Suddenly an Aubergine

Claire-Louise Bennett, Checkout 19

Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781787333543

reviewed by Liam Harrison

Claire-Louise Bennett likes stuff. She likes things, objects, bric-a-brac, and she likes contemplating their dimensions, curvature and tactility. ‘I’ve always been very taken with aubergines,’ the narrator states in Bennett’s new novel Checkout 19, ‘with the way they are so tightly sheathed in a shining bulletproof darkness.’ Bennett takes an everyday object – the humble aubergine – and lets her mind linger on it, dwelling on fleeting sensations until the object appears different and strange:

When I was a dismayed student in London I often fantasised about hanging a great many aubergines from the square ceiling of my sketchy boudoir. Imagine lying here beneath such a pendulous chandelier of lambent gloom – imagine the transporting reflections slipping across their sleek hermetic skins, the assuaging shadows they’d cast as degradation tipped them into slow stately revolutions, the whisperings, the whisperings, the sighs, the melancholy glow.

The ‘lambent gloom,’ ‘sleek hermetic skins’ and ‘melancholy glow’ all beautifully describe the aubergine but we’re drifting into another realm here, a shadowy place where objects and things exist beyond language (and beyond a ceiling covered in aubergines), where everything is slightly askew. And yet, the material realities of these objects never quite fade away. ‘I lay there and imagined it often but couldn’t realise my dream of course, aubergines were expensive and I would have needed at least ninety of them.’

This relationship, between interior fantasies and the economic freedom that grants the time to indulge in them, is never far from view in Checkout 19, echoing other recent explorations between class and creativity such as Shola von Reinhold’s Lote and Raven Leilani’s Luster. In a more hermetic context, Checkout 19 considers the cost of living and the pleasures of decadent idleness, especially as the latter pursuit is often presumed to be the exclusive reserve of the wealthy. ‘There’s a fine art to being idle in fact’, the narrator states, ‘and very few people are naturally in possession of the gumption and fortitude necessary to pull it off.’ Bennett writes in her introduction to Ann Quin’s Passages, ‘It shouldn’t be presumed that because your socio-economic situation is constrained, your interests and imagination don’t extend beyond it, envisioning alternative selfhoods and experiences.’ Checkout 19 stresses, at length, the importance of being idle.

Bennett’s first book Pond (2015) has lived many lives by now. First published by the Stinging Fly Press in Ireland and Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, it has been categorised as both novel and short story collection depending on which edition you read or whom you ask. Bennett’s writing has always been prickly and resistant to labels; it is built around touch, sensation and a certain amount of friction. Her sentences are sometimes baroque and ornate, and sometimes messy and chaotic, as they sprawl into something unwieldy and rebel against the pages and narratives that contain them. They seem to fixate on things rather than serve plot progression. Brian Dillon has noted how well the word ‘sensibility’ describes Bennett’s prose, which renders objects and feelings ‘so precisely and yet so enigmatically.’ In Pond, for instance, the narrator reflects: ‘they are very nice to eat, oranges, when you’ve been having sex for ages.’

In Checkout 19, this fixation on sensibilities and sensations is expanded beyond Pond’s quiet corner of Connemara, as Bennett’s narrator explores ‘worn and sullied objects’ in a variety of settings. Early in the novel, she is taken by the distinctive hue of a used sanitary towel:

On the very first day the colour is very pretty – it’s a shade of red I’ve been looking for in a lipstick since forever. Neither too dark, nor too bright. Not too pink not too brown not too orange. More than once I’ve imagined taking the bloodstained tissue into a department store, up to the Chanel counter, the Dior counter, the Lancôme counter, and saying ‘Look, this is the red, this is it, this is the most perfect red in the world. Let me see a lipstick at long last in this most perfect shade of red.’

Starting with youthful reminiscence, Checkout 19 comprises seven sections. We follow a fidgeting narrator whose voice switches from “I” to “we,” while she recounts schooldays, a supermarket job, formative reading experiences, memorable travels, and a story she wrote many years ago about a man named Tarquin Superbus. Checkout 19 details the various drafts of Tarquin’s tale, which tells of an aristocratic type living in Venice or possibly Vienna, indulging in a kind of lolling flâneury. Tarquin, like Bennett, is infatuated with the sonorous properties of language and the jouissance found in objects: ‘He loves meringue and soufflé, and spoondrift and froth and lather and spume – bubbles, yes, and baubles – baubles, bubbles, balloons and ballerinas – ballerinas!’ The barmy and sometimes cloying tale of Tarquin speaks to a chaotic creative process that mirrors Bennett’s own, as his story is stitched and restitched together.

There is an almost readymade quality to Tarquin Superbus, as Bennett’s narrator upcycles an old story in the present to collapse the time and space between different versions of her writerly self. Despite the surface-level silliness of Superbus, the swirls of memory and loss become part of something far darker and intangible at the centre of this strange and unnerving novel. For a finish, it all goes up in flames (‘and so there is a fire’). But something still stirs in the ashes, as the narrator reflects how the images from her old stories ‘crackled beneath my pristine skin like wildfire.’

Like the Superbus story, other parts of Checkout 19 are reused from Bennett’s previous work. We see snippets from her Stinging Fly essay ‘Suddenly a Duck’ and echoes from her small book, Fish out of Water, which was published by Juxta Press in 2020. Vast sections of the novel detail the narrator’s reading habits and preferences. Just like the act of repurposing older bits of writing, this deep dive into Bennett’s reading history performs a kind of self-archiving – something akin to autofiction or autocriticism. As limited as the term is, Checkout 19 can be read as autofiction, given that many of the novel’s events map neatly onto Bennett’s own life: the childhood in Wiltshire, studying drama in London, moving to Ireland.

As a generically slippery form, autofiction blurs the distinction between real and fictional selves, something that Checkout 19 uses to explore how memory and recollection can work to collapse time. Just as the narrator switches between “I” and “we” to imply greater intensity or distance from a moment recalled, so do the circling memories portray a mind at play, mapping the pleasures and fallout of her early life. Forgoing the linearity of the coming-of-age story, Bennett is content to obliquely record the atoms as they fall upon the mind, ‘to get beneath the surface of things, find out what they were really like.’

Bennett focuses on interiority, on inner darkness, and she is just as interested in ways of not-knowing as in self-knowledge. The ‘images emerge all of their own accord from who knows where’. She draws on Tanizaki’s notion of ‘visible darkness’ – (itself, ‘a perhaps inadvertent inversion of Milton’s “darkness visible”’), and concludes:

When everything is illuminated and the shadows have been sanitised, where goes the creature inside and what happens to her need for reverie? Perhaps she takes to her bed, perhaps she throws furniture, perhaps she draws on the walls, perhaps there is suddenly a duck, perhaps one day she simply leaves it all behind her.

This is peak Bennett. The illumination and shadows, creatures and reverie, sudden ducks. Bennett revels in ‘communing with the dark, in all its primordial and transformative potency,’ prevaricating over the possibilities contained in each ‘perhaps,’ until suddenly, something starts coming to life.

Throughout Checkout 19, Bennett’s own reading provides a constellation for navigating the life of her narrator (who starts to resemble Walter Benjamin unpacking his library), as she recalls moods, places, and experiences through her books. She remembers reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, ‘Which I bought from a stall at Glastonbury festival and read lying down in the top field with a paper cup of chai tea and a packet of Jaffa cakes.’ She associates wandering through the Lanes and buying a silver skirt in Brighton with Ann Quin, despite not having read her yet at that point. What Bennett writes about Quin in her introduction to Passages, also applies to Checkout 19: the ‘prose is atomized, kaleidoscopic. It evinces a perspective that is constantly shuffling the distinction between objects and beings, self and other, and conceives of the world in terms of form and geometry, texture and tone.’

I question whether everyone else would find the (possibly fictional) reading habits of Claire-Louise Bennett as interesting as I do. And yet, there’s a political dimension to this process of auto-bibliography. Checkout 19 expresses a need and desire to take up space, to say that this stuff matters, that reading matters, and that it matters deeply to Bennett in all sorts of ways that are not easily explained but keenly felt. ‘When we turn the page we are born again. Living and dying and living and dying and living and dying. Again, and again.’ It is a matter of life and death, or at least a reflection on how we live and the small deaths that encompass each life.

While there is no easy sense of progression, everything is constantly in motion. Bennett combines a conversational tone with an eclectic and indulgent vocabulary that simulates the rhythms of cognition in a way that is meticulously stylised but cannot be reduced to a splurge of consciousness. It’s not a psychological novel; there is no great concern with finding out who the protagonist is, or at least not in any conventional sense. Rather, the serpentine prose operates on certain pivots, turning and returning to specific narrative fixations: the story of Tarquin Superbus, a Russian man at the supermarket, an E. M. Forster-inspired trip to Florence, the aubergine. . . There is a resistance to pathologising in the novel, against the diagnostic way in which we often read fiction (the narrative logic that trauma x must lead to action y), especially women’s fiction. Traumas emerge throughout, but there is no insidious narrative logic to solve them or explain them away. They are allowed to linger. Checkout 19 considers how the male responses to Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ann Quin and many others have contributed to the cultural categories that pigeonhole women’s writing and decide what it is or isn’t. Fuck that, Bennett seems to say.

Liam Harrison is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham researching late styles and modernist legacies in 21st-century literature.