If our body is just a vessel—meat, bones, and sinew to carry our consciousness through space and time—then how does one explain the word visceral? Those deepest and most urgent of feelings, felt not in the brain but in the body, and often with the power to override logic and reason? Given the title and cover of Jane Rawson’s Formaldehyde, one might expect the creepy, the horrific, perhaps with a clinical or scientific edge; body parts in jars, preserved in formaldehyde, perhaps trophies or tokens of the macabre. Instead, Rawson has written a novella that is funny and uniquely structured, but drawing from the visceral, where amputation functions as a metaphor for loss and disconnection, disorder, being out of time and place.
Jane Rawson’s debut novel, A Wrong Turn at The Office of Unmade Lists was published by Transit Lounge in 2013, and won the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award. She is also the author of a non-fiction book, The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change. The first draft of Formaldehyde was written while Rawson lived in San Francisco, before Silicon Valley gentrification reached its current levels, a vibrant urban setting of apartments, buses, and streetcars transporting characters like “a girl dressed as some kind of rabbit in bondage”. The setting shifts between the years 2000 and 2022, and it’s the choice of 2000 as the earlier time point that perhaps betrays this book’s long path to publication. With Australian publishers largely unwilling to touch a manuscript of novella length, we are lucky to have competitions like Seizure’s Viva la Novella prize and Griffith Review’s Novella Project; Formaldehyde was one of three winners of Seizure’s 2015 Viva la Novella prize.
The book begins with very short chapters—almost vignettes—that in addition to flitting across the two time periods of 2000 and 2022, also shift between the perspectives of four characters: Paul, Derek, Amy, and Benjamin. Each chapter is headed with the character and year, and while this is not an uncommon form for a novel, it at first seems to work against the idea of tight focus usually associated with the novella. Differences in narration keep each section distinct: Paul is narrated in the first person present tense from the year 2022; Derek in the third person past from the year 2000; Amy in the first person present from the year 2000, but also featuring direct address to a second person “you”—her ex-lover; and Benjamin, a third person “she” covering both time periods as the story progresses. Does this time- and character-hopping challenge my conception of what a novella is? No. As connections slowly crystallise between the characters and their timelines, and through Paul’s first-person perspective that anchors us in the ultimate “present” of 2022 (and that takes up the by-far longest chapter), the plot ultimately converges on his story as the primary through-line.