A friend recently told me that she was participating in a translation contest. Jokingly, I suggested that the organizers should have picked a chapter from Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett as the source text. My friend smiled, slightly disconcerted. That’s right. That was the book.
It isn’t only the tirelessly poetic and ornamental prose – a trademark of Bennett’s – that would make Checkout 19 a trick-and-a-treat to translate, but also the uncanny syntax, at once arduous and entrancing. The author’s début novel, The Pond (2015) followed a woman moving into a remote cottage in Ireland, idling around, and establishing an intimate relationship with her surroundings. Checkout 19 takes on a more daring quest: tracking the twenty-something years of the narrator’s life, down to minute sensations, embarrassments, and desires.
The novel opens with a reminiscence on books, the author’s main preoccupation, and the preeminent subject among the book’s multifarious narrative foundations. “Later on we often had a book with us. Later on. When we were a bit bigger at last thought still nowhere near as big as the rest of them we brought over books with us.” The narrator, voicing an enchanting, chant-like recollection, verifies her memory with soothing words of confirmation. “Yes. Yes. Yes we did.” “We couldn’t help it could we.”
Who is this ‘we’ that she is trying so hard to convince? Is it her reader, her childhood friend, or herself? We soon realize that Bennett is addressing her own childhood memory, the fragile imaginative child enclosed in her book-dreamworld. We can imagine, almost feel, the author looking upon her tenderly, like a mother or an older sister. Later on, the ‘we’ turns into a ‘me’ and occasionally a ‘she’, enabling various vantage points – either as a participant in the story or looking from behind a hazard tape at a toilsome long-ago emotion.
The novel is a restless compendium of intermingling storylines and mellifluous digressions. It is also an inherently autobiographical account of a lifelong relationship with books and language – an autobibliography. And there’s hardly a better subject for a writer so essentially preoccupied with words. The enthusiasm for anomalous expressions that made The Pond, regardless of its seemingly simple storyline, such a delicious book to read, has been ratcheted up in Checkout 19. We encounter words like ‘incogitable’ and ‘perfunctory,’ trickled onto the pages insouciantly as if they were time-honored regulars in Bennett’s quotidian vocabulary. To highbrow dreamers and genuine bookworms alike, this is no small treat.
But focusing only on the novel’s language would mean neglecting its message which is arresting in its own right. At the beginning of the book, we meet an adolescent girl, shy and introverted, resorting to books and writing her own fairytale stories. The author asks: “And what exactly do I know about her, this girl at the table who would be me?” She knows that she preferred to complete the schoolwork and group presentations on her own. She knows that she had an ‘inclination for abstruse ideas.’
“Probably I had just one idea in fact, a kind of blither vision of how the presentation should unfold – the atmosphere, the tone, the denouement and so on. There had been occasions when I’d tried to convey what I’d identified to be the mechanics of my various visions…”
Now that she’s a self-sufficient grownup, she has finally warranted the freedom to work on her own, bathe in her own abstruse ideas and weave them into ideas, sentences, and novels. She can finally write a book of her own. We first meet Bennett’s grownup self twenty pages into the book. The delicately poised being enters, leaving behind her a trail of menstrual blood, the shade of the perfect red lipstick. She is fierce and hungry for knowledge, thirsty for the drama that is life.
“I am a bleeding bloody creature, see how I bleed and bleed, look at all the blood crinkle-oozing out of me, onto my ankles, onto the ground, onto the street, onto your smart shoes. Bright as a ruby, dark as a garnet.”
We all have early influences and Bennett’s were her mother and grandmother. Especially the latter who bestowed on her the aptitude for seeing and experiencing physical things – bric-a-brac and food – with a heightened consciousness. Some of the most pleasurable pages of the novel entail sensuous depictions and epicurean memories: the grandmother’s fruitcake tasting of marmalade and cigarettes, of smoke and oranges; the greasy bag in which one had to enter their hand in order to fish out space-invader-shaped crisps, the Earl Grey with Baileys that she shared with a dorm friend. The afferent author tells us that on one occasion, her mouth tasted of ‘cucumber and elastic bands.’
The description of the fictional character Tarquin Superbus’ kitchen treasures, including capers, cornichons, cockles, truffles, tamarind, nutmeg, goose fat, juniper berries, olives, oregano, lavender, tapenade, sloes, apricot jam, onion chutney, preserved lemons, sauerkraut, vinegar, mincemeat, vanilla pods, squid ink, saffron – the list goes on – reads like a reverie of an impecunious student.
And it’s not just the edibles that can induce a mouthwatering effect. Take the litany of ‘all things nice’ that reads like a silky musk-scented dream:
“Oh, and all things nice! Lace, opal, gypsophila, rose oil, meringue, gardenia, pearl powder, mink, sugared almonds, pas de chat, beeswax, tarot, orange blossom, Liszt, calisthenics, Venetian talc, parakeets, baklava, cameo, amber, calamine, broderie anglaise, whalebone, honeycomb, rabbit, polka, damask, potpourri, crystal, Chrétien de Troyes, lavender, mah-jong, gymkhana, tortoiseshell, squid ink, filigree, silk, saffron, liquorice, curling tongs, terrapins, vanilla pods, pineapples, bathwater, plumes, tinctures, tazze, candelabra, banana shampoo, maidenhair ferns, gold-plated taps, manicure sets, iced buns, tan tights, lapsang souchong, avocados, minty chocolate, the cherry moon – and what then, what then?”
And what then? The words sound so beautiful and fragrant and tasty that one can feel fulfilled just by reading the inventory out loud.
Among all things nice in life there’s the imaginary altar of books that holds a particular allure. The novel traipses between myriad relationships with books: they chaperone the author’s coming-of-age and her relationships with men. Several novels and poetry collections constitute the third participant in the ménages à trois between the author and other people. There is a boyfriend who only reads successful people’s biographies, a woman in Tangier to whom the author leaves some books, another boyfriend Dale who believes that women are not supposed to read poetry – it will break them and will ‘make shit of you.’
By listing tens of authors and books throughout the novel, Bennett reconstructs a library of her own. At one point in life, the narrator tells us, she only read books by men ‘for the simple reason that I wanted to find out about men about the world they lived in and the kinds of things they got up to in that world, the kinds of things too that they thought about… as they followed another man, undressed another man’s wife…’ Once she’s had enough of all the disappointing encounters with the male sex, the author changes to reading only books by women, to the point that she won’t have any more time left to dedicate to male authors’ works.
Books are a source of inherent truths and essential knowledge. And, of course, they teach one how to write. Bennett is an excellent student. She doesn’t appropriate but pays homage, echoes but only after sprinkling another author’s ideas with an interpretation of her own. She disassembles her revered literary works for meticulous analysis, then reassembles them anew, collecting morsels for her own utility. For example? For example, introducing a couple of fairytale-like stories-inside-a-story relates to the novels of Jeanette Winterson, the repetitive, assertive rambling brings to mind Thomas Bernhard. The playful syntax and profusion of obscure language are unique to Bennett herself and part of her allure for a certain type of reader, including this reviewer. She is painting with language and literature is her brush.
But it is one thing to find pleasure in recondite sentences like:
“A biro is a cumbersome perfunctory instrument that gives no pleasure to the one who wields it and in her inept hand it soon made her shortcomings in the illustrative mode brutally apparent.”
And it is another thing to make sense of the rummage of words apparent in other places:
“My armpits and insteps arch, reaching for wings, flexing for hooves, some kind of instant apparatus that will launch me into flight and carry me to her. She is flanked by luxurious wolves, on her finger a mounted blackberry schemes, its beady nodes glisten tantalisingly like a behind-the-back teaspoon of caviar.”
Here, the novel enters a poetic territory, and laying poetry on unformatted pages can make the text too thick to process. There are moments in the second half of the novel where its orotund excess becomes too much to contend with. Like a too-abundant fruit basket or a jar of sticky honey filled with roasted almonds, such pages are best consumed in small quantities. Reading Bennett’s rich prose too fast and copiously amounts to a form of gluttony, giving way to sugar overdose. There are sentences that lose their narrative edge and fall victim to consummate conceptual influx, to use Bennett’s own words. Such feverish half-page-long tirades had a strange effect of making me read very fast, in allegro, breathless like a runner impatient to see what’s on the other side of the hill.
Scuttling between the galaxies of memories, literature, fairytales, and reveries, Bennett is asking her reader to hold on, but not forget to look. Because “no child says ‘Look’ without meaning for something to happen. A child’s eyes are instinctively and never-endingly searching for some little thing amongst it all that just like that upends the whole lot.” The author is telling the reader to look. Reading is imagining is looking is seeing, is listening is thinking is feeling.
The novel’s intricate webbing evokes a baroque chapel, its gilded and marbled details unfurling like the buttery layers of a brioche. Everything is interwoven, interlaced, and interconnected by the delicate thread of language and words. Entering the chapel, we become enmeshed with caliginous silence and are left to wander and dream. “When everything is illuminated and the shadows have been sanitised, where goes the creature inside, and what happens to her need for reverie?” the narrator asks. Books open up possibilities for other lives, other pasts and futures. No one book will be the same for two different readers, not even to the selfsame reader when he/she may happen to reread it. Like an ever-flowing river, a book is never the same. Likewise, we ourselves are forever changing: we explore, learn, and make further sense of this world.
“We were students of literature but we didn’t read in order to become clever and pass our exams with the highest commendations – we read in order to come to life. We were supremely adept at detecting metaphors, signs, analogies, portents – in books, and in our immediate realities. We confused life with literature and made the mistake of believing that everything going on around us was telling us something, something about our own little existence our own undeveloped hearts, and, most crucially of all, about what was to come.”
By reading Checkout 19, we learn a great deal. And yet there’s sweet jealousy in knowing that what we look for, see, and learn can never be quite the same as what another reader will search for, listen to, and hear. We will all read this staggering book in our own peculiar way. Yes. Yes. We will.