A Woman’s Working-Class Experimentalism

Where do working-class women who are literary and experimental find, first, their models, and next, their readership?

“Ann Quin was working-class—and an ‘avante-garde’ writer,” writes the nameless protagonist of Claire-Louise Bennett’s novel Checkout 19. “To be one or the other in addition to being a woman would have been sufficiently indecorous, to be both was downright impudent.” This observation shows up late in the book, in one of the narrator’s many digressions on literary texts and figures that form the fabric of Checkout 19. The connections drawn here between different identities—working class and experimental and woman and writer—are not explicitly articulated anywhere else in Bennett’s text. And yet, they infuse the novel throughout.

In subtle movements, Checkout 19 draws togethers a cohort of writers not often discussed in conversation with one another—writers like Quin and Annie Ernaux. The novel calls attention to how these writers combine literary techniques that are rarely thought to correspond to one another: experimental narratives, repetition, a particular attention to objects and materials. It’s no coincidence, of course, that these are the trademarks of Bennett’s own writing; to write about one’s textual influences in the language and form of said texts is both to celebrate a tradition and position oneself inside it.

But perhaps even more important is the revelatory and somewhat radical trick Bennett performs concerning these earlier writers and their relation to her own work. Checkout 19 offers up these writers—and, thus, Bennett herself—as practitioners of something unexpected: a distinctly feminine tradition of working-class writing.

Such a tradition, Bennett reveals, not only resists the compulsion to depict purportedly plain lives in a plain style, but it does so by aligning itself with experimental sensibilities.

Where do working-class women who are literary and experimental find, first, their models, and, next, their readership? Some theorists and writers would hold that the distance between the writings of working-class avant-garde tradition and the writings that find their way into the culture and reading habits of working-class communities is irreconcilable, or else that such fictions aren’t written for those whose experiences they purport to represent. Checkout 19 moves toward narrowing this gap. The novel suggests that experimental fictions are read by and, indeed, resonate with young women of the working class (like our protagonist) and that the choice of an experimental form (like that of Checkout 19 itself) can be an act of solidarity with, rather than flight from, a working-class tradition.

What does it mean to be a working-class writer?

The stereotypical working-class novel begins with a man, sometimes several men, wearing coveralls. There is a dirty windowpane above the kitchen sink, with a crack in the glass that lets in smog from the steel mill across the way. A faintly mildewed pub lurks around the corner, where the men sometimes go drinking. All around and above you is gloam—or is it gloom?—and you have slept very little, although you have work in the morning. These are the elements of classic examples of working-class fiction like Alan Silitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1951) and Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960), as well as more sensationalist contributions from middle-class writers like Upton Sinclair and George Orwell.

These works portray working-class lives using the stylistic conventions of social realism, attempting to make the experience of the working class intelligible through unsparing descriptions of everyday life. The social-realist novel insists on a principal standard of verisimilitude: a quality of truthfulness or lifelikeness, supposedly produced by literary conventions like linear narrative, naturalistic dialogue, third-person narration. At its zenith, in British fictions of the late 1950s and early 1960s, social realism was typified by chronological narratives that follow ensemble casts, showcasing the dreary tedium of urban life and the cyclical routine of factory labor.

This popular image of the working class—one grounded in midcentury urban decay, collapsing labor power, and masculine workers—is so enmeshed with the conventions of social-realist novels that many people now conflate one with the other. Important as the classic works in this genre are, though, it’s equally important to remember that some writers—like Bennett—render working-class experience not in deference to a shared, objective reality, but in the image of one’s subjective impression of that reality. The resulting work is less documentary than it is sticky, playful, and permeable.

Bennett’s is a porous, contradictory sort of prose that swims beyond the borders of time and subject, that’s very much sensitive to the personal meanings an image can hold. Here, for example, is how the protagonist of Checkout 19 remembers her grandmother’s home:

In addition to mawkish biographies of Hollywood legends my grandmother possessed an impressive range of sensational hardbacks containing photographic accounts of the vilest Victorian murders. Which is just the sort of singularity that gives an otherwise run-of-the-mill room an exciting air when you’re a child. Sitting in proximity to those slashed and mangled corpses rendered in delicate monochrome made my heart thump its way into my throat in the manner of a maimed troll heaving its smeared bulk up a wishless well by the mulish efforts of its one remaining weevil-ravaged fist. I swallowed hard, again and again, until my ears thrummed, in a bid to get my heart down to where it ought to be. I’m not long for this world.

So, this is a novel about … bridge trolls and dusty paperbacks and children? Yes, among other things. It’s also about ceilings made of eggplants, and college bathtubs, and an imaginary dilettante named Tarquin Superbus. For those conditioned to expect explicit scenes of labor or hardship from working-class fiction, the connection between Bennett’s freewheeling visualizations and class experience might seem tenuous. But that is not the case.

The point is that Bennett renders the world utterly in accordance with her individual experience. Each sentence is carefully held up and considered. “What if language looked like this instead?” she seems to ask. We should pause to remember that, especially for those within the British idiom—like Bennett’s Northern English protagonist—one’s language, accent, and manner of speaking encode a classed system of meaning. Bennett wrestles with language in order to convey an experience of being oppressed by language, in order to give shape to a world wholly her own.

For Bennett—as for her chosen predecessors—divorce from convention is more than an aesthetic choice. It is, crucially, also a logical reaction to the experience of life in a working-class context.

Take Quin’s 1966 short story “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking,” for example. Here, the protagonist “never knew whether it was the mice or one of her aunts wheezing in the long nights. Or maybe just the wind from the sea. … And the bed creaked in the room below. As grandma turned over. Back again. From the waist up. Did she have legs? The child thought of them. Thought she saw them like sticks under the sheet. About to thrust up.” The paper thinness of walls, the precarious flux of one’s surroundings: these are particularities of working-class life. But they become—for Quin and, later, for French writer Annie Ernaux and others—the qualities of a universe that blurs the borders between self and other, exterior and interior.

This sort of permeability is picked up, decades later, by Bennett. In Checkout 19 she writes, “If your immediate locale doesn’t offer you very much in terms of dependable boundaries it’s not entirely inconceivable is it that you’ll end up writing a kaleidoscopic sort of prose that is constantly shuffling the distinction between objects and beings.”

The mode of women’s experimental working-class fiction works toward an emancipatory and proprietary representation.

The first murmurings of Bennett’s experimental class sensitivity are abundant in Pond, her 2015 debut that earned widespread critical acclaim (and a spot on the shortlist for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize, which celebrates literary works in English by authors aged 39 or under). The collected vignettes of Pond rest somewhere pleasantly between fiction and autobiography, between the interior musings of an unnamed narrator and the materials that make up her life in rural West Ireland. It’s an endlessly surprising reading experience. Bennett has a penchant for unsettling stillness, for fixating on minutiae (bowls, ottomans, cows) so intently that they explode into other worlds and other lives. Nothing happens. Everything happens.

In one of Pond’s stories, the narrator’s afternoon gardening session slips quietly into a reflection about the arcane memories buried in the earth, whose voice begins, seemingly, to merge with that of the narrator herself. “This being the way and irreversible homewards now was a lifted skeletal thing of the past, without due application or undue meaning,” the narrator writes. “No, no. None shap shap on that here domicile shank.”

Pond encompasses many experimental strategies: a slippery first-person voice, attention to objects and atmosphere, and a porousness of experience among them. Checkout 19 refines these strategies and sets them to work in new ways. The effects Bennett achieves in this latest novel are more lucid, her subjects both more expansive in scope and more comfortable in her grasp.

Checkout 19 is more episodic than linear. By this, I mean the novel cares more about plumbing the depths of its narrator’s free associations than about following a chronological series of plot points. In one sentence you’re wearing “another girl’s knickers,” in the next you’re riding a bicycle backwards through time. Still, the book’s structure gains shape by charting the metamorphoses of a young girl’s encounters with books as she comes of age.

I use the word “encounters” because not all the texts we come across in the novel are read: “There weren’t very many books at home and the few books there were were out of sight inside a corner cabinet in the dining room along with candles and napkin rings and a gravy boat our mother had taken an abrupt and supreme disliking to. Out of sight yet at the same time curiously present. … Illicit things that looked back at us and saw something.” This awareness of both the value and scarcity of possessions is instilled in the narrator by her mother, who scrupulously buys banana shampoo and Slazenger tennis skirts and Laura Ashley wallpaper not out of greed but because “things hold life in place. … Having nice things makes you feel like you’re doing a good job and shuts everybody else up.”

The novel is immensely concerned with the texture of the material world. Unlike much of social realist writing, though, Bennett’s posture is to present a material reality that can be negotiated with. For Bennett and her fellows, things are ductile: they look back at you, they fortify you in place. Things emphasize and stabilize your precarious reliance on them.

Can a favorite dress and a home’s assorted oddments teach us as much about someone as the events preceding their parents’ divorce? In Ann Quin’s Berg (1964), there’s “enough truth in these steps I take, this cigarette I light, that leaf pressed between a crack in the pavement.” Of her ’60s social-realist male contemporaries, Quin wrote, “They frankly stink with their dumb 19th-century prose.” Quin’s own writing is fragrant. Her characters congeal and deflate, they die in gurgles of water and leave behind spoonfuls of soup.

In certain strands of phenomenology there’s an idea that the thorough, spontaneous description of your lived reality can unlock your conscious experience—can set you free. This is a project Bennett picks up from Quin: the interest in describing well, rather than poetically or conventionally.

Bennett’s narrator may not know “what the flooring in the English block was made of,” but the particular qualities of limestone or linoleum are less generative than the way the narrator remembers the corridor as being “dark and resinous … [with] light moving across it, and reflections, shadows, all at the same time.” Like Quin, Bennett subjugates conventional description to the task of bringing forth her individual sensibility, to rewriting the world in harmony with her perception of it.

This project involves revision, repeating, tedium, drafting endlessly, leaving your writing, coming back to it—to write as if you must try on a certain number of descriptions before finding the one that suits your experience best. Bennett is fond of repetition. “Yes, yes,” she writes. “Yes, it is.” Her dedication in this regard is inherited from Ernaux, who was so fond of cataloguing, who wanted to pin her world onto the paper just right. In one of the later chapters of Checkout 19, the narrator struggles to describe the moment she discovered a dead body. “I’ve written about what happened next many times—though not at all in recent years. I gave up on it. Every time I tried to write about what happened next it invariably turned out horribly overwrought. … For goodness’ sake spit it out.” These efforts culminate inevitably, in the novel, in a series of rapid images and impressions, the narrator’s experience refracted into scattered glimpses of grass, chain, swing, neck. “It was a private thing,” she writes, a private thing demanding of a personal written expression.

What is Bennett’s mission here? Why such a compulsive desire to describe? It’s more than just a recreation of experience. Bennett’s belief is in the act of writing itself; she writes memories into an object, an object she’s relieved of when she captures it in words. “I am merely listing the signs,” Ernaux writes, in Simple Passion (1991), “as if this inventory could allow me to grasp the reality.”

To grasp reality; to hold it in your hands; to possess all the impossible contradictions of your experience as an individual, as a woman, as a member of the working class—that is the point. The mode of women’s experimental working-class fiction works toward an emancipatory and proprietary representation.

Quin is not only an implicit influence on Checkout 19. The narrator remembers her own trip, as a young adult, to Brighton, by imagining herself in relation to the spaces that Quin inhabited. The narrator has just fled from what she imagined would be a luxury hotel, the kind of place with which she had associated a certain clientele. She envisioned their economic situation and their elegance and if she might count herself among them. She arrives, instead, to an establishment with a mottled mirror and a smell of mold, and she can hardly bring herself to stay. The narrator, looking back on this trip, tells us that “up the road in Regency Square was where I sat quite oblivious to all that, twenty odd years after Ann Quin went into that same sea and did not come out again.”

The boundaries between past and present, interior and exterior, fact and fiction are thin. They drip together in the wells of Bennett’s cosmology—her own precarious balance between self and world, the literary origins she writes into being.

Indeed, Checkout 19 could be described as an extended exercise in re-collecting: a gathering of myriad impressions, objects, and memories—arranged according to Bennett’s individual patterns rather than the conventional chronology of realism—and an assembling of a cast of similarly minded women writers. The narrator’s recollection of her past is also an act of connecting or collecting—of bringing Quin and that young girl together across time, allied not only by their setting and class, but also by their desire to write themselves down.

This article was commissioned by Jesse McCarthyicon

Featured image: Woman in Apron and Bonnet Grinding Coffee in Kitchen Setting, Unknown French artist (c. 1850s). The Metropolitan Museum of Art (CC0 1.0)