Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (Fitzcarraldo Editions, Oct. 2015) Review by Daniel Hartley

Pond
by Claire-Louise Bennett
(Fitzcarraldo Editions, Oct. 2015)

Review by Daniel Hartley

The stories in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond feature a consistent narratorial voice: a female first-person narrator who recounts past events, hypothetical situations, and self-discoveries to an implied interlocutor. A young Englishwoman living in rural Ireland (or so we infer), the narrator is unreliable to the extent that she is often unsure as to what took place in the past, what her motivation was, or why she is even recounting this in the present. She is generally as much as of a mystery to herself as to the reader; indeed, the narrative motor of these stories is less plot than the narrator’s attempt to fathom why she did or did not do something, or what exactly the truth might be behind a particular trait she has remarked about herself. She is also fond of pursuing the multiple permutations of propositions or hypotheticals that she herself has spontaneously proposed—the disjunction between the needlessness of these proposals and the implacable rigor with which she pursues them being a constant source of humor. The climaxes of these stories, such as they are, are often moments of sudden self-discovery coupled with a notable increase in intensity of the prose.

Take, for example, the opening paragraph of the story “Finishing Touch”:

I think I’m going to throw a little party. A perfectly arranged but low-key soirée. I have so many glasses after all. And it is so nice in here, after all. And there’ll be plenty of places for people to sit now that I’ve brought down the ottoman – and in fact if I came here for a party on the ottoman is exactly where I’d want to sit – I’d want to sit there on the ottoman. But I suppose I’d arrive a little later on and somebody else would already be sitting upon the ottoman very comfortably, holding a full glass most likely and talking to someone standing up, someone also holding a full glass of wine, and so I would stand with my fingertips upright on a table perhaps, which wouldn’t be so bad, and, anyway, people move about, but, all the same, I would not wish to make it very plain just how much I’d like to sit there, on the ottoman – I certainly wouldn’t make a beeline for it! – no, I’d have to dawdle in and perch upon any number of places before I’d dare go near it, so that, when finally I did come to sit on the ottoman, it would appear perfectly natural, just as if I’d ended up there with no effort or design at all.

The affectlessness of the voice is produced partly by mechanical repetition (“after all,” “and,” “ottoman”) and partly by the mode in which the hypothetical scenario is broached: an event we associate with joyful human interaction—a party—is reduced to the objects which enable it—the glasses and the ottoman. Likewise, the pathos-laden comedy of the passage arises from the disjunction between the sheer contingency of the thought-experiment (“I think I’m going to throw a little party”) and the strategic detail with which the narrator pursues its possible implications. This is compounded by the comic irony of the fact that, of all the possible “perfectly arranged soirées” she could have imagined, she invents one in which the very thing she desires—to sit on the ottoman—is partially frustrated. A subtle shift occurs whereby the narrator begins as a host and ends a guest at her own party, thus dispossessing herself of control over the very world she herself has imagined. Moreover, the story is potentially endless, since there is no internal narrative necessity to lead it back to the temporal present of the initial “I think”: in principle, the narrator could continue to add details to this imaginary scenario ad infinitum. This is one of the reasons why the stories in Pond avoid a sense of arbitrariness in their endings only by increasing the affective intensity of the prose: intensity substitutes for narrative closure.

One of the obvious sources of Bennett’s strange, compelling style is the way it exploits the intersection of two mismatches: between plotlessness and vocal excess, and between self-ignorance and self-narration. The stories take place in precisely those locations and moments which traditional narrative would tend to elide or abbreviate. For example, “The Big Day” opens thus: “I sat late one afternoon for a reason that resolutely refuses to come to mind in my neighbours’ house with my coat on all alone in the room between the kitchen and the parlour.” We never meet the neighbors, and are instead launched into the narrator’s attempt to deduce the possible reasons, some of which she later logically eliminates, as to why she might have been there in the first place: to give them bunting for the forthcoming party, or straws, or something from the postbox, or perhaps to collect misplaced keys. The effect of affectlessness is partly created by the way in which the narrator must logically deduce the motivations of her own deeds—as if she herself had not undertaken them. Each deduction becomes an excuse for ever-proliferating lateral observations (e.g., a page-long rumination on how and why exactly she laid out a box of straws on a wall). Ultimately, Bennett’s stories are nothing less than little style machines: plotlessness induces self-reflection, self-reflection is impeded by self-ignorance, which can only be overcome by logical deduction and prolonged self-analysis, each stage of which entails the proliferation of further lateral aperçus and more trivia. Though, of course, nothing could be less trivial to Bennett’s literary phenomenology than triviality itself.

These structural ploys are nuanced and accentuated by the texture of the narratorial voice. Bennett’s prose ranges across three registers. The first is a chatty, upper-middle-class Englishness which exploits the residual eccentricity of such phrases as “terribly swish,” “skedaddled sharpish,” “snazzy appeal,” and “Oh I’d be hopping.” At its weakest, the writing over-relies on this verbal eccentricity, but at its best it bathes these words in an apathetic emptiness which renders them new and strange. It achieves this effect by an occasional, calculated repetition of certain filler phrases (“of course,” “actually,” “by the way”), that betrays a distinct unease beneath the cheerful “English rose” surface. The second register is a formality bordering on academic prose: “[it] was rather the sort of consolidated outcome which is typically produced when a protracted and half-hearted analytical process aggravates the superior auspices of an exasperated subconscious.” This distancing style is at odds with the narrator’s constant interpellations of her interlocutor: “if you must know,” “for your information,” “you see.” Here again, the affectlessness arises out of an unnatural to-ing and fro-ing between the alienation achieved by the abstract prose and the more mundane desire to be listened to (betrayed, ironically, by the narrator’s comical pretence of reluctance to narrate). A third register then emerges at climactic moments. Here, the eccentric Englishness is dropped, and the abstraction of the academic style becomes overlaid with a rhythmic and affective intensity. There is an astonishing heightening of mood in these passages, where Bennett fuses a moment of self-discovery with a freshness of image and steeliness of enunciation to produce quite remarkable writing:

I only wish you could spend five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel. But an invitation of this sort achieves nothing: it comes to them as a threat. A threat they scrapple to keep at bay by tethering worn out schemes of placid cosiness about the place. They move about your home depositing things here and there, making ordinary noises along the way, like it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s ridiculous and quite untenable to become enraged and put off by such gentle armaments as these, yet I cannot settle, and so I drink. I drink to you; I drink to me. I drink to plough and fortify a one-track mind and suddenly, briefly, the blood surrenders, shuffles through the old channels, and there is no such thing as a false move.

In all of these stories the narrator is alone. Philosophically, the book is an exploration of solitude, of what it means to be a person and the way in which this is complicated by language. The first epigraph, for example, is a quotation from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy: “It is as though … a sentimental trait of nature were bemoaning the fact of her fragmentation, her decomposition into separate individuals.” Bennett shares this “sentimental trait” and sets out to trace those moments, locations, or processes by which individuality comes apart at the seams. Many of the stories are torn between a ferocious desire, not so much for independence, as for the mystery of a type of self-unknowing which is experienced as plenitude, and, on the other hand, a need to be with and amongst other people, which forces her to articulate herself and, in doing so, to lose her tentative, experimental self in the ordinariness of conventional formulation.

Bennett exhibits a truly modernist suspicion of language. “English, strictly speaking,” she writes, “is not my first language by the 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.” There is a real sense in which Bennett endorses a form of dualism: language (along with convention, individuality and ordinariness—all viewed negatively) versus physical and affective reality (including the materiality of writing itself—ink, paper, etc.). The eponymous story of the collection, for example, explores the narrator’s irritation that one of her neighbors, in preparation for a forthcoming outdoor party, has placed “a cautionary notice next to the pond” so that children won’t fall in. The narrator sees such “moronic busy-bodying” as preventing the child’s development of

the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable.

Whilst this initially seems a suitably contrarian and avant-garde position, it is not in fact dissimilar to the average conservative tirade against health and safety regulations. In such passages, the ideological implications of the upper-middle-class English discourse which Bennett occasionally instrumentalizes begins unwittingly to interfere with the book’s seemingly more abstract philosophical speculations.

This “interference” is reproduced in the stories’ obsession with matter. The narrator’s implicit preference for the materiality of signs over that which they signify is reflected in a potential blind spot: an underestimation of the social connotations of everyday objects. Let me list at random some of the “things” these stories mention: bunting, an allotment, a rural cottage, Japanese tapestries, a wine cooler, pannier bags, “granola and salads and caper berries,” damson, and tarte normande. One has only to recall T. S. Eliot’s definition of English culture—“Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches, and the music of Elgar” (as well as Raymond Williams’ devastating paraphrase: “sport, food, and a little art”)—to note that, no matter how much one desires to “move about in deep and direct accordance with things,” there ultimately is no direct accordance with things, since these objects are always already socially mediated. Thus, there is a sense in which the book’s very desire to go beyond signification, and hence beyond ideology tout court, is itself ideological.

This is ironic, since Bennett has recently stated in an interview with the Honest Ulsterman that the notion of individuality she is deconstructing in Pond is “emphasized for capitalist reasons rather than wholesome ones.” The ultimate paradox, then, is that in order to produce a critical, literary phenomenology of the (anti-capitalist) person, Pond covertly relies upon a social content which tends to obscure the mediations of capital. In order to grant her narrator the space and time in which to reflect upon herself—or, rather, upon those now traumatic, now joyful points of depersonalization—Bennett focuses almost solely on moments which she believes to be pre-ideological: in the domestic sphere away from the world of work (yet actually still within the realm of social reproduction), and located in rural Ireland far from the social complexity of the metropolis. The fundamental wager of the book seems to be that the force of the “immediacy” of her narrator’s free-flowing perceptions will be sufficient to challenge the limiting modes of individual personhood fostered by capitalism. But this underestimates the extent to which such solitary “immediacy” is itself socially mediated. The attempt strategically to bracket social mediations out of a desire to generate a literature of “deep and direct accordance with things” is thus the strictly ideological condition of possibility of Pond's “pure” and disturbing materialities: it is an ideological critique of the ideology of the individual. This is the scandal—the skandalon, the stumbling stone—around which, like the mysterious object that “wedges itself,” “horribly visible,” in the collection’s eponymous pond, the stories revolve.

 

Daniel Hartley is Lecturer in English and American Culture and Literature at the University of Giessen in Germany. His book, The Politics of Style: Marxist Poetics in and beyond Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson is forthcoming from Brill. His freelance writing has appeared in Salvage, 3:AM Magazine, Black Box, and Revue Période.