At the heart of Claire-Louise Bennett’s new novel “Checkout 19″ lies a paradox: Grasping the identity of a nameless protagonist. The young woman who does, at one point, occupy a cashier stand 19 at a supermarket, builds her inner life for the reader through hectic and nonlinear streams of consciousness.
Bennett, whose 2016 “Pond” electrified readers with its portrayal of a woman’s stay at a dilapidated cottage while in the throes of depression, specializes in creating character through details, whether big or small, delightful or dirt-ridden. The narrator of “Checkout 19″ lives in Bristol, her parents are working class, and she wants to go to university. She tells us her mother liked “nice things,” from “a smart navy coat” to “croissants on Sundays,” although those things are hard won, never taken for granted the way her classmates treat their own clothing and possessions. Given an ill wind, she senses that her family would be back in her grandmother’s world of “tins, bread, stamps, tea towels, iced buns,” the bits and pieces that women with limited means save and dole out carefully.
The objects our narrator most loves are books, although she really does care most about the ideas inside those books, which she illustrates in a bit of fantasy-driven juvenilia about a man named Tarquin Superbus, global flâneur, who buys an enormous library. When he finds out every book is blank and yet one might contain the most powerful sentence in the universe, he throws a monstrous tantrum and burns them all. The narrator loves to talk about which books she’s read and hasn’t read, stories that taught her something and authors whose lives inspired her. She wants to read for a degree in literature and become a writer. What’s stopping her? First, her social class. How can she possibly dare to live on her own and work on her art with expectations of earnings hanging heavy in the air? Second, men. From the book’s beginning until near its end, the narrator sees that men have a certain ease in the world not extended to women.
Men and their power loom large for the narrator, although she manages to find the literature that teaches her about women who have defied both, too. Her list, which begins with Fleur Jaeggy and ends with Mercè Rodoreda, could form a syllabus. Yet even with the ideas and passions of those artists behind her, the narrator will, like so many women, experience sexual violation. It’s a sad scene, a scene in which she’s so passive that one wonders if she’ll simply pack up, go home, and pick up her own storyline somewhere near a first date at a pub, passing along too quickly and anonymously to getting “married and moved into a starter home and had two or three children, and you’d work all the overtime going and after a while you’d have the house extended … and it’s not bad, it’s not a bad lot, yet we couldn’t say why exactly but neither [of us] were cut out for that.”
Those who mistake this book for “autofiction,” the relatively recent catchphrase, might miss the point. “Checkout 19″ is less the story of Claire-Louise Bennett with some details smudged for her protection and more the story of one version of Claire-Louise Bennett. There are countless writers whose imagined selves people their books: Amy Tan, Philip Roth, Alice Walker, Marguerite Duras, even Charles Bukowski, whom Bennett slips in as an example of her rapist’s terrible taste in poetry (Bennett’s humor is often mordant but always on target). There might be as many fictional versions of Claire-Louise Bennett as there are blank books in Tarquin’s library and when an author says she is writing a novel, why demand that it be memoir?
Instead, go with the odd tunings and odder chords that make up the symphony of “Checkout 19″ as it portrays one artist’s struggles. Near the end, one of the narrator’s early stories comes to life as she hits rock bottom and once again finds her muse. In that wild, fairytale-esque finale, the writer’s fingers elongate further and further until they turn into frantic threads that whip around the room and catch fire from the proverbial burning candle. I’ll refrain from spoiling the last sentences, except to say that if you’ve been paying attention, they make an eerie sense. “Checkout 19″ echoes Virginia Woolf, early Toni Morrison novels, Sheila Heti and Han Kang, and so many others in its insistence on women telling their own stories in their own ways.
By Claire-Louise Bennett
Riverhead, 288 pages, $27
Bethanne Patrick is a writer and critic whose memoir “Life B” will be released by Counterpoint Press in May 2023.