Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
Riverhead Books, July 2016
208 pages / Amazon
Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond has been called both a short story collection and a novel but it’s neither. It’s one of those liminal, unorthodox, drama-eliding books, the kind advocated for by David Shields in his 2010 tract Reality Hunger. Pond evokes works like Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976), Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (1968), Albert Camus’s The Fall (1956), and various pieces of the Anaïs Nin oeuvre. Its category is “hard to categorize.” It is, as Colum Mc Cann has called it, “entirely unique…quiet and luxurious all at once.” It is a book that conflates and conflagrates.
There is also in Bennett’s book an abiding awareness of Thoreau, a Joycean playfulness, a thing-centered natural world redolent of Annie Dillard, an intense insularity that borrows from Virginia Woolf, and a post-academic intellectual verve that brings to mind A.S. Byatt. To throw in one from the hyper-contemporary category, Pond has a sciencey lyricism reminiscent of Anthony Doerr. The question of whether or not it’s any good is then next up on the bill of fare.
A menu is the apropos allusion because this book revels in foodstuffs, cooking, and kitchen implements. Turn to any given page and one might find serrulated cucumber, Austrian white wine and a tarte normande, or pheasant “wrapped in thick rivulets of streaky bacon and the whole thing gussied up with such deliciously tart and exuding redcurrants.” There are sections titled “Stir-fry” and “Oh, Tomato Puree!” A broken stove is a key element in the protagonist’s life. And the book’s second section, “Morning, Noon & Night,” begins with the wonderful, perhaps even perfect, line, “Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice.” The materiality of this content reads as piquantly resonant in the aftermath of the lacunae left by the departure of beloved American-internationalist food writers like Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold. After that nearly perfect line about the niceness of banana + coffee, there follows a brief exegesis on the temporality of bananas that reminds one of a line from Seinfeld (Jerry to George in the 1993 episode “The Junior Mint”: “Why do I get bananas? They’re good for one day.”), and Seinfeld too is a meaningful connection, as Pond is both unsentimental and a very funny book, and it has a meta-component, like Seinfeld, seeking mooring amidst the nothingness despite characters who are unwilling or unable to change. Pond is also a British tongue-in-cheek flipside to another debut-book wunderkind success that deals with a marginalized young female protagonist who struggles with neurodivergence, the Irish Eimear McBride’s harrowing A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013).
McBride’s novel is an explicitly bloody female bildungsroman, whereas the first-person narrator of Pond is a somewhat ageless woman, most likely still in her thirties, a plucky misanthrope with a liberated view on men, sexuality, loving, and nature. She is refreshingly honest and a pleasure to spend time with despite not being particularly “likable.” And within this wry and irony-laced text there are also moments that are foreboding, even terrifying (as life can become when you spend an inordinate amount of time alone, as this protagonist does). This ability to encompass both horror and comedy is a defining strength of Pond’s, and Bennett’s prose voice is distinct and original. Her top writing tip is, “To take seriously those things that seem incidental.” But if you need plot, if you want things to happen, something to be at stake, a book populated by a finely drawn cavalcade of named characters that actually interact with each other—this is not the book for you.
The opening of Pond ensorcels with its gumption and wit but there is a clear lack of what is traditionally called “development.” Gusts of exposition do not suddenly materialize, the mood remains rather stilled, and the back half does lag for a few sections before the potent penultimate segment, “Lady of the House,” and the final section, “Old Ground,” a suitably mysterious, elliptical, and POV-challenging close. There is an overall gimmick that becomes noticeable as well, that of a long, chunky section followed by a short, aphoristic one. This gets predictable and wears thin, though it could be argued that one of the most appealing things about Pond is that it can be read out of order, as there is no pressing need for dynamism, forward momentum, chronology, or propulsive thrust.
This non-linearity is also a clever functional device for Bennett because her narrator is a paranoic with memory gaps, thus the text’s form mirrors its content. Take this example, from a lengthy central section called “Control Knobs”: “A week or so before Christmas I was standing at the kitchen workshop in my friend who lives nearby’s house, maybe we were sharing some kind of toasted snack, I don’t remember—I was wearing a hat, I remember that, and perhaps I’d intended to go somewhere that day but due to some humdrum hindrance didn’t really go anywhere.” Later, in “Lady of the House,” she says she sometimes thinks there’s a monster in a nearby body of water that is not the titular pond (the pond is earlier described as very shallow): “Now and then throughout each thing that passes I see something like a lopsided Godzilla sticking up through the water—it’s so revolting, the way the mind keeps on turning it over, trying to substantiate it.” This can also be read as Bennett’s mission statement for fiction. She actively eschews many of the tools writers usually rely on (tension, conflict, dialogue, lengthy descriptions) and thus divests the reader of the apparatuses they use to orient themselves. She engages in what literary critic Viktor Shklovsky famously called “defamiliarization.” Bennett is interested in the tangible, in substances, but not in a substantiating set of stories with the traditional elements of narratives, characters, and plots.
As hithertofore stated, there are moments of tedium and repetition, bundled passels of postmodern musings about half-remembered books and films that the narrator has read or seen, as well as jobs she’s attempted to hold down in the past, and this calls to mind David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), though there’s not nearly as much disjunction or as many proper nouns. Pond does share a fantastical-realist component with that book, a Marksonian philosophical grappling instantiated in a text that defies easy classification. In the end, it is the ability of Bennett’s narrator to recognize her own absurdity yet still try to create something with her life, to at least document existence, that gives her dignity. There are moments like the one where the narrator comes out of the supermarket (the supermarket-obsessed DeLillo of White Noise (1985) and the breakfast-obsessed DeLillo of The Body Artist (2001) are worthwhile antecedents here as well; the narrator discourses beautifully on breakfast and admits to putting things down in the supermarket where they don’t belong, “among the spot-lit ‘specialty’ cheeses, which is probably very bad of me”) and notices the moon as follows:
Right there in front of me when the automatic doors retreat. The sky isn’t yet black so the moon has a sovereignty it doesn’t often possess—but in a way it looks as if it is coping with stage fright. Yes, it is as if the curtains have just opened on it! And so low is it that it seems only natural and forthright to reach out to the cowering moon. Pssst, take it easy, fix your gaze on something and get your balance, babyface—that’s right, I’m bucking up the moon of all things—and yes, look, it’s as if in fact the moon has closed its eyes and is taking a slow inhalation.
This self-chiding human being copping to the absurdity of trying to actively empower and cheer up the moon, as if it were a sentient being, more than redeems some of the more stagnant or potentially boring sections of Pond because in her protagonist’s self-awareness Bennett shows us an essential truth, one that has been certified at least since the interrogative forays of the existentialists: there are no consistent and immutable signposts telling us what things are or what they mean (and the narrator of Pond prefers it that way), and the recognition of our own absurdity, right down to our very existence as a species—truly random, deeply useless—may be the only path to dignity for us all.
Phenomenology attempts to turn an objective lens on the subjectivity of existence by abjuring traditional methods of research and privileging the suspension of judgment. We live in hyper-judgmental times, so analyzing daily behavior with a tremendous amount of scrutiny, as Bennett does in Pond, is a radical act, a performative weirdness that celebrates nonconformity. It says that the mundane is more important than the spectacle, that being a lonely individual can be more liberating than adding your Twitter handle to a trending hashtaggable movement, that tending to a garden or reading a novel is not an act of bougie complacency or late capitalist fatigue but a universal need to nourish one’s interiority. To be a phenomenological text is to capture conscious experience one person at a time, and to reject the dehumanizing effects of big data, crowdsourcing, and you-must-choose-a-side collectivism. It is a philosophical position that leans into discovery, invention, and imagination.
Claire-Louse Bennett’s debut is provocative because it is reflective, like the surface of a pond itself, and reflection is a curious and enquiring mode that recalls the transcendentalists. To call a book, a slim volume of less than 200 pages, unironically “transcendent” in 2019 could easily be seen as callow, selfish, or disjointed from the political chaos of the present, but, in Pond, Bennett sutures and salves by encouraging our compassion as readers, and she bewitches not through epic pyrotechnics but through her sharpness, through her defiance of formalist binaries like novel vs. short story collection. Pond is a small book, the tiny bead of water that under a microscope becomes a teeming terrarium, that contains within its seemingly minimalist pages an array of life, much like its titular referent, that most calm, unperturbed, and readable body of water.
Sean Hooks is originally from New Jersey and now lives in Los Angeles. He teaches English and Writing at the University of California, Riverside and Pasadena City College. He holds a BA-Liberal Arts from Drew University, an MFA-Fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA-English from Loyola Marymount University. His website is at www.seanhooks.com.
His publications include: Los Angeles Review of Books, The Smart Set, The Scofield, Akashic Books, FORTH Magazine, Superstition Review, The Journal, Pif Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, 3:AM Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, Bright Lights Film Journal, Ginosko Literary Journal, Las Vegas Weekly, The Manhattanville Review, and Wisconsin Review. Work is forthcoming from White Wall Review and Dalkey Archive.