In her 2016 book Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett poses the incompatibility between words and things as a comic problem—and then offers a formal response to that problem. If things, distinct from objects, can only become known to us through a disruptive encounter, then surely language is superfluous to that encounter. This is the conundrum articulated by Bill Brown in the opening to his 2001 Critical Inquiry piece and invoked by the deliberately dissonant phrase “thing theory.” While acknowledging the gap between word and thing, thing theory identifies moments of contact, when the properties of one rub off on the other. In Pond, Bennett lingers over the rich intricacies of the material world and of prose, allowing us to encounter the opacity of both. In the passages below, Bennett dramatizes the materialization of language and the limits on meaning-making.
Pond is a collection of stories from the perspective of an unnamed English woman living for some time on the west coast of Ireland. In the story “The Big Day,” the woman’s neighbor, preparing for a community event, places a sign next to the nearby pond. The sign reads “pond” and prompts a one-page rant from the narrator on the idiocy of such cautionary acts. She finds the sign a particular affront to those whom it is intended to protect—children, whose capacity for immersion in the physical world is undercut by “an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts.” The potential experience of discovering this place has been ruined by “the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood.” In Bennett’s telling, the label—language—acts as a sheath over the world, keeping us from becoming “attuned to the earth’s embedded logos” and from “moving about in deep and direct accordance with things” (36). The uninspiring sign has no understanding of the pond in all its magic and mystery, no sense of the thing itself.
Consider though, the difference between the sign and the book in which it is lodged. Pond takes place in a hypersaturated material world, of thick bramble, igneous earth, thatch, broad beans, green tiles, and black jam in porridge. In an interview with The Paris Review, Bennett expresses a wish to unsettle what Italo Calvino calls our “anthropocentric parochialism” and to remember “that there are many other things in the world. That there are stones and cows and gates and comets and bananas and dog turds and blankets left out in the rain.” Her text repeatedly questions the efficacy of language in that project, and, at one moment lapses into a kind of earthy Jabberwockian nonsense-tongue. But even at her clearest, most transparent prose, Bennett’s use of language belies such skepticism about its effects. Her work in fact reminds us that words are not simply signs: they too are things, with strange surfaces and forms.
Thing theory is first about attentiveness. It is a call to look at things freed from their functions and meanings in our lives, and to notice their properties—not what they mean, but what they do and what they are like. It is a literary method, because texts make space for the properties of things to emerge and because texts share many of these properties, such as opacity, persistence, fragmentation, and resistance. We can recognize and describe arrangements, affordances, and surfaces in texts as in things. This is as much thing theory as neoformalism and surface reading. We see the unsettling effects of such attention to surfaces in another story from Pond, “Control Knobs.” In this story the narrator is reading a dystopian novel in which the final survivor of an apocalypse begins to think of herself not as a woman or person, but rather as “a physiological manifestation” like any other: “Material. Matter. Stuff.” This realization allows the character to study her face in the mirror “with the same sort attention one brings to bear upon the bark of a tree, the surface of a rock, the skin of a peach” (90). The narrator can hardly bear to imagine the radical potential of approaching the self with such curiosity and detachment—an approach that acknowledges that surfaces, whether of rock, tree, face, or word, are all that can be seen or known.
Bennett returns later to the pond, or to the sign that says “pond.” The narrator thought the sign would be picked up after the festival, but instead it
remained next to the pond for a long time and then, one afternoon, on my way to the compost bin, I put the bowl of potato peelings I held down on a rock and I went over to the sign. There were some slugs along the edges of it, and some wood lice too. It was completely soaked and the plywood was coming apart. Pond. I lifted it up carefully and carried it over to where the ivy grows round and round and jiggled it in behind the entwined trunk of a tree. It will surely outlive the pond in any case. (50)
The sign has lingered. It is damaged, fraying, its deterioration in process. Vulnerable to the elements, it has been soaked by dew and rain; it entertains small organisms along its edges. The narrator’s domestic things—the bowl, the potato peelings—sit in a haphazard outdoors still life on the rock, not yet processed as compost, but at rest in the landscape. Likewise the sign has become, through time, part of the environment rather than an intrusion on it. The narrator completes this transition by wedging the sign between the tree and the ivy, plywood camouflaged against living trunk; she finds it a secure slot in the physical world, where, she imagines, it will remain lodged, for a long, long time. We get a brief, suddenly gentle reading of the sign’s text, in the single sentence, “Pond”: the word itself round, resonant, self-contained. No longer signifying, merely being, the sign has become a thing—and the thing, literature.
And what of the pond itself? What of its promised magic and mystery? As the story closes, the narrator admits her own vision of the pond has suffered some adjustment.
It’s not a very deep pond after all. I always believed they were endlessly deep. But when I took something down there one day that I needed to get rid of fast, a broken, precious thing, I dropped it into the water and it did not sink and go on sinking. It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible. And within moments lots of very small things, some of them creatures I suppose, collected and oscillated, slowly, along the smooth crevices of its broken precious parts. (50)
The narrator wanted something from the pond—not to experience a deep and direct accordance with its thingness—but rather to enact a ritual performance at its site. She wished to drown her precious objects in the pond and thus force them into the past. But, despite its darkness, the pond lacks the depth to accommodate her sentimental investment. The treasures do not sink and go on sinking, into the nether zone of the subconscious. They remain, lodged, lingering. The pond refuses symbolization; it will not hold her memories and regrets within. It offers up only an opaque surface, everything about it “horribly visible,” but not legible. And so the ritual stops short: the sentimental “something”—which still has not been explained to us—becomes merely a thing, mingling with other things, organic and inorganic, we suppose. They form part of the pond’s surface now, its smooth crevices enacted in the crevices of Bennett’s sentence—its intricacy, breaks and catches, the soft friction of its final consonants. Neither the narrator nor the pond invite us deeper in, and the story closes instead with this dark, dank surface, strange enough, available only to be described in language.
Bennet, Claire-Louise. Pond. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.
--. Interview with Philip Maughan. Paris Review. 18 July 2016.
Previously in this series: John Plotz, "How to Do Things with Things: Materiality in Theory"
Next in this series: Babette B. Tischleder, "Beating True: Figuring Object Life Beyond Ontology"