The past few weeks, after reading Knausgaard’s fifth tome in a long, breathless gulp lasting a little over a week, I have been reading Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. Pond is a collection of about 20 interconnected stories, which sort of tell a story but also sort of do not.
The main thing about this book is that it has made me realise – more than anything I have read in a while – that I have a unique style that I really like. It is the sparse, introspective, interior narrative of a loner – a person on the fringe of our society, or sometimes totally alone in the world. I now have three strange books that I have collected with similar styles, and I didn’t know that I was collecting them: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, Speedboat by Renata Adler, and now Pond.
I discovered Markson’s experimental novel first, urged on by David Foster Wallace, and it has rolled around in my head since I read it. The first sentence completely hooked me, and the sparse, addictive and totally unreliable narration drew me in – possibly because this was the first book of that type that I had read. It starts like this:
In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.
Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain of the messages would say. Or in the National Gallery.
Naturally they could only say that when I was in Paris or in London. Somebody is living in the Metropolitan Museum, being what they would say when I was still in New York.
Nobody came, of course. Eventually I stopped leaving the messages.
To tell the truth, perhaps I left only three or four messages altogether.
I really love these types of unreliable narrators – they feel like magic to me, maybe after the hyper-realistic and theoretically reliable narrators that dominate so much of the 19th and 20th century literature. Those narrators are often unreliable in other ways, or blinkered because of their particular perspective, but they are meant to be so sure about their perspective.
The whole point of these narrators in these types of books is that they are the opposite. All three of these solitary narrators are female; Markson is the only male writer (and he does a pretty good job with his female voice in WM). I wonder if that is why I have immediately welcomed this type of unreliable narration: I hadn’t realised how foreign the self-assured, hyper-realistic narrator was until I read these wobbly ones. Anyway, it is an interesting point.
Pond starts off more self-assured, with a single paragraph on the first page, titled “Voyage in the Dark”:
First of all, it seemed to us that you were very handsome. And the principal windows of your house were perfectly positioned to display a blazing reflection at sunset. … I made my way over the wall into your ornamental garden, laid down upon the unfeasible grass and fell to sleep wrapped about a lilac seashell, which was of course my most cherished possession.
So far, not that similar to the narration style, but the next page gets you really into the narrative style, beginning with a long discussion of bananas and coffee and the setup of the kitchen, and general rambling about the ripeness of fruit.
The language in Pond is beautiful, more beautiful in Markson, and therefore slightly less reliable in some senses – you know that it is produced by an artist. But it has the tinge of madness and honesty that I love, like this bit, which is perhaps my favourite:
English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is: simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.
In some ways, you can see from that that sometimes both Pond and WM are a bit too wobbly and weird, and it gives you an uncomfortable feeling. They contradict themselves or they say their verbal tics a few times in a few sentences, and it makes you feel that you have perhaps interrupted them with a question that has made them uncomfortable, or that they deserve to be left alone because they are so weird. But I like that as well.
For what it’s worth, Speedboat is a bit more traditional and structured and also more edgy and opinionated – but not to a totally different degree. You still get very arresting sentences and thoughts about loneliness and existentialism, which I am clearly a sucker for. Like this:
When I wonder what it is that we are doing — in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper — the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.