On Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett

Claire-Louise Bennett. Checkout 19. New York: Riverhead Books, reprint edition, 2022. 288 pages.

I don’t want to make too much of it, how Claire-Louise Bennett writes of women in C19, what she describes & decries, for instance: her periods whose color on day 1 would make the perfect shade of red lipstick, her grandmothers’ lives—one even undergoing electroshock therapy and for what? For having a thought at odds with the crushing nothingness of housework and childb/rearing?, a male friend withholding Sylvia Plath from her like it’s a controlled substance—

Women can’t withstand poetry, seemed to be Dale’s view. Women are beautiful and tender creatures and poetry breaks them, of course it does. Poetry rips right through you, makes shit of you, and a man can be made shit of and go on living because no one really minds, not even the man. The man likes it in fact, likes to be made shit of so that he can sit there and drink his head off and declaim one epithetical thing after another and all the other interminably taciturn men believe he is an exceptional man, a man taking a hit for them all, a hero really…

— This same male friend, “…as well as being an acolyte of Bukowski he was a fan of e.e. cummings whose phoney lower-case initials and self-deprecating tone I couldn’t stand,” later rapes her as part of his fantasy of being a bro poet. Even the book’s title comes from a scene at a grocery checkout station, where, as she clerks, a Russian emigre gives her Beyond Good and Evil, and was that because she gave off, as she processed prices of jars, a serious and literary air? Did he recognize that in her? Or was it because on the cover was a woman with large naked breasts whose hands were resting on a surface just the way CLB’s rested on the till?

So, yes, CLB is a feminist writer. I mean in her own way. I mean any humane person must be a feminist but that baseline is hard to achieve sometimes isn’t it? In thought, in practice. And, for writers, in writing.  Sure, CLB has written a book that centers a female story. I’ve read a shitload of those. And many, truth be told, (I’m looking at you, How Should a Person Be) seem to simply take the male POV and turn its gaze onto a woman’s day, even an enlightened, artistic woman’s day. Look at how well I pass muster in this patriarchal world, these books seem to gloat. Few let you see the writer shaking something off her the way that C19 lets you. What is CLB shaking off? It’s—I think—manlit. She’s shaking centuries of manlit—and the laudatory critical reception of everything that resembles and reinforces it—off her shoulders.

But more. Because what does it mean to write not about women but to write aware of how one may have internalized, on a cellular level, a male point of view? To write as if even what passes as a sentence or thought has been circumscribed by men and must be freed?

The thing that hit me first is her spaciousness. There is the feeling of the book being written as you are reading it. That is, the weather in the room in which you hold it open might actually be influencing the tenor and direction of the sentences. And there’s a feeling that any one sentence might go on as long as your own particular attention span would like it to. How is spaciousness feminist? It’s…if spaciousness is the right word, then it’s feminist because she is not writing pages (worse, screens), nor books, nor tomes—she is writing rooms. (Room—the province of women?) To read CLB is to be inside a room. There are not isolated words or sentences “charged with meaning” but more of a host of words, a feeling between the lines, elegant clinamen—a discharge, a flow, a rise and a fall.  (Like the sunlight moving across the room in The Waves: “Now, too, the rising sun came in at the window, touching the red-edged curtain, and began to bring out circles and lines. Now in the growing light its whiteness settled in the plate; the blade condensed its gleam.”)

The book itself is so light—light as in Calvino light—like a loft apartment I once read about, the airiness of which was touted as a relief to a “nitty gritty heavy duty neighborhood.” In C19, bleeding heavily isn’t a plot point, no cause for consternation or embarrassment; there’s our narrator, standing in the school bathroom with her knickers at the tap, watching as the blood “came streaming out of the pleats and swung around the silver plughole in beautiful unfurling plumes.” The pool of blood she left behind on the classroom floor?—“warm and human.” I love that. And yet CLB is not, in depicting her periods, not, I don’t think, taking on the Helene Cixous injunction to “write from the body.” No. The female body is actually not the POV from which this book is written. Nor is the body drastically symbolic here. It’s the sensibility—odd and obstreperously light—from which she’s writing that is female? Feminine? Anyone could start to think like this. Take, for another instance, Tarquin Superbus, a supercilious sartorialist from a vague era, a man CLB dreamed up as a young writer. She revisits him in this book, drawing out a tale of the grandest and most accursed library in history. Tarquin’s expensive library arrives via several carriages, in “boxes and boxes and boxes,” and yet it’s the inverse of other storied libraries (Babel, Alexandria), because Tarquin’s is mostly blank, momentary, and capricious. Not one epic manlit tome among the thousands. In the entire library there is only one sentence, and it contains “everything” but cannot be understood intellectually. When a single person perceives this sentence on the page, they are “released completely… free then to participate at once in the greater imagination, what some go so far as to call the world soul.”

Is there a “point” to any one piece in this book? Or is it a book freed from the pride of making a point? Is it merely, wonderfully, a series of “supremely abberant imaginings” and digressive thoughts on a life in books that reach like curly phone cords a girl of my generation might have pulled into the bathroom the better to talk privately with a friend over nothing? Nothing—it’s a great book about not much, or nearly so—that’s what it seemed like to me, first time through. I don’t blame myself for making that mistake. Because it’s so hard to see what’s wrong with the world you read in. I’ve become inured to a different sort of sensibility. I’ve been taught to look for a point, a sober and authoritative series of sentences that ends with a forceful period. So I almost missed her exclamation, said in the voice of Tarquin Superbus, whose story does not have an ending because, CLB explains, even when she first wrote it in her 20s the story lacked an ending—a former boyfriend, jealous of the time she spent with it, tears up the notebook in which she has been writing it—in this unfinished juvenilia Tarquin exclaims, “And what’s more, what I know is all I want to know, ha!”

Where do people not want to know more than they already know?
Where they scorn books they also scorn people.
Where they ban books they also ban people.
Where they burn books they also burn people.

This last is as Heinrich Heine wrote, and as CLB wrote down again in her Tarquin Superbus piece. And in fact, throughout the book, she writes aware that the Holocaust is her background. A European writer who doesn’t do this on purpose is doing it by accident, just as an American writer may write either aware or unaware that slavery is our background. The background is there. The part we do is writing with or without the knowledge of that.

Near the end, on a walk, CLB finds a young man hanging from a tree. “How could we regard a man’s death as a grim motif in our own lives, and then again, how could we not?” What does she make of it? Of him? Nearly nothing. She tries. But in her failure and resulting silence there is compassion: it’s not her story to take or make. What she does then is imagine “the encroaching inevitability of a life path” for young people in certain places. Talking about nothing on the phone isn’t enough, after a while, for some of us. Is there a way to endure nothingness that does not involve reading books? (Only writing them.) I thought of Lorine Niedecker, another confident, biting, working-class writer who also observed encroaching life paths, and I thought of how even one single stanza of hers can set a whole life walking elsewhere:

The thought that stings. How are you, Nothing,
sitting around with Something’s wife.
                        Buzz and burn
                        is all I learn
I’ve spent my life on nothing.

“Sometimes one sentence is all that it takes,” CLB says. One great sentence. To write it. To find it as a reader. There is no crowd around your mind when you read a book (except in school terrible school), no crowd telling you which sentence your sentence is. No one to refute, deny, squabble, worse—concur, praise, heart, like. You pick your one sentence alone, and I hope, in a spacious and unfurnished room.  I picked mine from C19, and it was two. No matter: “The impulse to release a thing into the drift is a female one. Perhaps I consider that impulse to be exclusively female because I understand it to be an immemorial tremor, somewhere between rebellion and collapse.”

Her last chapter recounts the first story she ever wrote (she returns to it throughout)—a story of a girl’s fingers as she sews turning into thread. The task overtaking the life, a female life in which there is “absolutely nothing to strive for.” In the last chapter it’s not one girl: it’s a collective. The whole last chapter is written in a glorious first person plural: “we.” The whole last chapter is about doing no tasks, no women’s work, no good deeds, just reading and writing unfuckingapologetically. “We” are writing.  “Our fingers are tingling like mad aren’t they. Yes they are. Tingling. We can feel it. Tingling like mad. Our fingers tingle, madly, madly yes, just as if they are coming to life.”That's right. Why is this so astounding? We don't close the book thinking, “Yeah, Claire-Louise Bennett, she’s a singular talent, totemic”—nope—we close it thinking about our own fingers coming to life.

Darcie Dennigan is the author of five books, including Madame X (Canarium) and Slater Orchard: An etymology (FC2), and the recipient of the 2020 Howard Foundation Fellowship in Playwriting from Brown University, and the 2019 Anna Rabinowitz Award from the Poetry Society of America for “venturesome, interdisciplinary work.”