‘Finishing Touch’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

I think I’m going to throw a little party. A perfectly arranged but low-key soiree. I have so many glasses, after all.

The narrator spends almost the entirety of this story going over in agonising detail what might or might not happen at the party she is about to throw. What will people bring to drink? What will she say when people ask what the party is for? Will she go upstairs with people when they look round the house? And which, oh which of the guests will sit on the Ottoman?

The story is a fraught anticipation of a story. Why write about something that has happened, or is happening, when you can write about anticipating something that is about to happen?

First published in Stinging Fly 29:2, Winter 2014, and available to read herecollected in Pond, Stinging Fly, 2014/Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015

‘Fish out of Water’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

In exquisite prose, which reads like Beckett on oestrogen, Bennett recounts her relationship with the surreal portraiture of Dorothea Tanning. When literature encounters art, there is often a sense that the writer has contented to ‘chance upon’ or ‘meet with’ art. Bennett goes further, subjecting herself to an encounter in the deeper sense of ‘experiencing’ or ‘undergoing’. She slips between first person plural, second, and first and third singular, to explore and unfold her kinship with Tanning. With its fleur de lait paper and debossed carton cover, the book itself is an objet d’art. I sleep with mine by my bed.

Published by Juxta, 2020

‘Morning, 1908’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

I read this entire novel-in-stories in one sitting on the fire escape of my old apartment one summer, and it was perfect. All of Bennett’s stories in Pond are about nothing, and books where nothing happens tend to be my favourite kinds of book. In this story, the narrator goes for a walk. She is dressed a little strangely, there are cows in a field, a young man is coming down the road. She is terrified, or she enters the feeling of terror and passes through it. We bear witness to all the thoughts in real time, as she documents them and questions them. I have not thought about writing in the same way since I read Pond, and this is, for me, the peak of the collection.

First published in the Winter 2012-2013 issue of The Stinging Fly, collected in Pond, Stinging Fly, 2015/Fitzcarraldo, 2016. Available to read here

‘The Big Day’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

Can something be two things at once? Can some piece of reality or, indeed, fiction exist simultaneously as two separate things? Flickering back and forth between one or the other, depending on the perceiving mind. Like Schrodinger’s cat, or quantum particles. It is a very psychedelic idea. Pond, the book that this story is taken from, is described alternately as a collection of short stories and a novel. That it is satisfactorily both, always, leads me to think that Bennett had both forms constantly, simultaneously, in mind when she constructed her book.

I am a poor reader of contemporary fiction*. So much so, that I don’t really know what is out there. But Pond made me sit up. It excited me and gave me ideas of my own. ‘The Big Day’ is my favourite of its stories. Like the others it is inhabited by this peculiar, absurdist female voice that exists in a strange landscape that manages to be unmoored yet filled with an abundance of detail. As with Beckett’s landscapes, it is hard to identify a real-life analogue despite its weird familiarity. It seems mostly formed by the language of a narrator gifted with a descriptive precision that recalls Marianne Moore coupled with a disruptive instinct to undermine that precision. If you’re into sentences, the final sentence of the story is one for the ages.

*I want to note here the work of the Northern Irish writer Wendy Erskine, in her collection Sweet Home, by Stinging Fly Press. It doesn’t quite fit the theme of this anthology, but it is remarkable. A British student of WG Sebald recently posted online some of the things Sebald instructed his students in a creative writing class in Anglia. One was to never lose sight of ‘place’ in your stories. Erskine’s stories introduce me to a world within a world, East Belfast. Her eye sees a lot, and is very aesthetic, but it doesn’t go so far as Christopher Isherwood’s detached ‘I am a camera’. It is more like Proust, who imbues everything with memory and feeling.

In Pond, Stinging Fly Press/Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015

‘Morning, 1908’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

The title refers to an image by photographer Clarence H. White, in which a solitary woman walks through a misty landscape carrying a glass globe. There is a kind of constraint, evocative of the repression which haunts all Bennett’s interlinked stories. It is an exquisite story, tense and banal in equal measure. This book holds a record for me, for the amount of times I abandoned it part-read, only to be haunted by its voice, to return to it and abandon it time and time again. It still has the force to irritate me, yet has become a book I return to almost monthly. The notion of self as alienating and enigmatic rather than familiar is ever-present. It calls into question recognition and perception.

Included in Pond, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015

‘Words Escape Me’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

It’s difficult to choose only one piece from this book, which was published as a collection of short stories, so I’ll pick this section I published at 3:AM around the time of the book’s initial publication in Ireland by The Stinging Fly. Like Lydia Davis’s ‘puzzling’ stories, it doesn’t so much tell as offer a set of things to thing about, and think about again. And Claire-Louise is very interested in things: “bon à penser” Lévi-Strauss wrote: goods are good to think with

First published at 3:AM Press. Collected in Pond, The Stinging Fly/Fitzcarraldo, 2015

‘Morning, Noon & Night’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

How can I recommend just one banger in a book that is absolutely chock-full of bangers?

I bought Pond on the strength of this interview, in which Claire-Louise Bennett seems like quite an extraordinary kind of human being – absolutely singular and perverse, exactly the kind of human who should be rendering consciousnesses on behalf of the rest of us.

But then ‘Morning, Noon & Night’ is the second story in, and as I started reading it I got a little bit concerned that we might be venturing into the territory of the lyrical or even the picturesque, and I wasn’t having any of that – but, no fear! That’s not what this story is at all.

From Pond, Stinging Fly/Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015, Riverhead, 2016. Read it online here