Archive for January 12th, 2016

January 12, 2016

Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett

by Team Riverside

Claire-Louise Bennet PONDIt’s rare to discover a truly original book but Pond is just that. A series of short ‘stories’, sometimes no more than a few paragraphs, this highly eccentric and experimental work revolves around an unnamed woman whose rural isolation is the occasion of her meandering meditations upon everything from bananas, control knobs, a conglomeration of stones in a wall and modern dating etiquette.

Bennett withholds the conventions of fiction (namely plot and characterization) to the point of infuriating some readers I would imagine, though perhaps this is her intention. One ‘chapter’, for instance, consists solely of this ditty which is just two very short paragraphs:

‘Oh, Tomato Puree! When at last you occur to me it is as something profuse, fresh, erupting…

Oh Tomato Puree – let me lay you out and pummel those rigid furrows and creases!…’

It continues in a similar fashion.

While such strangeness can weary at times (when the reader is enmeshed in some particularly diaphanous, trance-like passage, for instance), the effort on the reader’s part to forge some sort of meaning is worth it. Bennett refuses to let anything figure – to let anything stand for pretty much anything at all; metaphor, we sense, is anathema to her; but there is a reason for this. In a brilliant passage that implicitly comments upon her own artistry and is simultaneously a cameo manifesto for the entire novel, she writes of her self/protagonist:

‘…she went off to place a cautionary notice next to the pond – which, by the way, has absolutely no depth whatsoever. If it were left up to me I wouldn’t put a sign next to a pond saying pond, either I’d write something else, such as Pig Swill, or I wouldn’t bother at all….’

She goes on to state that she knows the sign is to prevent children coming upon the water too quickly but says she herself, if ‘brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon…only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it…[would] be hopping.’

At the end of this chapter she removes the sign altogether, her reasoning being, as mystics and philosophers have pointed out before her (and there is definitely something of the mystic about Bennett’s protagonist), that words erect an artificial interface between us and the world, preventing us ‘moving about in deep and direct accordance with things.’ And it is true, as you read Pond, you feel all the strangeness of a heightened reality, much more a decipherer than simply a reader, as you do with most books. Despite the impression that Bennett’s writing is steeped in philosophers – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard and Derrida among them – there is such lightness, such whimsy, that reading Pond is not like reading a philosophical work at all, however resonant it may feel; for ironically, despite Bennett’s protestations to the contrary, her implicit suggestion that there is no ‘depth’ to her work only serves to make it all the more esoteric and enigmatic.

The experiments of post-modernism have left little room for literature to move forwards, but Bennett, in subtle yet inimitable fashion, has been able to suggest how it might. Pond is sign-posted. There are no poxy pieces of plywood, just plenty of magic.

Review by Emily

January 12, 2016

The Incarnations, Susan Barker

by Team Riverside

Susan Barker THE INCARNATIONSA ghost is this highly original novel’s second protagonist; its’ first is Wang, a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing who is the recipient of a series of mysterious letters purporting to be from a soul he has encountered in past lives. Barker weaves a seamless and gripping narrative between the modern-day and a dozen brilliantly realized pasts, from the brutal days of a sorceress, to the might of Genghis Khan, the giddying cruelty of the despotic Emperor Jaijing, a pirate ship during the Opium Wars, and the treacherous climate of the Cultural Revolution. Betrayal of one sort of another colours all of the stories, even if both souls feature as friends or lovers; at some point they are always at enmity.

This book is not for the squeamish. It portrays unimaginable, nightmarish cruelty, often and graphically. But the barbarity is not pointless. It shows the depths of horror human beings can sink to and how any one of us could be perpetrators of such horror, depending on when we are born and whom we are born to. Barker also suggests that evolution and transformation, however slight, requires some degree of awareness; though she leaves us very much in the dark as to whether any of her characters actually succeed in securing their personal freedom and reading their own destiny – a destiny that has already been spelt out in their incarnate lives.