"THERE WERE lines across the pages but they were imperceptible because of how dark it had become and once a word was written it was irretrievable, as if abducted. I went on, sinking words into the pages, perhaps wondering what or who was taking them in. And, then, for the first time that day, just as it was ending, I knew where I was – I was beneath the ground. I was far beneath the ground at last, and my blood thronged and my heart flounced back and forth bewitchingly. The pen came to settle in the seam of my notebook. Sooner or later, I thought, you’re going to have to speak up.”
Although it appears towards the end of Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett’s first collection of stories, just published by The Stinging Fly, this passage could well serve as a mantra – if any could – to this intriguing, captivating, at times infuriating, but ultimately fascinating book.
The initial reaction on opening the book for the first time is highly refreshing, a kaleidoscope of words leaps off the page like a cold shower, inculcating a sharp sense of excitement that leaves the reader somewhat out of breath. However as the word assault continues unabated, the reader becomes dazzled with the sheer verbal power, and an element of disorientation and bewilderment creeps in.
As always with a debut collection, there is the tendency to comparison with other more established authors and that certainly is the case here. Names such as James Joyce (stream of consciousness technique ), Samuel Beckett (the intensity of detail ), and John Banville (the lyricism of the prose ), but this is grossly unfair to the author who has a unique voice of her own and it is the emergence of Bennett's voice that makes these stories so interesting and challenging.
In 'The Big Day' hints emerge as to where the author is going: “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 until eventually it is all quite formidable. As if the earth were a colossal and elaborate death-trap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go.”
Two stories later Bennett seems to get closer to the kernel to the major issue of the book: “It’s the location actually – appearing to be located to be precise – that’s what I object to, and somehow wish to dispel. I want to shove the walls away and for the stone floor to turn to sand. I say such silly, merciless things indoors, the walls and floor and ceiling press so much acidic nonsense out of me – I become defensive, critical, intractable and remote. Impossible! No, there are times when men and women don’t belong inside rooms.”
What follows is a contrasting narrative of perpetual motion and total stillness, imbued with a fascination for objects, more especially those that don’t work, one of the more permanent aspects of the human experience as Bennett sees it, reaching some sort of tentative synthesis at the end of the penultimate story:
“I don’t know what’s out there – I never could work it out – and all that time I spent behind the green curtains at home not getting any closer to it. And why shouldn’t I stand at the window like this? Why shouldn’t I be seen? I’m not afraid. Not afraid of any monster. Let it stand in the moonlit lane and watch me. It’s been watching me all along, coming and going – and I don’t know that it is not in fact becoming a little afraid of me – and I have to be doubly careful I think, not to frighten it away, because between you and me I can’t be at all sure where it is I’d be without it.”
A personal reaction maybe, but then there is no other to this extraordinary debut and therein lies its inherent interest for anyone who takes up the challenge. It is most definitely worth it.