PRINT December 2021



Photo: Brian J. Green.

Claire-Louise Bennett’s “supremely aberrant imaginings” include the “ductile,” “embrocated,” and “gurning”; a book burning that causes “thick black smoke” to “swarm and twist” into “a dragon, a crucifix, an ouroboros, a swastika . . . an ankh” that one superb character breathes in and spits out, an exorcism, until everyone’s slumbering and the “disgorged blob of phlegm . . . grows little limbs and stands upright” and slouches toward those asleep.

The things she doesn’t have to imagine, because life (lark, predation), require even more outré imaginings: finding the words, “alive and distinct . . . like organisms,” drawing them into “thrumming and surging” sentences, eternal returns contained and then released into the drift.

I reread Checkout 19 (Jonathan Cape) immediately after finishing it, just as I did Bennett’s first book, Pond (2015). Retaining all the former’s seemingly casual barrage of living, strangely perfect, perfectly merciless, making too much sense, making almost none, her new récit is a thing of beauty: hard-won, shrugged off, a fado for reading. “When we turn the page we are born again. Living and dying and 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. Yes. Yes. Turning the pages. Turning the pages. With one’s entire life.” But as if “the only thing you could do with a book was read it”! You could write like that.

An “immemorial tremor somewhere between rebellion and collapse,” the “impulse to release a thing into the drift is a female one.” A room with a view or “not much of a view” may not be a room of one’s own. The costs of living, the aesthetics of never having enough money, these will cause effects to be let go, even a “stronger” sense of narrative. In part of her profound excursion on (with?) “perspicacious” Ann Quin, “working-class . . . ‘avant-garde’ writer . . . in addition to being a woman,” Checkout 19’s self-reflective narrator notes: “The walls are paper-thin. You rarely have any privacy. And neither do you have any safety nets, the fenders, the filters, nor the open doors which people from affluent backgrounds enjoy from day one.”

The book isn’t listless about lists, or about fingers, pistachios, secrets, baths, “that thin pink hymen in a boy’s throat,” lightness, lightness, air. Its endpapers are a vivid period red I can only hope is the “most perfect shade” Bennett’s “been looking for in a lipstick since forever.”

Either Lucrecia Martel should film this magnolious work, or no one.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.