Both books by Bennett, an English writer living in Ireland, rove daringly among perspectives — the cloistered I, the aggressive you, the presumptuous we — as if flaunting just how vast a single voice can be. Her narrators are unnamed and under-described, hazy contours of characters unwilling to be pinned to the page. “[O]ne needs to be careful with names,” Pond’s protagonist warns. “[T]he reader is bound to have some knowledge about a person with a particular name” — knowledge that instantly narrows the scope of a story. These are young women with vague literary affiliations: Pond features a grad-school dropout in the Irish countryside, with various unimpressive but unforgettable love interests; Checkout 19 revolves around a voracious reader with odd jobs, murky ambitions, and at least one abandoned manuscript. Here, too, you know the type.
Or do you? Bennett’s narrators seem, crucially, to be unsure if they know themselves. Their Whitmanesque multitudes turn out to be as frightening as they are alluring. Our idioms capture the bind: for all that we may marvel at personalities who manage to be larger than life, so too do we praise the well-judged awareness of those who know their limits. Those limits can be thrillingly elusive, until suddenly they aren’t, and then “rooms” offer shelter of the most solid sort. What clearer, safer boundaries for the self than four sturdy walls? “There’s nothing anybody can say to you so long as you have nice things all around you,” the narrator of Checkout 19 observes. “They can’t touch you.” This may sound like prosaic materialism: surely the pleasure of arranging a fruit bowl is not the same as the purposefulness of arranging a life. But it is, in the end, instructing us in something far more existential. Interior decorating only sounds superficial until you consider that the interior is yourself.
Here are women who hold their possessions close in order to attain that rare and seemingly inviolable state: self-possession. This has the domestic whiff of a regressive approach to actualization, one that sends lonely ladies inside to search for their mystique. And we can guess what happens next; we have seen women in books go crazy over wallpaper. It is in this proximity to madness, or at least to messiness, that the exhilarating instability of Bennett’s narratives reside. Can you keep hold of who you are? Can you get a grip? Or might it just be better to throw it all away? “The desire to come apart irrevocably will always be as strong as, if not stronger than, the drive to establish oneself,” the narrator of Pond says. In Checkout 19, such unraveling is a kind of halting feminism, a refusal to keep it all together so that someone else — yes, probably a man — can cohere: “[T]he impulse to release a thing into the drift is a female one […] an immemorial tremor, somewhere between rebellion and collapse. Not quite knowing how to rebel, but nonetheless wanting to, very very much.”
What Bennett herself has released “into the drift,” of course, are books. They are a tidy solution to the problem of containment: an unruly self can be bound between covers, but can still travel far and wide. Checkout 19 itself functions as a kind of syllabus, in which what the narrator has read charts a map of who she has become. Her early 20s are when she “hadn’t yet read a single word by Italo Calvino, Jean Rhys, Borges, or Thomas Bernhard, nor Clarice Lispector.” A little later on, she has Blake and Byron under her belt, but confesses to never quite finishing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Evidence of her reading habits accumulate in haphazard stacks on the floor of a rented apartment, a form of disorder that is also a source of comfort: “Perhaps if the books I have were on shelves or in bookcases they might seem more imposing and would weigh on me more but they are in piles on the floor and on the arms of the sofa and against the walls and beside the bed and so on.” A tower of books implies a simple sort of continuity, more organic than anything alphabetized or color-coded — one title on top of the other, one foot in front of the other. But reading can also literalize renunciation. An old box of books forgotten in the course of a move turns out not to be “essential,” so is never retrieved, cast off like a former self the narrator no longer cares to remember.
Bennett’s own book begins with a second-person-plural paean to the alchemy of reading: “With just one book in the grass beside us we sat there wondering about the sorts of words it contained in a really tranquil and expansive kind of way that in fact enabled distinct images to emerge all of their own accord.” This vision of literature is one of companionate comfort; a book is the kind of friend that can keep you company in unembarrassed silence, yet might at any moment say exactly the right thing. Bennett has an often breathtaking knack for doing just that, choosing the perfectly uncanny phrase to bring a “distinct image” into being: crumbs are “herded” into the center of a plate; a bedside table amasses a “heap of sliding pistachio shale.” These details yield visual pleasure, but also a deeper readerly intimacy. You will forever after see almond slivers the same way the narrator of Pond does, as “blanched fingernails.”
At its best, language can be used not only to capture the outside world but to conjure it. The words of great books feel as though they “are being written as you read them, that your eyes upon the page are perhaps even making them appear, in any case, certain sentences do not feel in the least bit separate from you.” Reading, in this way, is a kind of accordion, forever changing our sense of scale. The universal is represented through the particular; the particular evokes the universal. In theory, this vision of the cosmos — not only vast but porous — is quite the panacea. A great book can liberate a good reader, who is “free then to participate at once in the greater imagination, what some go so far as to call the world soul.”
Well, good for the soul. But what about the body? In Checkout 19, the narrator’s artistic awakening, as a young girl doodling in the back of a school workbook, is a totalizing physical experience, coaxed along by a kindly teacher who finds the first story she writes. (The narrative emerges out of the doodle, as if out of some primordial mess.) Unlike the mimicry of her amateur drawing, writing, she discovers, can be the real deal: when she puts her teacher on the page, “he was here — he was right here, moving through her mind, making it warm and luxuriant, and he could see of course all the many things she kept stored away in it, though only from an oblique angle.” The magic of being a reader — that “distinct images” can appear in your head — pales in comparison to the magic of being a writer: those images can be made to appear in someone else’s head. The result is an ecstatic merging. “I’d crossed over a boundary,” the narrator recalls. “I was somewhere I shouldn’t be. I was with him — and he was with me. […] [I]t was almost as if I was made of him.”
Boundary-crossing and rule-breaking are transgressive. The good teacher never does anything explicitly bad. Still, it’s hard to feel entirely at ease at the prospect of an old guy and bright young student taking such “luxuriant” pleasure in one another’s minds. Should we be suspicious of the old guy? Maybe, but that doesn’t seem to be the sort of suspicion that Bennett is really after. It is writing itself, not any particular author or reader, that presents perhaps the greater danger. Once you open your mind, what will stop just anyone from waltzing in?
When the narrator takes a job as a supermarket cashier (her post is at the titular checkout 19), she develops a vaguely thrilling, vaguely menacing connection with a regular customer, an older Russian man. They have relatively little to do with each other. He hurries through the canned-food aisles and without fail arrives at her station, where she scans his tinned fish and pickles. But then one day he presents her with a book, a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Its cover features a naked woman who seems to resemble the narrator: “[M]y hands were like hers, exactly like hers, and I couldn’t help but believe that the Russian man must have thought so too.”
Must have? Bennett’s brilliance is that the exchange of pickles and paperbacks between strangers can indeed be made into a story, one that is told twice: first in a sober, straightforward style, and then again in a scrambled, surrealist form — a breakdown in narrative coherence that captures both what is unsettling about the man and what is unreliable about the narrator. What the man “must have thought” is not at all clear. But the awful power of what he might have thought is all too clear, and all that matters. He had, the narrator writes, “seen through my ruffled yet unbroken flesh. Straight into the quickening revolutions of my supremely aberrant imaginings.” If her long-ago teacher, her first reader, was granted an “oblique” glimpse into her mind, this new reader has looked “straight” through it.
There are more obvious, and more obviously terrible, transgressors in this book than a dubious teacher and a creepy customer. There is the man (a boyfriend) who destroys the narrator’s nearly finished manuscript. There is the man (a supposed friend) who rapes her. Such overt violations seem to make the narrator a little sheepish. You get the feeling she might prefer not to put them on the page at all, as if trying to wriggle out of a narrative that will contain her, and not in the good way. Certain plot lines create boundaries that we wish we didn’t have to abide by — lines that put you in a box. It’s this sort of barrier that seems, for the narrator, to be the worst effect of her assault: standing at the door of her house, “my body bristles, as if it can’t understand why it’s not in that beautiful room in that beautiful house, is only ever over here, looking in at it.” She has been trapped in the wrong space, the wrong story, the wrong self. Later, as a kind of penance, the man invites the narrator to house-sit for his parents while they go on vacation. His mother offers her the nicest room in the house — “quite big and weirdly lavish” — but it’s too late for hospitality. The narrator seems to have lost faith in the fantasy that she can find herself by furnishing herself. When the family leaves on their trip, the narrator takes no pleasure in being given free rein of the place; she simply feels left behind. “It was the best room and then I didn’t want it, so what did that mean exactly?” she wonders.
Wandering the unfamiliar neighborhood in this haze of self-alienation, she comes upon a shocking scene, which becomes yet another story she can’t understand. She can’t even tell it clearly: “For goodness’ sake spit it out,” she says in exasperation. Spit out. Let it go. The damage wrought by these violations is that they have at once exposed her to the world and driven her back into herself. They have shattered any stable definition of scale. In the act of being raped, the narrator considers this paradox: “If I shut my eyes the outside world would be gone and all I’d have to be aware of then would be my interior and my interior was being invaded.” What the man has done with crude, physical force is precisely what the narrator — what any writer — seeks to do with careful, literary power: the invasion of the interior. He is, it’s worth saying, a man with literary aspirations of his own, the kind who gets drunk at his typewriter. And so his abuse is all the more grievous for abusing the tools the narrator treasures most. He is the ultimate bad author, using the cheapest tricks, the lamest dialogue (“I’m going to come over there and I’m going to fuck you”), and the oldest story to get into her pants — and into our heads.
Does reading, then, always involve some sort of rending? Do men and women ever “belong inside rooms”? In the months after the rape, the narrator moves into “a much nicer house,” with a bay window and high ceilings and walls thin enough to know her roommate is there without knowing too much — another “oblique” kind of connection. Her constant companions in the new house are books. But they are not easy company:
I remember there was always a lot of books on the bed and in the bed. Most of them were heavy and it made my body feel amorphous, to have all these books pushing in, here and there, upon and beneath it. They were nearly all library books and now and then I’d get up to wash my hands because the pages were coated from the touch of so many other hands making my own feel sullied. I started masturbating once without really planning to and I hadn’t washed my hands all morning but it was too late now and it was as if a hundred sordid fingers were all over my vulva and though I made sure to wash my hands after that the image of all those filthy dirty hands all over me often came back to me whenever I masturbated.
Libraries might, on the one hand, be our best shot at an institutional approach to connecting “the greater imagination,” that “world soul”; they literally keep stories circulating. Seen in a more generous light, “all those filthy dirty hands” might be a heartening image of the reading collective. But the library’s model of borrowing is also, of course, a threat to anyone who prizes her belongings.
Perhaps literary pleasures will never be purely safe or unsullied. (Bennett pointedly invites a comparison between autofiction and autoeroticism.) To be a writer requires a certain overidentification with the words and worlds that you invent. We call it intellectual property, after all. The narrator of Checkout 19 first learns about it from her teacher, who “wanted more of something that I created, that I had, that I was — I couldn’t tell these things apart.” But, as the scope of her stories and her self slowly shifts, the narrator finds her way toward something in between total porousness and mere possessiveness. Perhaps this is the not-so-simple secret of good housekeeping: figuring out who to let in and what to keep for yourself. It’s a balanced vision of domesticity that might suggest a new equilibrium for femininity, too — a way to loosen your grip without worrying about losing control. “We’ve discovered haven’t we that something or other doesn’t have to belong to us in order for us to enjoy it,” the narrator says, speaking not as an individual, now, but as a collective. This, after all, is the risk of writing — and also the reward. Whatever you create doesn’t truly count until it’s no longer only yours.
Clare Sestanovich is the author of the short-story collection Objects of Desire, published by Knopf. She was named a “5 Under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation in 2022.