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Lost in the Supermarket

Checkout 19 and the literature of the grocery store

Often when I am depressed, I go grocery shopping. Past 8 p.m. on a Friday, the pastel aisles of my local supermarket deplete themselves of the usual daytime crowd—the chatty parents, the smug young professionals, the couples abliss in their domesticity—cast out in favor of my fellow malcontents. We are easily spotted: listless and alone, we linger, eyes scanning every jam jar, every yogurt tub, before maybe choosing one of them. Rarely do we meet each other’s eyes.

The supermarket is an emphatically twentieth-century invention, possessed of a sweeping artificiality: from the genetically modified, pesticide-drenched super tomatoes to the waxen pyramids of apples flown in from New Zealand to the Guaranteed Fresh pre-ground, canned coffee. In a 1992 video entitled “The Hunt,” the German artist Christian Jankowski takes this sense of the absurd one step further, using a bow and arrow to fell his shopping list—a frozen chicken, a box of tissues, some butter. There’s nothing natural to the supermarket, and that’s what makes it convenient, that’s the source of its appeal.

Eventually, we reach the checkout line. This is an interaction I remember vividly from my own days spent perched behind a cash register—there’s always a shock of mutual recognition, no matter how quickly the customer might then try to hide it. There’s always a connection that occurs, even just for a second, when the customer’s eyes meet the cashier’s. A fair warning: there’s a human being standing behind that machine.

“When I was doing my A-Levels in Philosophy, English Literature, and Psychology,” recalls the unnamed narrator of Checkout 19, the newest novel by the British-born, Galway-based writer Claire-Louise Bennett, “I worked at a supermarket, mostly on the weekend, though occasionally weeknights, too.” Hers is a working-class girlhood, and Checkout 19—written, as its author told the Irish Times last August, in a spurt of pandemic-induced creativity—is as much a rallying cry, a treatise on the validity of a working-class avant-garde, as it is a portrayal of the artist as a young woman.

The fear of the supermarket is a fear, often, of that which is uncomfortably feminine—shopping, food, low wages, and the domestic sphere.

But first, there are the books. Certain elements of Checkout 19, like certain elements of Bennett’s first book, Pond, recall the life of its author, but this is autofiction in a different sense of the term, being as much about a life constructed from literature as it is literature constructed from life. “When we turn the page we are born again,” Bennett observes early on, in a passage that reads as something of a thesis for the entire book. “Living and dying and living and dying and living and dying. Again and again . . . Turning the page. With one’s entire life.”

She loves books wholeheartedly, an obsession that embeds itself into the novel’s very form. Bennett is liberal with her use of quotations and epigraphs, beginning the book with two—from E. M. Forster and Ingeborg Bachmann—and going on to begin every chapter with one. (The authors quoted are, in order of appearance: Annie Ernaux, Clarice Lispector, John Milton, Bachmann again, Anaïs Nin, D. H. Lawrence, and, finally, Ernaux again.) Ernaux, herself the daughter of grocers, is of particular importance, and as the book unfolds, her observation at the head of chapter one, “One cannot see the future of something learned,” takes on a bittersweet quality as the narrator goes on to university, where her studies will include sexual assault at the hands of a lover and a classmate’s suicide.

Bennett’s work has a reputation for domestic detail (“It’s in her house, in her garden,” writes Jia Tolentino of Pond’s narrator, “where she can return to her real business of magnifying a quality of exquisite attention to the point of irrationality.”), but so, too, is there a sense of excess, of seeping past carefully drawn demarcations. The narrator repeats herself frequently, lending the book a sing-song tone; menstrual blood secretes from her body (“There was a time in my twenties when I derived voluptuous satisfaction from going around dripping blood everywhere”); and she devotes hours of her life to writing a long, strange story following a decadent dandy named Tarquin Superbus whose time period and city shifts depending on his author’s whim. (Later, in an act of startling violence, a university boyfriend will destroy this story.) She is frequently discursive, and prone to an obsessive, circular energy, following ideas down rabbit holes that go on for pages until she repeats herself back to their beginning. Frequently, Bennett declines to use commas to demarcate clauses, lending a breathless quality to her paragraphs—a far cry from the staccato beep-beep-beep of a supermarket’s scanner. When juxtaposed alongside her character’s life at the supermarket checkout counter, there is a sense of escapism—a flight into fiction in its truest sense.

“Strange to think,” Bennett writes just a few pages before her narrator begins to recall a particularly pivotal day at the supermarket, “but when I first wrote the tale [of Tarquin Superbus] I had not yet read a single word by Italo Calvino, Jean Rhys, Borges, or Thomas Bernhard, nor Clarice Lispector . . . I had not yet read The Go-Between or Wuthering Heights or ‘A Season in Hell’ or Orlando.” There is quite a lot the author has not yet read, in fact, and in another moment of excess she begins to list them, every unread book and author. The list goes on for pages, until finally, abruptly, she is interrupted. A frequent customer, a Russian man, clumsily pushes a book into the narrator’s hands, “and when I got to checkout 19 I put the book on a shelf beneath the printer that printed out receipts all day long and the book was written by Friedrich Nietzsche and it was called Beyond Good and Evil.”

It is a pivotal moment. In another telling, there’s the potential for something queasy, an older man following a younger woman through the aisles of the shop where she works, but in this version, it’s an act of recognition. An acknowledgement that this girl behind the counter, this woman who spends her days standing on her feet, snapped at by condescending customers, confined to a world of tinned fish, stale cookies, the constant beep of barcodes—this woman, too, possesses an interiority. “I would as soon have her true history,” Virginia Woolf declared of the “girl behind the counter,” “as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or seventieth study of Keats.”

Toward the end of the novel, in an extended meditation on the life and work of the postwar British writer Ann Quin, Bennett dwells on just how the girl behind the counter and her ilk are limited by a society that despises them for being at once working-class and female—“to be both [is] downright impudent.” The novels of Quin, who died in 1973 of suicide by drowning, are consciously experimental in style, and there is a political quality to her embrace of the avant-garde. Bennett, fusing with her narrator, writes,

I recognise her fidgety forensic polyvocal style as a powerful and bona fide expression of an unbearably tense and disorienting paradox that underscores everyday life in a working-class environment—on the one hand it’s an abrasive and in-your-face world, yet, at the same time, much of it seems extrinsic and is perpetually uninvolving. One is relentlessly overwhelmed and understimulated.

“Relentlessly overwhelmed and understimulated”—is this not the perfect encapsulation of what it feels like to work retail? I recall once, when I worked in a museum gift shop in Boston during its off-season, I naively dared to crack open a book one afternoon while the shop was empty. Instantly, my manager swooped down on me, an idiot child of twenty-two, though she herself couldn’t have been much older than that. But she had decided to dedicate her life to this store, to take it seriously, and those are the worst kind of traitors in these kinds of jobs, where you are being paid, essentially, to waste your time and brain power for wages that are next to nothing. “No reading,” she warned me testily. “If you have nothing to do, mess up a display, and then tidy it up again.”

“It occurred to me some time ago that growing up in a working-class environment may well engender an aesthetic sensibility that quite naturally produces work that is idiosyncratic, polyvocal, and apparently experimental,” writes Bennett in an introduction to last year’s reissue of Quin’s novel Passages (a book she also quotes extensively from in Checkout 19). “The walls are paper thin, you rarely have any privacy . . . Your own skin is paper thin.” In Checkout 19, Bennett proves, like Quin before her, that writing by and about the working class need not be bound only to the familiar conventions of realism. It can take on new forms, new patterns,  ones that overflow the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, proving that the boundaries between genres—the boundaries between lives and lived experiences versus the fictional—can be paper thin.

There are two kinds of art that portray or engage with the supermarket, told either from the perspective of the shopper or the employee. Unsurprisingly, there are more examples of the former, which tend to take a more cut-and-dried approach to their understanding of the supermarket—a temple of consumerism—than the latter, which is often just as critical, but with a more nuanced understanding of the labor required to keep the lines moving, the shelves stocked with pickles and Cheerios.

The cashier is often an afterthought in this first category, if they’re portrayed at all—or they’re a scapegoat, an unwitting appurtenance of the consumer identity of those of us trapped inside modernity. “The spirit of the supermarket, that homogeneous extension of stainless surfaces and psychoanalyzed people,” sneers Norman Mailer in his 1960 account of the Kennedy campaign, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” “This place recharges us spiritually,” the college professor Murray pontificates to his academic colleagues while standing in the aisles in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. “It prepares us, it’s a gateway or pathway. Look how bright it is. It’s full of psychic data.” Of the store’s workers, DeLillo writes, “[The baggers] were American-born and the checkout women as well, short, fattish in blue tunics, wearing stretch slacks and tiny white espadrilles.” For the narrator of John Cheever’s short story “The Death of Justina,” the supermarket is literally the stuff of nightmares: “I dreamed that I was in a crowded supermarket  . . . Music was playing and there must have been at least a thousand shoppers pushing their wagons among the long corridors of comestibles and victuals. Now is there—or isn’t there—something about the posture we assume when we push a wagon that unsexes us?”

The fear of the supermarket is a fear, often, of that which is uncomfortably feminine—shopping, food, low wages, and the domestic sphere. Among the work of these American giants (and notice, too, that this view of the supermarket is most often found in American writing; the first supermarket, in fact, opened in Memphis on September 11, 1916), John Updike’s 1961 short story “A&P” stands out due to being told from the perspective of a supermarket bagger. But, disappointingly, his teenage boy narrator shares in the same anxiety over the perceived femininity of low-wage work, leering at three female customers around his own age in an adolescent effort to prove his own masculinity: “You never know for sure how girls’ minds work,” he thinks, “do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?” And then he quits, abruptly, after an argument with his manager concerning the girls’ swimsuitted attire, declining to take any real stand against postwar consumerism.

If the pandemic has made one thing clear, it’s that it is in the aisles of the supermarket where society’s biggest problems and anxieties mingle.

From the earliest days of the first department stores, retail has been a feminine domain—its workers and customers historically women. It is a strange, twinned existence, a photo negative that captures a variety of truths about gender, class, age, and race. “Of supreme importance,” writes Zola in his 1883 department store novel The Ladies’ Paradise, “was the exploitation of Woman. Everything else led up to it, the ceaseless renewal of capital, the system of piling up goods, the low prices which attracted people, the marked prices which reassured them.”

Today in the United States, more than half of retail workers are women; 12.5 percent are black and 18.7 percent are Hispanic. Supermarkets employ the vast majority of retail workers—about 1.3 million. My own mother works in one, having had to abandon her career as a journalist when I was a child due to a variety of structural and domestic difficulties in her life. In the context of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic—in which supermarkets and their workers have been the focus of so many anxieties surrounding the spread of illness—it is hard not to see something uniquely gendered in how grocery store workers have been both publicly lauded for their sacrifices as “essential workers,” and expected to make these sacrifices without complaint.

This may be why their perspectives are so lacking in literature. “The hypermarché never appears in literature,” the French writer Annie Ernaux—quoted frequently in Checkout 19told L’Express in 2014 following the publication of her book Regarde les lumières mon amour, a collection of observations concerning the supermarket as of yet to be translated into English. “To begin with, it’s a feminine universe . . . And when the intellectuals go there, they do not look around themselves, because to look leaves space to establish an egalitarian condition.” To look around oneself, to witness the mundane, day-to-day rituals of the grocery store and to meet the eyes of a cashier, is an uncomfortable reminder both that the body exists and needs to be fed, and that the intellectual is no better, no purer, than the worker. Both are humans, with human bodies and human needs.

“The old cashier, who has resumed her work in silence,” observes Ernaux in another book, Exteriors, translated by Tanya Leslie, “is only a hand that is permitted no mistakes, be it in the interest of the store or the customer.” But in a strange way, this all-pervasive sense of consumerism also has an equalizing effect. As the American writer Leonard Kriegel, the son of a grocer, observes in his 1993 essay “Supermarket Modern”: “In poolroom, classroom, or playing field, one can establish a high-stakes reputation. But the stakes in supermarkets are never very high, and reality is unbending—you eat or you die.” “Every social class sends its delegations,” writes Argentina’s Juan José Saer in his posthumously published novel La Grande, translated by Steve Dolph, “everyone that has something to spend, however little that may be, spends it at the supercenter.”

If a strained egalitarianism between customer and cashier existed in years prior, as Kriegel, like Ernaux the child of a grocer, claims in his essay, it is today harder to find. Though the Japanese writer Sayaka Murata’s 2016 novel Convenience Store Woman (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) is set in a convenience store, the grocery store’s cousin, it is still one of the rare books of this genre that is written from the perspective of the cashier, and is a sharply satirical portrayal of the ways in which retail workers are often looked down at, and expected to sacrifice their time, their dignity, and their identity to the god that is the store.

“When you work in a convenience store,” thinks Murata’s heroine, the thirty-six-year-old Keiko Furukua, who has spent the last eighteen years of her life working in a konbini, “people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.” Though loopily devoted to her workplace, she is lucid about what it is doing to her, observing that, “When you do physical labor, you end up being no longer useful when your physical condition deteriorates.” At the novel’s end, though, it is her interior condition that has deteriorated and, in an absurdist send-up mocking the very notion of employee loyalty, she becomes one with the store, even her voice merging with “the voice of the convenience store.” “More than a person, I’m a convenience store worker,” Murata writes. “My very cells exist for the convenience store.” In 2022, with the rise of self-checkout stands in grocery stores eliminating the need for paid human workers, a statement like this doesn’t seem quite so over-the-top.

The supermarket is a space saturated with words. They’re everywhere—shopping lists, fliers and advertisements, the tabloid magazines and cooking journals that fringe the checkout lanes, eager to be read. The poet and critic Randall Jarrell links the rise of mass media with the rise of the supermarket in his 1962 essay “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket.” In a 1999 interview regarding her book S*PeRM**K*T, set in a supermarket, the experimental poet Harryette Mullen says, “It’s about the lines at the supermarket and the lines on a page. There is so much writing in a supermarket . . . People consume more than they vote.”

But there are two sides to consumption; the consumer cannot exist without those who sell the goods. “A conflict simmered on and on in my father,” observes Bennett in Checkout 19,

on the one hand he was rightly proud of the progress he’d made in his chosen trade and of the top-drawer material comforts he was able to consistently provide his family with because of it, yet on the other hand he also felt like a bit of a mug for going along with it all—working and buying and working and buying—working harder and buying better—it was all a big game after all, wasn’t it.

A game, or a swindle? If the pandemic has made one thing clear, it’s that it is in the aisles of the supermarket where society’s biggest problems and anxieties mingle. It is in the supermarket where we witness the rise of feminized, low-paid labor; it is in the supermarket where supply-chain shortages lead to fears concerning our abilities to feed ourselves; it is in the supermarket where questions of disease, climate change, and inflation converge with the very foods we eat. If the supermarket’s workers are deemed unfit for art, then what is a valid subject?

In line at the supermarket, my eyes always scan the magazines. There is a disposability to supermarket language, yes, an understanding that it exists mostly to sell. The stuff of everyday life. One might think they’re observing the cashier but don’t forget, they’re also observing you. Each cashier a narrator. The story includes them, too.