In Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut Pond, sections, or chapters, are more like narrative fragments. The narrator’s voice and the Irish cottage where she lives are consistent, but there is no single plot. Rather, in a series of separate but related instances, the apartment becomes a burrow.
At first, you might think that this book is about de-specification. No human names appear, and no place names either. But as you acclimate to the narrator’s consciousness, you’ll realize that some things are obviated so that other things can sing. All of Bennett’s true focal points are microscopic (the plastic cook nobs on her stove, the way fruit sits in a ceramic bowl, the party guests in spatial relation to the chaise lounge, the sounds of frogs in rain).
In “The Big Day,” the story from which the collection gets its title, Bennett’s narrator takes a small thing (a sign reading “Pond,” right next to a pond) and makes a planet-sized argument.
And quite frankly I would be disgusted to the point of taking immediate vengeance if I was brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon in late September and thereupon belted down to the pond, all by myself most likely, only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it. Oh I’d be hopping. That sort of moronic busybodying happens with such galling regularly throughout childhood of course and it never ceases to be utterly vexing. One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. (36)
To “really notice things,” you have to funnel your attention down into them. Take specificity away human names and human games, and you’ll get closer. In this way, and by assuming the quotidian as potent instead of drab, Pond creates a special awareness in readers. The observations we’re treated to begin to make a small Irish cottage seem far too large to ever really comprehend, or fully inhabit. This is the magic of a hermitage tale. Like Thoreau at Walden, or Snyder and company in the fire towers of the Cascades, the steady study of a small plot makes that plot expand.
History, too, makes a landscape expand, or makes it more “readable” to its human inhabitants. Here is Bennett’s narrator considering the potato famine as she walks around her corner of Ireland: “And so it comes at you directly, right through the softly padding soles of your feet, battering up throughout your body, before unpacking its clamouring store of images in the clear open spaces of your mind” (105). In moments like that, the personhood of Bennett’s narrator fades into liminality as the landscape comes into focus. Best of all, in Pond, overtaking is not sublime, and not death-professing, but workaday and a bit ecstatic.
Bennett’s debut has received attention from many fine publications. Vogue, The New York Times, and The New Yorker have all given their thumbs up. Most summations of her work focus on the intensity of the mind in solitude while perhaps skirting or failing to notice the massive presence more-than-human things and lives have in the book. Blessedly, an interview with The Paris Review (in which Bennett lists her inspirations and living conditions at the time—so don’t miss this) begins by explaining Pond like this: “It attempts to engage with the universe at its fullest and not just the little portion of it we identify as human.”