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.
The book begins with a sense of awkward loneliness from Paul in the year 2022: “Not knowing I was dead, I went about my business that day like any other”. He heads to the office to find nothing in his calendar, his colleagues in a meeting he hasn’t been invited to. Derek, in the year 2000, heads to his job as a nurse, but his streetcar crashes and the girl dressed as a bunny loses her arm. It’s with Amy, writing to her ex-lover, that we first get a sense of the the aching, visceral emotions and desperate love that often drive the story:
Plucking the quail off the bones, sucking the smell of you off my fingers. Slumped here alone in your ridiculous under-used hot tub, drinking champagne, feeling the bubbles through my veins, on my skin—my head hurts. It’s hot in here. My gut hurts from wanting you.
Rawson blends these poignant moments with a delightful wry humour and multiple shots of the unexpected. The ex-lover that Amy is writing to is a woman to whom Amy believes she has fallen pregnant. A second amputation occurs within a few pages of the first:
I call an ambulance and hack my arm off below the elbow, taking care to tie-off first—I don’t want to die or anything overly dramatic.
I’m leaving my arm here for you. Suspend it in formaldehyde; suspend it in alcohol.
Such moments begin to tie together the disparate characters and their timelines, and emotional trauma is manifested and communicated through the physical. The physical reality (and horror) of the body intrudes into the narrative even at unexpected moments. Paul observes a fellow bus passenger:
As he sat, thinking, reading, hopefully actually thinking about screwing than content management, he twisted the pen round between his fingers. The tendons of his forearms squirmed under his skin, wriggling like nervous lemmings in a microfibre sock.
There are elements of the quotidian surreal, hard to pinpoint directly, but like something from a Murakami novel. Benjamin finds a new apartment and she moves in directly on impulse, without the electricity connected; she drops her belongings “in the geometric centre of the living room floor” and heads out for vegetarian lasagna and a glass of red wine. Quotidian no doubt, but there is a magic weaved somehow between the simple dreamlike certainty of Benjamin’s actions and Rawson’s deceptively straightforward and careful sentence construction that tips such moments into the surreal in a way that holds together the more obviously absurd elements of the plot.
Formaldehyde is an intriguing and funny book that tackles relationships and loss at multiple levels and between multiple characters all at once, experimenting with form but with a strong central plot that eventually fits together like a well-constructed jigsaw puzzle. If the swift movement of the opening chapters feels a touch hard to follow at first, the careful reader will admire the finesse with which Rawson knits the pieces together. Thanks are owed to Seizure for publishing this fine novella.