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'Pond' is a cool, curious dive into a world of minutiae

Claire-Louise Bennett's unclassifiable work is a 'tumble down a rabbit hole,' taking readers into a world where the drama is in the details.

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    Pond
    By Claire-Louise Bennett
    Riverhead Books
    208 pp.
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Into this summer of withering heat, political hysteria, and the potential unraveling of Europe comes Pond, a cool and curious dive into a deceptively small world. First published last year by an independent press in Ireland, the book marks the move by writer Claire-Louise Bennett from a series of essays and short stories, which have earned her critical acclaim, to the sustained voice of a collection. And what a voice it is.

In "Pond" you tumble down a rabbit hole into an unsettling realm of ultra-close focus. Here the minutiae of daily life – how best to chill a banana, why the ink in a pen has gone from black to green, the sounds of nature as heard from a certain picnic blanket – take on the weight of the universe. Our guide is an enigmatic young woman, the world she inhabits shaped in 20 short ... stories? What they actually are – studies or chapters or literary etudes – is up for grabs.

There is no plot, no story arc, no characters to meet and learn about. There’s just Bennett’s voice and her singular vision. In pieces that range in length from a few sentences to more than 20 pages, with all but the final entry written in first person, you’re left on your own to figure things out.

Bennett never names her narrator, a onetime graduate student who has recently quit a Ph.D. program. She has left the city behind and taken up residence in a small stone cottage on the western coast of Ireland. The young woman speaks directly to us in rambling monologues, more than a little bit strange, always intense, and often wickedly funny.

When we first meet her it’s the banana that holds her attention. This leads to thoughts on the microclimate of a kitchen windowsill, which shifts to an analysis of the contents of a fruit bowl (“Pears should always be small and organized nose to tail in a bowl of their own”) and on to a discussion of the pros and cons of various breakfast options.

This pinpoint vision telescopes inward until it feels vertiginous. Bennett offers us mere breadcrumbs, the tiniest building blocks of plot – allusions to a string of lovers, the narrator’s realization that she likes sex only when drunk, an old letter so fraught she can neither read nor discard it.

You stumble a bit and waver: Will you go on to the next sentence, to the next page? Yes, yes, let’s go on – the lovely writing, as precise and disorienting as the narrator, pulls you into its deceptively gentle current.

What with the remote cottage, the obsessive detail and the failed doctoral thesis, which lies abandoned in a shed (“Many of the pages loose, and I knew very well they weren’t in any order”), these at first look like writings of a woman in full retreat. It’s a surprise, then, in this close and closed-in world, each time the outside world enters.

There’s a speaking engagement our narrator accepts at an academic conference, a nearby neighbor whose house she often visits, and a lively summer party she throws because “I have so many glasses after all.” At the conference, the narrator gives a bold talk that shrugs off centuries of male perspective on the rhapsodies of love and presents it instead as “a vicious and divine disintegration of selfhood....”

Afterward, as the conference participants chat, an academic bigwig looks down his nose at the narrator’s speech. Rather than being abashed, she goes in for a bit of bashing. She hopes he will trip and fall and cut his head with “just a trickle of blood so you don’t look inured, only stupid and a bit iffy.”

The narrator’s flight from academia turns out to mirror Bennett’s own change of direction. Instead of completing the postgrad work about which she says she felt tepid, Bennett moved from London to Ireland. She left the university behind but not her writing. In "Pond," there’s a nod to her awareness of the experimental nature of her work, though with its assured style it seems more accurate to view it as an investigation.

“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way,” the narrator tells us. “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 don’t think it can be made external, you see.”

And yet, as Bennett shows repeatedly in the strange and exhilarating universe beneath the surface of "Pond," it can.

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