#5: Panthers and the Museum of Fire, by Jen Craig

In her Calibre Prize winning essay, Staying With The Trouble, Sophie Cunningham writes about walking:

Percy Grainger walked to avoid self-flagellation. David Sedaris walked to placate his Fitbit. Virginia Woolf walked the streets of London, and later the South Downs, endlessly: because she loved it, because she was walking her dogs, because she needed to think clearly.

In Panthers and the Museum of Fire, by Sydney writer Jen Craig, the protagonist—also named Jen Craig—spends the entire novella walking from her home in Glebe to a café in Surry Hills. She has in her possession a manuscript—also titled Panthers and the Museum of Fire—written by her recently-deceased friend, Sarah, and is walking to return this manuscript to Sarah’s sister, Pamela.

The physical space of this novella could become a two-dimensional prison, a line tracing a simple journey across inner Sydney and yet, as in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, it’s the expansive mental space of the protagonist that has the power to free us from the physical; a simple journey in time and space becomes a complex layering of different times, places, thoughts, characters and anxieties.

Sophie Cunningham writes:

We walk to get to one place from another, but in doing so we insist that what lies between our point of departure and our destination is important. We create connection. We pay attention to detail, and these details plant us firmly in the day, in the present.

Jen Craig’s walking creates connections, yes, and the physical environment has its impact on the direction of her thoughts, but our access to these mental connections brings us into a human mind that is not planted firmly in the present at all—anything but. Jen’s thoughts circulate constantly, turning back on themselves and digressing unexpectedly, a sense that is effectively conveyed through the structure of the book’s sentences. A layering of time, place and character that is used to expertly elucidate a wide range of themes.

This is a somewhat experimental novella, with a particular stream-of-consciousness style that means any one sentence might contain threads from the present, the near-past, medium-past and the distant past. At nearly 50,000 words, it’s not a novella that I could read in one sitting, particularly not with this structural complexity, but the structure has a purpose and Jen Craig uses it to good effect, covering themes such as friendship, family, religion, anorexia, reading, writing, anxiety, walking, thinking, ambition, envy, disease, the self and selfishness.

The metafictional devices of author-as-narrator and manuscript-within-a-manuscript draw attention to the themes of reading and writing from the very first page:

At first I had been relieved to find the manuscript was nothing—even now it seems to be nothing—and yet as I read it my mind was bated: the idea of a mind being bated in the way that breath can be bated entranced me as I walked along the narrowing part of Victoria Road where the cars, parked right by the kerb, even crammed to the corners, made me think that everyone had been affected as I’d been affected and that no one had slept.

Angie Andrewes, reviewing this book for Bookseller+Publisher, calls it “a fictionalised memoir in the style of writers such as Karl Ove Knausgård and Sheila Heti”. While this style is clearly evident in the writing and our detailed access to the narrator’s thoughts, there is also a classic unreliable narrator at work here, casting doubt on the true reality of such Knausgårdian ultra-realism. Jen tells us that Sarah’s manuscript “was nothing”, and yet we find out it provided an epiphany for the narrator, spurring on her own writing—so that here we are reading a manuscript with the very same title, by an author of the same name. Jen Craig’s name comes to symbolise a sense of self and identity, and recurs throughout the book with respect to the issue of anorexia: the fictional Jen informs us that she changed her name from Jenny Craig once the diet company became ubiquitous in the eighties. Speaking to her friend Raf:

You have only known me since university, and so only since I had been robbed of my name by that weight loss company—a loss that I have never got over, as I’ve said before, on any number of occasions—because laughably—and this I have also said many times over—at the time of the launch of the company I had been anorexic, a bag of pathetic stick bones, as a neighbour of my parents’ had once called me to my mother in the garden.

Such digressive sentences have the power (like our minds) to take us to multiple places at once. While Jen walks to Surry Hills and runs in front of a turning car, she recalls her conversation with Raf in a Potts Point pub a couple of years ago, in which she recounts the time she ran into her old friend Sarah on a street in Rockdale. It takes energy for the reader to keep these layers in place, so the novella is an ideal playground for this kind of work: a lengthier novel might well have sunk under the weight of the experiment.

An intertexual allusion to Virginia Woolf betrays one of the more obvious influences, but this novella is more singularly focused than Mrs Dalloway. The very structure of each sentence reinforces not just the sprawling meanderings of our own minds, but the duplicity between the external (spoken or written) and the internal (thought), along with the lies we tell ourselves. Take a walk with Jen and come away with a heightened understanding of the human mind and the power of reading and writing, plus so much more. Sounds like a good deal, right?

Panthers and the Museum of Fire is published by Spineless Wonders and is available from their website or the Tomely ebookstore.

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