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'Checkout 19' follows a life tracked through the lens of books

Riverhead Books
Riverhead Books

Rarely has a book astonished me as much as Claire-Louise Bennett's 2015 debut, Pond. Pond is a slow, dark burn of a book in which a young woman moves into an old cottage, rearranges her possessions, cooks a lot, and goes for some walks.

It offers a sharply detailed portrait of its protagonist's inner life through almost nothing but solitary domesticity. Pond is so unusual, and so unsettlingly pleasurable, that I thought it would be greedy to hope Bennett's new novel, Checkout 19, would be better. Lucky me: it is.

As Pond used daily tasks as routes inside its nameless protagonist's mind, so Checkout 19 uses books. It is, very loosely, a fictional autobiography via reading — a form that risks triteness or cliché, but Bennett is too committed to the oddity and specificity of her again-nameless narrator's ideas to ever fall into the worn grooves of other people's. Indeed, the novel is explicitly committed to the privacy of thought. Bennett's protagonist, who is a quiet, working-class woman in flight from anything familiar, knows herself to be intensely suggestible. Her powers of association are such that describing a whisk takes her, in two bubbling lines, from frothy batter to ballerinas leaping through the air. She revels in that ability, but knows its dark side well: At one point, she announces that she will not read books by women who died by suicide because "I think it is very likely that I will one day kill myself and if I do I want it to be all my own idea."

Bennett portrays her narrator as a woman for whom life and ideas are, essentially, not separable. She marks time, when looking back, by which writers she had and had not yet read. Arguably, the single biggest transition in the novel is when, in college, she discovers a group of innovative woman writers that includes Anne Garréta, Vivian Gornick, Lynne Tillman, and, most significantly, Elaine Showalter. For almost the first time in her life, she lets these writers' ideas mix with her own. Bennett leaves no doubt that this is a feminist awakening, but it's also a major concession for somebody who, in her teens, "had a lot of ideas and most of them stayed where they were and nothing gave me greater pleasure than to sit in the grass and go over them again and again." Even before that, as a little girl with a tendency to refer to herself in the first-person plural, she reports that she could "get a great deal from a book without even opening it. Just having it there beside us for ages was really quite special. It was actually because we could wonder couldn't we about the sort of words it contained."

One of the hallmarks of Bennett's writing is repetition, looping, and confirmation: lots of really, actually, yes, and that's right. As a result, her protagonists seem like they are chattering on to themselves, endlessly and perhaps without expecting a listener — except who, without an audience, uses words like ensorcelled, which turns up in both Bennett's books? Checkout 19 provides an answer to that question: its narrator is not only a reader and word freak, but, unsurprisingly, a writer.

Much of the novel is given over to her deep summary of a story she writes around the time she discovered Showalter et al., then revamps in her mind after a boyfriend rips up the text. The story, which focuses on a rich, dim hedonist named Tarquin Superbus, seems at once to be a way for the narrator to slip the constraints of her gender and class condition and to explore them privately. Tarquin, due either to his cushy life or his native dullness, is insensitive to "the potency of the written word"; the narrator feels its power more keenly than anything else. Is that an idiosyncrasy unrelated to her biography? Or is it true precisely because books — their presence and their contents — taught her to wonder about words and lives never offered to her?

Midway through Checkout 19, the narrator recommends the works of Anaïs Nin to doubters at a New York party. She describes being "struck by the way she writes about sexual relations as a way of uprooting herself, of remaining unfixed, of transgressing the familiar lines of her personality." Reading and writing, for Bennett's protagonist, seem to serve precisely this purpose. She is a determinedly unfixed and unrooted person. It would be impossible to ground a novel about her in anything but books and her reactions to them, since she refuses to attach herself to much else. Not many people are able to live this way; not many women or working-class characters get written this way. For the rooted among us, reading Checkout 19 can be utterly jarring. It is a portrait, like Pond; it's also a call to come at least a little undone. Yes, really. It really is.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Lily Meyer