Jen Craig - A novella so free of rules that it feels revolutionary. Pages fly by without a single paragraph break. Sentences are breathlessly long. Flashbacks appear then vanish then reappear in different times and spaces. The narrator repeats herself and circles through muddled thoughts. The whole story takes place in the time it takes the narrator to walk from her home in Glebe to a café in Surrey Hills in order to return a manuscript to her dead friend’s sister
Jen Craig, Panthers and the Museum of Fire. Spineless Wonders, 2015.
Jen Craig’s new novella is about walking, memory and writing. The narrator walks from Glebe to a central Sydney café to return a manuscript and as we walk with her, we enter her world: life with family and neighbours, narrow misses with cars, her singular friendships, dinner conversations and work. Join Jen in conversation with Debra Adelaide (Letter to George Clooney, The Household Guide to Dying) as they discuss Panthers, fictionalised memoir and women in contemporary Australian literature.
‘It is not too much of a stretch to compare Jen Craig’s work with the otherwise incomparable WG Sebald.’ - Debra Adelaide
'Bold, original and urgent, Panthers and the Museum of Fire is told in a modernist, stream-of-consciousness style by a narrator who is either literally the author, Jen Craig, or a projection constructed for the purposes of the text—something like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in a contemporary Ulysses. Craig blurs memoir and fiction as the reader follows Jen, walking from Glebe to Surry Hills to return a manuscript to a deceased friend’s relations. On the way, Jen reflects on the text, crediting it with invigorating her sagging enthusiasm for her writing career. As she reflects, however, she also undertakes an excavation of her own psyche, her past and its implications for her future. Panthers is a complex work of fictionalised-memoir in the style of writers such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti. Fans of Joyce and Virginia Woolf may also be interested, as will many writers, I think. It is an experimental novella but surprisingly easy to read, and brilliant for the very ordinariness of its subject, the everyday reflections of a very human mind throughout the progress of a day.' - Angie Andrewes
Panthers and the Museum of Fire is a charming novella that explores a wide range of themes ranging from self-reflection and the writing process, to adolescence and the nature of friendship. Occurring in the course of a single day, the story follows the journey of a woman as she travels through the streets of Sydney to return the manuscript of a friend who has recently passed away.
Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness, the novella gives the impression that Craig has been able to sit down and pour her story onto the page in a single sitting. It transports the reader directly into the reflections of the protagonist, as we learn more about her life, relationships, and a somewhat troubled adolescence. Although the novella’s themes move rapidly to reflect a natural thought process, the author’s words move the reader effortlessly along the plot line. Craig’s talent shines through in her extraordinary ability to show the reader exactly what the protagonist is sensing and feeling, capturing the essence of Sydney in her writing. This novella would be particularly poignant for anyone who has experienced the culture of inner city Sydney, and even more so for anyone who has ever tried his or her hand at writing. - newsroom.uts.edu.au/news/2015/05/panthers-and-the-museum-of-fire
"Where now? Who now? When now?"
The famous opening lines of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable constitute a modern invocation to the gods at the start of an epic. Only this one appears not at the beginning, not even in medias res, but at the end, where there are no gods, and no end.
"I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know"
Answers emerge to provide aesthetic balance, if nothing else, but at least one is conclusive: the unnamable has a name of sorts ('the Unnamable') and the positive spin placed on the words that follow – "you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on" – has enabled writers to accommodate them as gee-ups from a personal trainer as they climb the purgatorial mountain of Literary Achievement. Pick up any contemporary novel, read the first paragraph and see how each sets down the where, the who and the when right from the start, as if to go on is rather to go back.
Appeals to explicit subject matter and dramatic events have become invocations in a godless time, as we seek a grounding in the hereafter of writing. What's especially notable then about Jen Craig's Panthers and the Museum of Fire is how it destablises such invocations:
For a long time I have dreamed of such a breakthrough, I thought as I set off from my flat in Glebe on that Monday morning – walking to a café in Crown Street for no other reason than to meet the sister, Pamela, so that I could give her back the manuscript Panthers and the Museum of Fire supposedly unread, as she had insisted on the phone only two days after she'd given it to me.
This is both straightforward and unaccountable: the specific where is an anonymous spot on the way between the two places where the ostensible action is, the who is the narrative I, perhaps Jen Craig herself – but then who wrote the manuscript with the same title as the book we're reading? – and when is the walk itself, except it appears incidental to the reports of the breakthrough and the café meeting, which seem far more significant whens and, as a result, all three entwine to displace any certainty on their priority.
Perhaps priority should be placed on the narrative itself, which would be convenient because writing is exactly what the dreamer regards as the breakthrough she had been seeking, now given so unexpectedly by Panthers and the Museum of Fire, a manuscript written by Sarah, an old school acquaintance, into whom the narrator had bumped on the street one day, leading to a series of events, including Sarah's death, possibly as an indirect result of her excessive weight, culminating in the supposed non-reading of the manuscript. Each event and the narrator's commentary is reported with reference to where she is on the walk between Glebe and the café on Crown Street, with the events that occur on that walk included too, and also with recollections of how she had related the events before the walk to her friend Raf at some point in the recent past, either at a gastropub in Potts Point, or over the preparation of prawns before a dinner back in Glebe, or over the phone to report the remarkable breakthrough she had experienced the night before.
Confused? You won't be.
Sarah's surviving sister had asked the narrator, knowing she had literary flair, to read the manuscript discovered in her papers, with a view to making something of it, perhaps redemption for Sarah's otherwise sad and lonely existence, an existence not helped by the narrator's tactical avoidance of her. Instead it redeems the narrator's existence, with the odd parallel being that the narrator's name is the same as the Jenny Craig weight loss company, or would be had she not shortened it, which is expanded upon in another odd parallel when the narrator explains she had been anorexic at the time the company had made its name, causing her all kinds of social grief.
No anorectic can bear advice, and particularly no advice that touches on or even seems to touch on our inviolate selves. [...] All those who haven't been anorexic themselves have no idea about anorexia because they have never led an anorexic existence, and it is the anorexic existence – the nature of this existence – which matters more than anything else in the world to an anorexic. An anorexic needs to exist in this way because there is nothing else in their existence but existence itself; everything else in the world they have given up for this existence; the anorectic is an addict of the anorexic existence.
While this might draw us to comparisons with the self of Kafka's Hunger Artist unviolated by nourishment and, like Sarah, dying off-screen, except in her case apparently from too much nourishment, it would be better read in tandem with Metamorphosis, as change is the horror driving that story, with the previously inviolate selves of Gregor and Grete undergoing transformations right at the beginning and right at the end, with Sarah as Gregor to the narrator's Grete; one's death allowing the other to stretch her limbs or, in this case, make a breakthrough in her writing.
Such assertive monologues do then suggest a neurotic focus on self and the inevitablity of change: the stability of former being dependent on the latter only in its stubborn resistance. This is a theme consistent with Jen Craig's first novel Since the Accident, in which the narrator's sister, the one for whom change came in catastrophic form, describes how a closing door had changed her attitude to the art workshop she had just attended as part of her recovery:
It was stupid, she said, and it was only a measure of her suggestibility after the workshop that she should have let herself be panicked by a door that was sliding shut. She'd thought until that moment that, unlike the others, she hadn't been affected by all the talk of creativity and images at the workshop, but the door had shown her otherwise. Before the workshop, she thought, the door would just have been a door and not a symbol of an impending disaster or an urgent and life-changing choice.
The fear of impending disaster, caused by an excessive attention to signs, is of course the disaster itself and, worse, appears to be prompted by what we otherwise assume to be its consolation: artful self-expression. The comedy and distress of the situation is very much in keeping with the experience of Panthers and the Museum of Fire, which is neither one of comedy nor of distress but both at the same time, impossible to separate, and in which the entangling energy of the narrative is at one with the panicked immobility of the narrator.
The bizarre title, about which I'm sure you're still asking, embodies these dynamic oppositions, as the intrigue and promise in panthers and fire is then displaced by mundane facts. The words come from road signs pointing to a rugby league club called the Panthers and a genuine museum of fire, both with gift shops selling even more signs on T-shirts and mugs. Except the title, like the signs on the T-shirts and mugs, retains the promise of something beyond rugby club and museum, even if they are found in the rugby club and museum, a promise found in a manuscript only ever present as a title, as a sign of things to come. Where now? Who now? When now?
Such promise and its displacement reminds me of the author of the line Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt, and anyone who loves the work of this author will find similar, blessed relief in Jen Craig's fiction. For all their differences, they share an unaccountable joy in writing within absurdity and impossibility, despite and because of absurdity and impossibility. It is from Thomas Bernhard's acceptance speech when he received the Austrian State Prize for literature and caused a government minister to storm out of the building in disgust. Everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death – perhaps the ultimate breakthrough. - this-space.blogspot.com/2015/05/panthers-and-museum-of-fire-by-jen-craig.html
As much as we like to think literature is ground-breaking, risk-taking and, above all, free from constraint, it is not. It would be utopian and false to suggest that literature is about freedom of expression, freedom of ideas. In fact, like any genre of fiction – romance, crime, horror – there are rules, tropes and conventions in literature.
And then along comes Panthers & the Museum of Fire. A novella so free of rules that it feels revolutionary.
Pages fly by without a single paragraph break. Sentences are breathlessly long. Flashbacks appear then vanish then reappear in different times and spaces. The narrator repeats herself and circles through muddled thoughts as if she assumes that her reader is not really paying attention – she’s not really addressing the reader at all, rather she’s addressing herself. It is written as a memoir, and yet, it is fiction. How much, if any, of the character Jen Craig is the real Jen Craig, and does that even matter?
Then there’s the fact that the whole story takes place in the time it takes the narrator to walk from her home in Glebe to a café in Surrey Hills in order to return a manuscript to her dead friend’s sister.
Books such as these that require the reader to shove aside baked-on expectations as if they were scraping plaque from their stiffened arteries are often considered challenging, but much like clearing your arteries is worth the effort, so is reading outside your comfort zone. And in an act of postmodern self-reflection, Craig seems to acknowledge this:
“And yet, just to test whether I will be disappointed by a particular book, I always have to overcome my initial distaste for it – I always have to make myself read these books that otherwise I would never look at, never for a moment – I force myself to read these books from beginning to end, I force myself to read them just in case I am wrong. Occasionally I am wrong, although at this moment I cannot recall a single example of this. Often I am impressed, it is true – I am often impressed – I have thought: yes, this book is very well written, it’s impressively researched, impeccably edited, it’s a feast of words, as the blurb has put it, surprisingly correctly; I have often been impressed – overwhelmingly impressed – in this way…”
It is as though, with this passage, Craig is daring us to put down her book. Go on, I dare you, she says. But do it at your own peril, at your own loss. Indeed.
Panthers & the Museum of Fire is genuinely fresh, radical, exciting, brave and utterly self-aware. It is unconcerned with anything except the telling of the story and the uniqueness of its voice. The fact that it is reckless with conventions only deepens its charm and appeal. - Lynette Washington
It’s inevitable that author Jen Craig will be asked questions about the weight loss company that bears her name. Especially since the protagonist of her new novella Panthers and the Museum of Fire is called Jenny Craig and in the grip of anorexia at the time the diet company was launched.
The topic was aired, along with a host of other fascinating threads, when Jen Craig spoke about Panthers with Spineless Wonders Book Club members on February 26. Those threads included the close rhythms of writing and walking, finding poetry in the everyday, what big sisters are really like, the evanescence of reading (What, if any, images stay in your mind over time? The peculiarity of writing: Is it an illness? How do we get saddled with living other people’s unfulfilled dreams and desires?)
Book club members favourably compared Craig’s new work with the writing of James Joyce, Gerald Murnane, Virginia Woolf and Edmund White, and I think it’s a it’s a tour de force (not a description I use lightly).
Released in March, Panthers is mesmerising, philosophical, deep, sad and funny … so read the teasers from the book club discussion below then head straight on over to the Spineless Wonders bookshop to buy your copy.
SWBC: What made you choose to put your own name on a narrator who is not actually you?
Jen Craig (JC): I think Coetzee wrote somewhere that all fiction is autobiography and all autobiography fiction — and he’s right, I think — but I’ve been twisted up in the artifice of that name for a long time — and it happens to be mine! That has been important.
SWBC: In fact, you turn what was likely to have been a small but persistent irritation in your life into a literary asset.
JC: That’s one way to put it! In my early twenties, after that woman’s [weight loss] company arrived in this place, I actually changed my first name for a while. I was stubborn. I didn’t want to change my surname for some reason. Jenny was tainted.
Actually my very first short story and illustration as an adult was published under this other name. And some people only ever knew me as this other person.
SWBC: It will be a book for readers; pilgrimages following the footsteps of Jen Craig the character from Glebe to that cafe in Surry Hills. It’s intense — I haven’t had many other reading experiences like the experience I had with this book.
JC: I see it as kind of gesture — a reading that should sweep you into it as it does the narrator. Which can be as puzzling as it is intense I imagine.
SWBC: I also really like the impassioned monologue the narrator engages in about how the anorectic stays in control and how she is the only one who can ‘kill’ the anorectic. Interestingly, the narrator uses the words ‘swallows her’.
JC: There is much debate everywhere about this notion of control, but even an attempt to control this idea about control is difficult.
SWBC: I must admit I was half expecting some history of abuse to be revealed. I am so glad it wasn’t.
JC: Interesting you should say that about abuse. So much trauma is hidden, forgotten. All we have are the strangenesses …
SWBC: In a sense, everyone’s life is going to contain trauma, if you live long enough — though some much more damaging and awful than others of course.
JC: That’s true, but I am most interested in what we are served — the trauma that happened earlier, to someone else — the echoes. I’m interested in this because it is impossible to understand or to grasp.
SWBC: The strangenesses. I don’t mean to sound desensitised to the issue, but there have been too many novels that present characters and then it seems an easy explanation that they were abused as children. And I don’t think the novelists are being respectful of their experiences or of the resulting trauma. So I am pleased that your novella doesn’t take that path, and lets the characters stand as adults with pain and hurt.
JC: I definitely agree with you there. These denouements are supposed to supply the missing key — the one thing that explains everything — and yet it’s so reductive. There are always so many more factors and interpretations.
SWBC: The disappointment of Jenny’s father at not really achieving his ambition with his writing and hence how it ‘created’ a similar void in Jenny really moved me. Sins of the fathers?
JC: I think we do get pulled into other people’s narratives, other people’s disappointments — and long before we have a chance to make our own plans for flight.
SWBC: I thought also the character of the father was great for foregrounding the question of what writing is for, what writing is valuable, what writing means and does. And perhaps the terrible obsession of it at times.
JC: Well of course it’s great to be caught up in it; addictive even.
SWBC: I think he is sad because he is seen from the perspective of a child, and a child has an earlier vision of a parent as omnipotent.
JC: He may well have been having the time of his life among his unpublished works.
SWBC: I’m not sure though — I mean, dying without have properly sung your song? That is a fairly grim thing to face.
JC: I think that happens to so many people. And that saddens me …
SWBC: Who do you have to sing it to, though?
JC: Well, Socrates apparently taught himself a new piece just before he was executed, and I can understand that. He just did it for himself and it was enough (although obviously witnesses too!)
A closing thought from me …
One book clubber said it was interesting how the book ‘blurred lines between reality and fiction. Our narrator is Jen Craig, our locations are real, we can follow in her footsteps.’
Jen says she has been to the club called Panthers (in Western Sydney) … or at least to the car park … or she may have dreamed she went to the car park. The delights of the Museum of Fire still await her.
Will you follow her through the blurry lines of dark religious legacies, the curse or cure of ambition, the anatomy of friendship, the complexity of anorexia, the envy of other writers and other humans? It’s worth it. Step this way. - www.abiggerbrighterworld.com/follow-the-fire-craigs-panthers-is-hot/
Jen Craig, Since the Accident, Ginninderra Press, 2009.
In a suburban Sydney pub, a woman tells her younger sister the story of how her life has changed since a serious car accident. She speaks of the blossoming of romance, the rediscovery of her long-dormant creativity: her ability to draw. And yet an exhibition comes to nothing, a lover is abandoned. She leaves everything behind. In the driving monologue of her own narrative, the younger sister attempts to make sense of her life and the events and thoughts that have obsessed the elder since the accident.
Jen Craig’s first novel causes the reader to contemplate a number of questions. These questions include: ‘What is art?’ and ‘What makes someone an artist?; ‘How significant is family structure and the relationships within families in influencing a person’s journey to find the ‘self’?'; ‘Is it necessary to leave all that one is familiar with to work out who we really are?'; ‘What is the role of narcissism within families?'; and ‘What is a reasonable amount of control and influence for a parent to exert over a child’s life choices?’
The narrator of Since the Accident is a young woman in her 30s who has lived for many years in Paris. We never learn her name, but we know she is part of a large, Sydney-based family of girls, and that her older sister, Trude, has recently had a serious car accident and is undergoing a long and painful rehabilitation. The narrator has returned to Australia and tells us of her conversations with Trude and her mother, as well as discussing her life in Paris, her reasons for leaving, and her reasons for returning.
The narrator visits Trude in the room she has rented in an inner-city pub. Trude has recently had a relationship with a man named Murray, who was the first person on the scene after the accident. Murray visits Trude in hospital, sends her flowers, and ingratiates himself with Trude and the narrator’s mother, and when Trude is discharged from hospital she moves in with Murray for a time. But Trude has never trusted her mother’s advice and reacts against her subtle manipulation to continue the relationship. The mother is painted as somewhat grandiose; her husband has died and she plays the ‘hard-done-by’ card, even though the girls’ father appears to have been a good husband and provider. She wants more for her daughters, and, in what is described as a ‘Jane Austen scenario’, wants them to marry well, or at least undertake university studies in areas that will enable them to meet the type of eligible men who can provide well for them in later life.
Trude’s interest in art and drawing has lain dormant for many years but, after the accident, the mother encourages Murray to help Trude rediscover her art. So Murray gives Trude a gift – a free trip to a northern New South Wales artists’ retreat, the ‘Getaway Art Workshop’. A large part of the narrative centres on Trude’s conversation with her sister during one afternoon on her pub hotel room balcony, where she discusses the workshop, it’s participants, and the effect it has had on her attitude to both her art and her life. On her return to Sydney she decides to leave Murray and moves into the pub, which, given some aspects of the family’s history (in particular an alcoholic uncle whose illness colours their childhood perceptions), can be interpreted as rebelliousness against the mother’s expecftations. Trude feels comfortable living in a smelly, working-class pub, but her mother is distressed and horrified and cannot understand why Trude would choose to leave the supportive, but pedestrian, Murray. Trude’s changing understanding of the early family dynamics (p.96) helps her to realise that much of her parents’ behaviours were based on fear – fear of difficulty and confusion: “They never once thought of refraining from telling us what we should do, and instead used all the means available to frighten and coerce us into doing as they said”. The problem for the children of this family is that the parents seemed unable to honour their specific desires and dreams for their lives and futures, instead insisting that they, the parents, knew best. The sisters are therefore torn, from a young age, between what they want for themselves and what their mother insists are the right paths for them.
Trude’s account to her sister includes an incident where she is unable to follow her fellow workshop cronies into the pub’s bottle shop because she physically can’t get through the door before it closes. This door incident becomes a symbol of Trude’s new, creative life (p.140), and she comes to believe that she ‘needed’ to have the accident and that this was the catalyst in bringing her back to her art practice. On the urging of another workshop member Trude embarks upon a solo exhibition, but we learn in the end that her ambitions have been sabotaged by her mother, despite good sales on opening night.
As in quite a lot of literary fiction, this novel contains no dialogue. Instead we are given reportage of what is said and felt and thought. Craig writes in a very composed literary fashion; sentences are carefully constructed and weighted. For this reason this reader had some difficulty engaging with the early section of the novel, mainly because the prose had a pedestrian quality and the narrator was such an unknown quantity. It is not until page 68 that the narrator tells us much about herself, and until this happens it is difficult to accept what we are being told on face value, as we do not know enough about her to suspend our disbelief and trust her version of events. It was, however, worth perservering. The second section picks up the pace, and the novel turns out to be much more accomplished and with a much deeper subtext than first impressions had led initially me to believe, and the final denouement is quite shocking in it’s psychological impact.
However the lack of specificity continues to distance the reader from the characters. For instance, on Pages 111-112, Trude discusses a ‘west coast song’ that Murray likes and puts onto her iPod, but never tells us what this song is. There is much detail about these rather self-obsessed characters’ thoughts and feelings, but the lack of specificity of real-world detail, such as this song, has the effect of distancing the reader rather than drawing us into the world they inhabit. Some characterisation is also difficult to swallow – for example, William and Dave, the two brothers who run the pub that the art workshop participants stay in, frequently use French phrases in their conversation. Yet they are painted as country guys and it seems that the only character who would in reality speak like this is the narrator, newly returned from Paris.
Since the Accident is a complex story masquerading as a ‘what happened then’ narrative, as it minutely examines the psychological fallout of being raised by a narcissistic mother. These women find it difficult to trust their own desires and perceptions, and are not allowed to truly be themselves, instead being undermined by the very people who are supposed to love them. This sense of entrapment pervades the novel, and the reader is in the end left wondering if true self-actualisation will ever be possible for these characters. A worthy, well-written first effort, one hopes Jen Craig will build on this promising debut. - Liz Hall-Downs
Jen Craig’s short stories have appeared in various Australian literary magazines. She collaborated with composers of the chamber opera, A Dictionary of Maladies, in Switzerland in 2005. She regularly blogs micro fiction at absurdenticements.blogspot.com and about writing issues at beinginlieu.blogspot.com