The Passion and Agony of the Bibliophile

The Passion and Agony of the Bibliophile

The Passion and Agony of the Bibliophile

Following an ardent and obsessive reader, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19 asks if one can find all the things they need in life in a book.

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The unnamed narrator of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19 is something of a spontaneous and idiosyncratic literary critic. In the novel’s first pages, she avows the pleasure of sitting next to an unopened book, luxuriating in its untapped mysteries. When she is inclined to crack a spine, the words on the left-hand pages seem vastly superior to those on the right, where they appear “far too eager, overbearing, and yes somewhat ingratiating.” She claims to prefer reading about the exploits and interests of men; dissimilitude renders them novel sites of discovery, another species traversing a disparate, more expansive world of “train stations…foreign ports…revolving doors.” Women, on the other hand, “were sort of ghostly” and obscure, their bodies committed to domestic drudgery, while “their eyes were fixed on something else, something I couldn’t fathom.” It can be more unsettling to feel alienation where one expects resonance.

Despite this repulsion, the narrator’s wolfish reading habits make it impossible to dodge characters of her own gender, and they, in turn, haunt her. Of Charlotte Bartlett, a primary character in E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room With a View, the narrator remarks, “Her life was not a well-made thing, one instance causing another and on and on—somewhere along the way something immense had broken off, floated away, never to be retrieved or rectified.”

Is Bennett’s narrator also thinking of herself? She reveals herself to be the transient sort, floating from one dwelling to the next: a rented room in London, a borrowed flat in Tangier, an apartment in Ireland where she cohabitates with a perniciously insecure boyfriend. She occasionally refers to herself in the third person—“Later on we often had a book with us,” the novel begins—as if she were not one woman, but rather a revolving constellation of selves. Bennett supplies her readers with a charming, intellectually acrobatic shepherd, but one who holds herself ever so slightly in abeyance, resisting the full thrust of her emotions.

What she experiences most ardently, and with the greatest abandon, is the feeling of reading: The act of reading for our narrator is as much an assemblage of feelings as it is a catalyst for one’s own creative impulses. When a friend neglects to return a copy of Paul Bowles’s Let It Come Down, the loss is not merely material but archival, for it contains her underlinings and marginalia. “[I]t’s very likely that the sentences I’ll underline in the future will be different from the sentences I underlined in the past,” she explains, “you don’t ever step into the same book twice after all.” It’s a porous boundary that separates the reader from what is read. As the narrator suggests, each reconstitutes the other through an alchemy specific to one temporal and emotional moment, never to be revisited.

To be sure, Bennett is evoking a well-established mode of thinking about the practice of reading (there is even a 2010 scholarly essay collection titled, you guessed it, The Feeling of Reading). But intellectual precedent renders Checkout 19 no less remarkable, and no less seductive in its lush collapse of the life of the mind and of the body. To read, to imagine, to write: These are neither departures from life, nor refuges from it, nor are they vehicles of transcendence. They are something more basic, Bennett suggests: They are life itself.

When we turn the page we are born again,” the narrator explains early in the novel. “Living and dying and living and dying…. Again, and again. And really that’s the way it ought to be. The way that reading ought to be done.” That is, it ought to be felt in the body: starting a new page with eager, clear-eyed freshness, when “we feel instantly youthful and supremely open-minded,” and then, after laboring across its expanse, “[aging] approximately twenty years…. The book has dropped. Our face has dropped. We have jowls. We do. We have a double chin.” This is of course a little silly, but her conviction in the knotted entanglement of mental and physical experience persists in her accounts of reading, and of writing too.

Writing her very first story is a phenomenological event. Literary impulse takes her by surprise when, one day, she is doodling in her school exercise book: “[My] vexed little fist relaxed, but the pen would not be downed…. I allowed the line to trail and meander…. [Somewhere] along the way a shift occurred as from the aforementioned depths of me there issued a strange reverberation, the thread…broke off into words, and the words set forth a story, as if it had been there all along.” Sentences are, she suggests, secretions akin to sweat, tears, or blood. Earlier in the novel, the narrator recalls a pubescent episode when she leaked menstrual blood during science class, a predicament she hastened to resolve in secret. She becomes more audacious in her 20s and instead allows her period to dribble freely, delighting in its abundance. Her words emerge just as unbidden, although they are passionately begot.

The narrator’s intermittent dips into body talk cohere elegantly with the text’s broader form. Like Pond, Bennett’s 2015 debut, Checkout 19 is more interested in sensation than narrative: “[H]is sense of narrative…had always been much stronger than mine,” the narrator says of her friend Dale, an observation that might double as a cheeky wink to the reader. Her literary predilections manifest in the novel’s plotlessness. Bennett’s narrator does not read for the steady tread of a developing story, or for the championing of heroes, but rather to be engulfed and ignited by language. “Certain written words are alive, active, living,” she says, “certain sentences do not feel in the least bit separate from you…. Sometimes all it takes is just one sentence…and there you are, part of something that has been part of you since the beginning.” It’s not erotic, exactly, this encounter between human and textual bodies. The narrator’s longing exceeds ardor’s emotional specificity; rather, what she imagines is a consummate merging of organisms, her own body more vibrant and more whole through the vitality of language.

Words and sentences—these are the units by which our narrator measures her life. It follows that her sense of time is intrinsically bibliographic: She logs her maturation according to what she has or has not yet read. The names of books and writers spill across paragraphs; family and friends, on the other hand, are only occasionally summoned into purview. We gather just a few stray autobiographical items about Bennett’s narrator: She was raised in working-class London by two parents and a grandmother living nearby. She also has a brother, a detail mentioned casually and thus easy to overlook. Like Pond’s unnamed narrator, the narrator of Checkout 19 is literary by profession. The former is a lapsed academic, and while the latter’s affiliations are unclear, she cultivates a similarly writerly life. Like Bennett, both narrators live—at least sometimes—in Ireland, although the narrator of Checkout 19 is also inclined to return to London from time to time.

Telling a story, and existing as a character within it, typically demands a degree of commitment: to the plot one has decided to carve out, and to the person one has chosen to be within it. Yet if Bennett’s narrator eschews both, there is good reason: Checkout 19 is a story that she hasn’t exactly decided to tell. Opening in medias res, Bennett drops the reader inside her narrator’s head when she is mid-thought. Or maybe we’ve been ushered blindfolded into the narrator’s room, as she recounts and mulls over these scattered particulars of her creative life. It’s a dizzying yet mesmeric effect Bennett has wrought: to conceal nearly everything about her narrator, except for her desires, her impulses, her ambivalence.

Checkout 19, then, is a document of memory, wayfaring and cyclical. Content and craft align in this regard as well, like lyrics set to melody. Bennett’s prose is sensorial, and it swoops and roams in the lithe, playful manner that has come to distinguish her style. Keeping pace with a sentence can lift the stomach, like the gentlest carnival ride (again, reading is a thing the body does). When the text shifts into excerpts of the narrator’s own fiction—about an aristocratic dandy named Tarquin Superbus—it becomes gymnastic in its alliterative free association; sentences seem to turn pirouettes:

The whisk is Tarquin’s most favorite kitchen utensil of course…. Lightness, lightness, air. Yes, Tarquin loves the whisk! He loves meringue and soufflé, and spoondrift and froth and lather and spume—bubbles, yes, and baubles—baubles, bubbles, balloons, and ballerinas—ballerinas!—my god they spend every hour of every day training every joint and muscle in their body to lift them high into the air, to catapult them skyward, away from this earth, right up into the heavens.

At its most whimsical, the language in Checkout 19 calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s 1928 fictitious biography, Orlando—another playful and wandering novel that thwarts and defies the conventions of its genre. Orlando is one of the many (many, many) texts name-checked by the narrator of Checkout 19, but it feels especially kindred. Like Woolf’s mischievous love letter to Vita Sackville-West, Bennett’s novel is a comment on the fraught endeavor of representing life on the page, whether someone else’s or one’s own. Occasionally, the narrator expresses the trickiness of the enterprise; in the process of remembering, she lapses into a repetitive, sometimes halting cadence, as if she is confirming the facts. “We don’t really smoke anymore do we,” she muses. “No. No. Hardly ever. One or two. Yes, one or two. One or two, hardly ever.” The narrator’s obscurity precludes us from picturing her; nonetheless, these iterations call to mind a body absorbing the recollections she diligently parses.

Checkout 19 insists upon the body’s preeminence in a readerly and writerly life. But although the labor of literary creation is central to the narrator’s physical experience, she makes a careful distinction about the limits of representation. The material world holds no metaphors; one cannot read it for meaning the way one reads a text. Recalling her school days, she laments, “We confused life with literature and made the mistake of believing that everything going on around us was telling us something, something about our own little existences…and, most crucially of all, about what was to come.”

Here, I confess, Bennett’s narrator caught me by surprise. Despite her persistent opacity, I thought I had sussed her out, and that she might be the sort of person who scouted out meaning beyond the page. This was a faulty assumption, for Bennett’s narrator is clear: Reading is a way of living, a physical expression, a sign that one is, emphatically, of the world—it is not a means of salvation.

But as the narrator indicates, this is a lesson she has to learn, and the reader sees her working it out in her own writing, through the flamboyant Tarquin Superbus. In an effort to seem intellectual, Tarquin purchases an immense library of books to populate his jewel-encrusted shelves. Unfortunately, his aim is thwarted: The books are all blank, save for one magic sentence which, his friend the Doctor explains, “contains everything. Everything. Whoever comes upon it undergoes an immediate and total awakening.” As far as the reader knows, Tarquin never finds this sentence, and the narrator never finishes the story. Her boyfriend, who regards her writing as a romantic adversary, cannot countenance the attention she pays Tarquin, and he tears him up in a jealous fit.

In another writer’s hands, Tarquin’s failed search for a single, revelatory sentence would probably invite a moral, perhaps something about how there’s no such thing as a quick fix. Bennett’s narrator doesn’t hoist any tidy maxims on the reader, although her story’s fanciful premise does insinuate doubt in the promise of literature—how much power does it actually have? But whatever the narrator’s skepticism, she can’t entirely relinquish her belief: in storytelling, and in her own talent. “[Somewhere] there might have been a sentence, just one sentence, of such transcendent brilliance it could have blown the world away,” she reflects. “And that idea burned in me, on and on.”

Perhaps, in her own way, Bennett’s narrator is a zealot, devoutly committed to the unearthing and ascension of one glorious sentence. Or she is simply ambitious (ambition is, at base, a form of faith). Either way, she chafes against the generic, mercantile milieu of her childhood. “I was from the fastest-growing town in Europe,” she says. And in that town, at the local supermarket, the narrator helms the titular checkout 19, earning money during the summer months before returning to London for college. The “transcendent brilliance” for which she yearns seems prodigiously alienated from this workaday laboring: “Where we came from people left school and found a job…and then, soon after, you got married and moved into a starter home and had two or three children…and after awhile…there would be nice things, TVs and barbeques, and a fortnight’s holiday abroad once a year…it’s not a bad lot.”

Not a bad lot, no: But as the sly pronoun shift implies—“you got married”—it’s not what Bennett’s narrator wants, nor what she does, although the reader only has the most shadowy impression of what she chooses instead. Inscrutable to the end, she never reveals whether she reconciles her rickety “sense of narrative” or whether, in opposition to tidiness and predictability, she persists in it, drifting and heeding the murmurs of her inclinations.

One might call Bennett’s narrators unreliable, by virtue of their anonymity and their tendencies toward elision. And yet, neither the narrator of Pond nor the narrator of Checkout 19 betray much anxiety about being perceived by their readers; obscurity is less a project than a side effect of their distractedness, their self-immersion. To willfully conceal, one must be aware that someone else is there.

In the world of the novel, however, the narrator of Checkout 19 is rattled by an event in which someone else—a near-stranger—discerns “the quickening revolutions of [her] supremely aberrant imaginings.” It is summer break, and she has returned, as usual, to “the fastest-growing town in Europe” to bide her time until the new school term commences. As she heads to her post at checkout 19, a Russian man, one of the supermarket’s regular patrons, abruptly gives her a copy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. “I am beyond unnerved,” she confesses, “…a minor yet far-reaching aspect of my disposition…has given me away.” This might be an overreaction—and after all, presuming another person’s motivations can lead to the same quandary that comes of “believing that everything going on around us was telling us something.” In the meantime, it’s a brand-new book: something else for her to read.

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