Many novels moralize about books saving your life. This one treats them like a drug


Books on books tend to be sappy. They often present the reductive and moralizing case that reading is a form of salvation, a surefire path to empathy. It is a unique pleasure to read a bibliophile novel which deviates completely from this mode.

For the anonymous narrator at the center of Claire Louise Bennettis a wildly imaginative, bizarre, and comically biting second novel, “Crate 19books are life itself: essential like water, ordinary like wallpaper. But reading them won’t save the world.

Coming from a working-class family in South West England, the narrator ingests the stories like air, reveling in their uniqueness but also in the feel of a soothing cycle: “Turn the pages. Turn the pages. When we turn the page, we are born again,” Bennett writes. “Live and die and live and die and live and die. Again and again. And that’s really how it should be.

The narrator obsessively and promiscuously reads everything from Aristotle to Danielle Steel. As a child, she obsessed over even the minor, incidental qualities of books, such as the fact that Roald DahlThe author’s photo on the back of her mother’s hidden copy of “Switch Bitch” is different from her own copy of “Danny the world champion.”

Books replace other activities; they are their own transgression. As a young woman, when she should have been reading on the school’s summer reading list, she “laid down on one of the lounge chairs in a black halterneck bikini with a pack of Dunhill cigarettes and read “A Start in Life” by Alan Sillitoe instead.” At the Glastonbury Festival, she bought Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, the Sea” and read it “lying in the upper field with a paper cup of chai tea and a packet of Jaffa cakes.”

The narrator is not alone, exactly, but, as “Pond“, Bennett’s rich and eerie 2015 debut album, “Checkout 19” is a record of loneliness. Both books are largely plotless, instead devoting themselves to depicting atmosphere, physical spaces, and (sometimes grotesques) of experience embodied in delightfully idiosyncratic language.

The title of “Checkout 19” is taken from the narrator’s weekend job as a supermarket cashier, where a Russian customer with a gaze problem imposes a copy of “Beyond Good and Evil” on her. of Nietzsche as she stands at the cash desk.

A more compelling connection is drawn from the narrator’s bond with Mr. Burton, a teacher who takes an early interest in his writing; she brings him a new story every week. “I gave him the stories on a Friday, so they stayed with him for three nights and two days,” she says. “Lying somewhere in his house. Absorb this environment that I could never go into. His Saturdays. His Sundays.

The coins she gives him are just “little things”, but their content doesn’t matter. It’s the fact of letting the teacher enter his mind, of passing the text to a new reader, that gives a thrill. The narrator, now deep into adulthood, feels “an urge to remember this moment” every few years. “Not only to remember it, but to write it down, once again. Again.” The scene carries an erotic charge, but its intimacy really comes from the narrator laying bare her philosophy of life, an iterative – albeit directionless – performance with words.

Somehow, nestled in this book is also the story of a character called Tarquin Superbus, “almost always shrouded in a cape or cloak” but difficult to place in time and in space (maybe he is from the Renaissance, maybe from the 19th century, from Venice or Vienna, who really knows). It acquires the value of a library of books that turn out to be blank except for one containing a single very important sentence. Unfortunately, the phrase keeps disappearing.

I prepared myself to be irritated by this swerve into the ultra-weird. But even in its surreality, this foray, like so much in the novel, achieves startling verisimilitude, as Bennett not only shares Superbus’s story but how she got there. “That’s what I feel in my head,” I finally thought.

Because even the Superbus tale is a narrative, a recollection of the narrator’s attempts to write fiction in her early twenties. She returns to EM Forster’s “A Room With a View” after 20 years to “go back to the beginning of myself” but misremembers a detail from that famous book. She also admits (as few hardcore readers will) that she’s forgotten many of the books she’s read. (“Easy come, easy go,” I thought, a line the narrator’s father often uttered “with that hint of heartbreaking sarcasm that usually pervades many pithy observations of the proletariat.”) Still, the books left their mark.

In “Checkout 19”, reading is what gives meaning to life but also perhaps what adds to its meaninglessness; the purple underline in the narrator’s copy of Paul Bowles“Let It Come Down” is so important to her that she feels it’s wasted by the ungrateful bartender she lends the book to, but she has an instinctive sense of the futility of making those marks when neither neither books nor humans are permanent.

It’s not easy to read a book like this, to surf the choppy waters of sometimes disparate associations built up over a lifetime, to revisit the same bits of a story (the Russian, for example , reappears) but never come to a resolution in the usual sense of the word.

But this is not a novel that claims to offer anything like the usual satisfactions. Each thought opens on a reference or a set of associations drawn from another work. The reader is simply part of it. A pile of shoes? The death camps during World War II. Menstruation? WWI. (Many things make the narrator think of World War I.)

Fortunately, Bennett is very funny. In a college bathroom with her rules, the narrator thinks, “Maybe I’m a nun from northern Italy rinsing out skeins and skeins of bandages and out in the woods, tired, dirty men come forward and shoot each other behind dripping trees. and they will all be stopped in their deplorable dash as soon as they hear me sing.

For the true blue reader, this book-full-of-books is a gift and proof of a rare talent. It’s not meant to be ripped from the bedside table and chipped away over weeks, but a volume to be consumed whole, on a long, strange journey.

To Bennett’s great credit, “Checkout 19” doesn’t dramatize the saving role of books. Here, reading is not embraced as mere escape, nor glorified as edification. Bennett doesn’t sell anything and doesn’t argue. In the story of a life lived through the books, and in his own sometimes flowery and scholarly sentences, the deep magic of writing is revealed.

Aron is the author of “Hello destroyer of the souls of men: A memoir of women, addiction and love.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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