cover image Checkout 19

Checkout 19

Claire-Louise Bennett. Riverhead, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-42049-2

Bennett’s idiosyncratic and arresting latest (after Pond) explores a woman’s tenacious attachment to the written word. The unnamed narrator describes her peculiar experience of reading as a young bookish girl: she thinks “the left page nearly always has better words on it,” and, given the readerly urge to turn the page, typesetters are “irresponsible” for allowing “important sentences to appear at the very end of the right page.” As an adult, she studies literature, works weekends at a grocery store, and scours books for words that feel “as if they are being written as you read them, that your eyes upon the page are perhaps even making them appear.” Along with the narrator’s recollections are accounts of her early efforts at writing fiction, “the quickening revolutions of my supremely aberrant imaginings.” She recreates the intensity of artistic inspiration and then, from a distance of years, recomposes the lost or abandoned stories themselves, an exercise that proves much more successful than one might expect, as seen in, for instance, a Borgesian tale about a library of blank books concealing one transformative sentence only visible to the collection’s owner. Bennett’s narrator also recounts interactions with men: a charismatic teacher who senses her fierce talent; vindictive and entitled friends and lovers; and a Nietzsche-toting grocery shopper who, in a scene that demonstrates the destabilizing joy of this book, fills his cart in an “exquisite sequence of sublime prestidigitation.” Encompassing literary criticism, suggestive fables, feminist polemic, a portrait of the artist, and a phenomenology of reading, this transfixes on both the right page and the left. Bennett marvels once again. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Mar.)