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A Holiday-Sized Revolution: A review of Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

By William Harris.


 Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett (The Stinging Fly Press, 2015)

The revaluation of all values, as Nietzsche called for. Michael Hofmann repurposed the phrase compellingly in an essay on Thomas Bernhard—“the revaluation of all values … took place very early in Bernhard’s life”—and I’d like to employ it here to explain a beguiling strain in Irish/English writer Claire-Louise Bennett’s highly original debut story collection, Pond. I’m interested in the quality of the revaluation, the extremity with which convention in her stories wobbles and slides. What are we to focus on? Karl Ove Knausgaard has been accused of thinking too fixedly about cornflakes, practicing a kind of perverse perceptual relativism in which nothing is drained of possible amazement. Bennett’s fiction shares something of this, but doesn’t really go into things with the same wide-eyed liberalism. It’s as much about exclusion as inclusion. It poses as aleatory, as a sort of red herring, its thoughts drifty and baggy and shapeless. Meanwhile, it orders itself into a free associative fugue—plot-less, but designed.

Her interlinked stories—which can be read as one-offs, like short fiction, or serially, like novel chapters—move in subject, for instance, from bananas and oatcakes and almonds to fingernails, gardens, a priest, a talk at a prestigious university, a lover—at this point the series ends and the ghost of a narrative intrudes—before cul-de-sac-ing into a description of the narrator’s rustic routine. All this happens in the second story, “Morning, Noon, & Night.” Or the stories frack deeply and multivalently into a single premise: imagining the planning of a soiree, say (“Finishing Touch”). The third channel—I simplify, but these are broad groupings—is the Lydia Davis route: punchy micro-stories and a streak (used sparingly, but still used) for playing with the theatricality of the customer service rep/customer dialectic.

The mistake, I think, would be to note Bennett’s chosen subjects and decide she is a writer for whom content limps behind form. Or—equally wrong—to assume she parades form as the real content. There’s enough form here to go around, and a persona-based content to that form, but there’s also a content to her content, a harder to claim feat than it may sound. Her stories bob through the object world with comedy and intellectual force—a dérive through a foreign country, with or without passport and an official sense of purpose, but mostly without. “Still, as I’ve said, none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever. I’m not sure what it has to do with and as a matter of fact I’m not sure what now is about either,” the narrator says. What is being talked about is always supposedly not the point. And yet this is as much a structuring maneuver as anything, a base to return to and shape the stories from. The point in these stories is an ambling, revaluative, eternally seeking one, in which the objects worthy of thought are plucked from forgotten corners of the house and then examined, from a variety of angles, until they conclude or ram into a new topic.

“I guess what has always frustrated me is the emphasis on the human,” Bennett said in an interview in The Honest Ulsterman. Her stories, it is clear, often proceed from this frustration. The narrator lives alone in the Irish countryside, but is not Irish. She has neighbours, she once lived in the city, but now she lives in a cottage that’s been “pulled from out the side of the hill.” Her neighbour informs her of her cottage’s origins and she reacts strongly:

I really didn’t want to hear all about how my cottage had been pulled out of the side of a hill. It seemed an incredibly indecorous way of putting it and regrettably whenever I recall the phrase all I ever see is a glazed and gangly calf wrenched sideways from out its mother’s dazed and quaking backside.

For much of it she’s in solitude, narrating in an abstracted, essayistic way. Imagine if Robinson Crusoe were in opinionated, semi-mystical accord with the objects around him. A porta-potty appears outside, in preparation for a festival, and she considers it “an ally, an ally in from-the-hip decision making, and I felt nothing but gratitude towards its moulded and unerring bulk.” She visits a friend, who for one reason or another exits the room, and she feels “the sensation that someone somewhere was doing something nice for me, such as placing a piece of breaded fish onto a pre-heated baking tray in a fan-assisted oven,” a feeling that “dissipated the instant the sun left the room.” The style pays deep attention to mood—its contours and stimuli and obscurity—and shades into comedy without really viewing it as a destination. Much of the comedy arises from concrete object-hood. It’s this mix of the dead obvious vegetable life of objects, the noises and textures of nature, and the irrational, appealing aesthetic judgments resulting from these things: a comic space somewhere between confusion and religion, with an ironic pipette of commodity fetishism dropped in. (One of her shorter shorts is a Warholian ode titled, “Oh, Tomato Puree!”) The effect is a perceptual regime change, a tiny holiday-sized revolution in noticing.

After Pond’s publication Bennett wrote an essay for The Irish Times about her development as a writer. In adolescence, she recalls,

human beings and the stunts they pull were a minor constituent of my worldview. There were hundreds of thousands of phenomena more fascinating than human beings, and most of what I wrote at that time was little more than an inventory of all those things I found stunning and peculiar. Moths, pylons, flat grass, porcelain, wind, lace, ear drums, hexagons, night, glass, wolves, violins, charcoal, reflections, creosote, dandelion clocks, thunder, stars, bar stools, Jesus Christ …

A comedian of inventory, as the critic Hugh Kenner named Joyce in his study The Stoic Comedians. Kenner argued that Joyce employed language mechanically, experimenting with a sort of grammatical geometry until it became comedy. Bennett’s style can be abstract and physical, chatty and performative (a recurring joke is the lonely narrator’s baseless addresses to an audience: “you see” and “if you must know”), and makes a point of focusing on language as technology, staging a small protest where Joyce held an exhibition. The style feels modernist-y, has points where it verges on sing-song, verse, or essay, and is very aware of the obfuscating tyranny of language: in other words, a properly modern work. The collection’s title, for instance, comes from a sign a neighbor places next to a pond. “If it were left up to me,” she thinks, “I wouldn’t put a sign next to a pond saying pond.”

It’s not that I want children to fall into the pond per se, though I can’t really see what harm it would do them; it’s that I can’t help but assess the situation from the child’s perspective. And quite frankly I would be disgusted to the point of taking immediate vengeance if I was brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon in late September and thereupon belted down to the pond, all by myself most likely, only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it.

Elsewhere she says English isn’t her first language. “I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. … 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.” A quaint, humorous, lyrical radicalism: intro to theory and intro to the thoughts that might burrow in on you, alone in the Irish countryside.

It just so happened that while reading Pond I was also reading Thomas Bernhard. I would read Bennett in the morning and Bernhard in the evening, or sometimes both in the afternoon. They began to steep: the Bernhard would get into the Bennett and vice-versa; their sounds clanged or synced; they became useful points of reference, ways of understanding. Both have force and opinion and form. Bernhard is a ranter who plays his anger redundantly, in one key. Bennett, too, can rant (“I hate coming across photographic records of putatively outlandish cat behaviour and I hate hearing about cats”), but it’s not her usual mode, and she almost always shows range and aeration, and a sort of oddly askance reasoning. Her stories parabola through subjects with loose embroidery; charting them, in tedious creative writing class-style, might actually be fun. The main structuring principle is a sloping, cross-country, incidental escalation. “By the way” as refined formal technique, writ large—or incredibly small: “The rough sort of oatcake goes especially well with a banana by the way—by the way, the banana might be chilled slightly.”


Claire-Louise Bennett was born in the southwest of England, studied drama in London (some of the stories are written as stage directions; she’s cited German post-dramatic theater as an influence), and then moved to Galway. The view from Ireland is of a rising star, with enthusiastic reviews and shout-outs from the country’s most celebrated writers. The novelist Anne Enright, for instance, has mentioned Bennett as part of a new modernism, coming in the wake of the financial collapse. Eimear McBride praised Bennett’s collection in The Guardian, confirming the buzz that’s been whirring in Ireland: “I’d heard more good whispers about Pond … than almost any other debut this year.” Irish writing seems always to be enjoying a moment—“Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers,” gushed The Millions, rather ridiculously, in their 2015 book preview—and in America, where I live, it’s not as if contemporary Irish writing’s ignored: coverage of McBride’s novel, for instance, or Anne Enright’s latest, The Green Road, proves otherwise. Pond, however, has been received here with absolute silence, perhaps due to limited distribution and the collection’s small press, small magazine background (Bennett’s stories appeared first in places like 3:AM Magazine and The White Review), but perhaps also owing to other reasons: the book’s subjects (non-human) or its experimentation (non-programmatic).

The silence matters, for when one does view Pond from America it seems uncanny. There’s a foreignness to Bennett’s writing; her riffs can seem more art world than world of letters, in their eschewal of narrative form and content. But—and this has been pointed out before, by Valerie O’Riordan—the style is redolent of a few American writers: Lydia Davis, as I’ve mentioned, in the collection’s shortest pieces, and the essays of Renee Gladman and the fiction of Lynne Tillman, or more exactly Lynne Tillman’s brilliant novel American Genius: A Comedy, in the collection’s longest ones. The voice is as singular and solitary as Tillman’s narrator’s, but isn’t quite as otherworldly; as in American Genius, there’s a sense of a decentred persona, hovering among its parts, as well as a togetherness, the unmistakable presence of a consistent style or personality. (Bennett’s theater background again shows itself here: a dialogue between performance and its dissolution.)

The book’s first epigraph, from Nietzsche, is not about the revaluation of all values, but the “fragmentation” of the self, “her decomposition into separate individuals.” The book’s structure mirrors its narrator: a loose, fragmented airiness swirling around traces of a pattern, whether that elusive pattern is self or story form. Or, better, self as story form: no backstory, no plot, not much dialogue, but a personality—full of oddity and unevenness but very clearly there, with its own traits and put-ons. There’s the narrator’s distinctive noticing, for one: personality or self at play in the world. And there’s her way with words. No one uses “avuncular” or “vertical” as she does: “porridge, at this point, will feel vertical and oppressive.” Or the case of “exactly.” An absurd plea for specificity always follows outrage, and the deployment of “exactly” is reason to take cover. “Where is my fucking sense of eventuality exactly?”

And now, my turn: what type of fucking book is this exactly? Pond has the irony and paradox of a great opuscule: so slim, so marginal, so incidental, yet new, startling, and very—it feels naïve to say—alive. It’s the pleasure of the writer’s notebook—the foraging writer, always noticing, attuned to space, making do with banally absurd and trivial things—but this seems limiting or just wrong of me to say. For what Bennett’s collection really does is transform the modest, private concerns of the journal (small things, objects, the immediate present) into a total art form. Another value revalued.


William Harris

William Harris
has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, Full Stop, and Enaegon Magazine. He lives in Minneapolis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 6th, 2015.