, she realizes that alcohol provides her a “bespoke man-size filter for example, or a succession of perfectly pitched blind spots, or a persistent and delightful ringing in the ears, or a languorous crescendo of beatific bemusement.”
Particularly in its treatment of the opposite sex, Pond sparkles with witty one-liners: “I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things,” Bennett writes in “The Big Day”:
I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.
Let us hope there are some lights that flicker but never go out, and that Americans — like the British and the Irish — are willing to grope through the darkness and oddity of this gorgeous book.