Review: Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

By Sebastian Sarti

pondMidway through Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, the narrator delightedly describes the stains on a French girl’s coat as appearing to have come “from the pulp of a dark fruit such as damson or perhaps some elderberries.” Typifying the book’s preference for improbabilities over facts, the description of the “decadent blossoms of deepest crimson” provides no details that might actually help us identify the stains. Not that the omissions matter, as Bennett’s entrancing debut is one of emblems and representations, where nothing is set and everything is “as if.”

Vexed by constructs, Bennett’s nameless narrator struggles to unspool the garbs that enwrap much of her world. She considers identifying objects as their plainest selves to be both superfluous and hindering. When she discovers a sign at a nearby body of water—‘pond’, it says—she considers the useless label’s effect and pictures coming across the landmark as a child:

One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible…

For an alternative, Bennett offers her narrator as a lens through which to explore and rediscover seemingly simple objects’ multifaceted terrains. The narrator’s elusive and malleable descriptions disrupt her environment’s solidities. As her effervescent observations arise, they refract the observed entities and expose the exhilarating complications hidden beneath the mundane.

The shortest pieces in Bennett’s work recall Lydia Davis’s, with sly insights and precise yet idiosyncratic phrasings that skew language off-kilter, but the longer, more immersive sections display a psyche of complete, and somewhat disturbing, singularity. In presenting the book’s world through her reclusive, observant, and highly intelligent narrator, Bennett often achieves what the character so often longs for: a spontaneous sense of wonder.

With their sparse punctuation, offhand interjections, and circuitous length, Pond’s sentences bulge toward excess, threatening to unravel and to rupture the form provided them, as if even a highly structured statement were an affront. To Bennett’s credit, this unstable style resonates with the distinct consciousness she presents. Its formlessness underscores the narrator’s unspooled impressions.

Above all else, Pond is a series of these impressions, sieved through the narrator’s eclectic mind. She makes an observation, has an idea strike her, or imagines a scene, and she proceeds to defamiliarize it all. Attempts at confinement frustrate her, and she seems most desirous of a way to lose her own structure and escape the terms that define her.

In one episode, the narrator recounts a speech she gave to a group of academics, in which she spoke of love as an instrument for “total self-immolation,” as a way to burn identity. Rather than have love transform one into a better self, or even just a different one, the narrator points to love, longingly, as a method through which to lose oneself and become “gone, quite gone.” Even in telling this story, anxiety arises that she has given it too much purpose—themes can easily cage description and turn all precious details into signs for morals—and she continuously undercuts its importance, saying that “none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever” and pretending it were just a spontaneous memory with no need for reason.

Absent plot’s action, Pond relies on the narrator’s strange, amorphous voice to incite interest in quotidian things like coats, stove knobs, and dinner parties. To make the old newly discoverable, Bennett has the narrator reject the common assignments that categorize varied objects as one. The narrator talks of how “one needs to be particularly careful with names.” After reading a book in which there is a dog named Lynx, she exclaims, “Well, it’s no wonder, I thought, it’s no wonder I took the creature to be a cat with a name like that!” Instead of names and categories, Bennett has descriptions and observations compose the narrator’s consciousness, through which her environment arises in streaks and flashes.

Without many of the devices of traditional narratives, Pond distills action to moments of alchemy, when a solidity becomes something new or, better yet, comes undone. The narrator provides a detailed explanation on her relations with men and their connection to her drinking, explaining that “perhaps the reason why I’d drunk so much for so long was because I enjoyed feeling enthusiastic about men.” She expounds on alcohol’s effect and says it allows for “whichever elusive device it is that surely one must have in spades so that critical indifference is converted, rather niftily, into mindless fascination, and one’s usual agitation has the opportunity to metamorphose into a gloriously inappropriate and stupefying crush.”

This desire for metamorphosis and dissolution propels Pond’s sporadic scenes. In discussing a character in a novel who is left as the last living human, she posits that “because there are no other human faces her own face has no currency and it doesn’t seem to express any of the customary hallmarks…she is not a woman, though neither of course is she a man; she is more like an element. A physiological manifestation perhaps, in the same way the rocks and trees are physiological manifestations. Material. Matter. Stuff.” She wonders, “What exactly…would death entail for her and how on earth could anyone even try to represent it?” She envies this woman for being outside the web of relations that cradle and entrap us, where she can be left as her base components, which themselves are indescribable and unnamable.

Both book and narrator are fond of the disentangled, of the adrift and secluded, Pond offers no overarching plot, no cordoned-off dialogue, hardly any characters, a psyche that after two-hundred pages feels no more known and quite a bit less knowable, and in fact barely any detailed descriptions, but to have these features would be disingenuous for this book because they would structure and contain it even as it argued for amorphousness and dissolution.

Lacking the common elements, Bennett still manages to sculpt an immersive experience, chiseling pockets and knobs into what was once smooth and uniform. Avoiding rigidities, in fact being quite opposed to them, Bennett’s enrapturing book continuously presents the narrator’s life in glimpses and bursts that rupture the placidity of her surroundings and reveal the flourishing otherness of the day-to-day.

For those who might take issue with the irresolute writing, the narrator gives a rejoinder: “There are other mistakes too, elisions mostly, but I’m not going to amend any more of them because in any case it’s the impressions that certain things made on me that I wanted to get across, not the occurrences themselves.” Thankfully, these impressions are singular and imaginative, allowing the reader to lose himself in Pond’s alchemical prose.

By Claire-Louise Bennett
Riverhead Books
ISBN 978-0399575891