I’m not sure why authors sometimes want to signal to us in advance what the experience of reading their book is going to be like. Maybe it’s a momentary crisis of self-doubt or an honest attempt to assist the reader. On pages 5 and 6, Jen Craig tells us what we should expect as we read her book Panthers & the Museum of Fire. “You have to imagine a book,” the narrator (also named Jen Craig) tells us, before clarifying that the book she is referring to is really a manuscript.
As soon as you started the manuscript, you would find yourself waiting for it to start, to really start. You kept flicking pages and reading and flicking—not skipping any pages, but flicking them all the same—and the whole time you were reading you were waiting for the story in the manuscript to start for real. This feeling, you have to realise, kept up the whole time. There was never a moment when you thought you had started on the section of the manuscript where the real part began. At first you would have been flicking the pages and thinking, well she could have cut these paragraphs and all of these pages here, cut all of it so far, and yet this feel of needing to cut most of what you were reading persisted until the end. In fact the whole of the reading seemed to be just the prelude to a reading; it pulled you along from one sentence to the next, and you held on for some reason, never doubting for an instant that the real part of the story would be about to begin; and even when you knew, later on, when it was evidently too late, that there was no real part—when you watched yourself holding on to your role in the reading like an idiotic fool, holding on for the real part to begin when all the time there never was a real part, all the time there was nothing but the reading of the manuscript one word after another.
This is, more or less, is an accurate description of what it is like to read Craig’s basically plotless book. The narrator is in Sydney, Australia where she is in the midst of a 90-minute walk that is probably calculated to be the time it might take to read this 121-page book. She is carrying the aforementioned manuscript which was written by her friend Sarah, whose funeral she attended the previous week. Jen is returning the manuscript to Sarah’s sister, Pamela. But here’s the thing. Jen has desperately wanted to be a writer her whole life though she has failed to produce anything of value. Sarah, on the other hand, who had never hinted at any interest in writing, has left behind a manuscript called “Panthers & the Museum of Fire,” a manuscript that, now that Jen has read it, is everything Jen wishes she could have produced. And then before you know it, Jen has had her coffee with Pamela, the manuscript has been returned, and suddenly we realize the circle has been completed and we have just read a book conveniently called Panthers & The Museum of Fire.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently put the verb “to complexify” in the public’s forefront in his remarkable exposé of the attempt to blackmail him using sexually explicit photographs. Complexify is what writers often do when they want to simulate human consciousness. As Jen walks, Craig layers her prose with the the sights and sounds of the streets of Sydney, with Jen’s memories of Sarah, with various other memories from Jen’s past, with conversations Jen had with Pamela, and with the conversation Jen had as she cooked dinner last night for her best friend Raf. And, instead of having Jen narrate directly to the reader, Craig often has Jen narrate something in the guise of “as I said to Raf that time…” Complexifying. Every once in a while (six times in all), the reader is reminded of the physicality of Jen’s walk by the appearance of a full-page photograph of pavement.
[Three photographs from Panthers & the Museum of Fire from shortaustralianstories.com.au]
If you strip away all the complexifying from Craig’s book, there seems to be no there there. One of Craig’s points is that we read for the pleasure of the complexifying. And, yes, it is a pleasure to read Craig’s book. But by the end of the book it is apparent that some sort of transformation did happen to Jen as she read the manuscript, a transformation that allowed her to write the book we have just read.
In the opening sentence Jen mysteriously announced “For a long time I have dreamed of such a breakthrough,” but it’s not clear for a long time what this refers to. Once upon a time Jen had had a pseudo-religious conversion. She had said to God: “I will believe in You so long as You will make me a great, a famous writer.” Despite all of her attempts, this had never happened. There are hints that Jen somehow worked in the wrong way as a writer, that she looked in the wrong direction for her subject matter. Jen’s father has also tried to be a writer, but in a way that she found embarrassing and demeaning, and several times she mocks her father for his failures.
Sarah’s manuscript is all the more extraordinary to Jen because “it has arisen from someone who appeared to have no longing, no wish for such an achievement at all.” Sarah, by never talking about her ambition, had somehow let the writing come naturally to her. (Is this reflected in the fact that Sarah had been obese while Jen struggled with anorexia?) After reading Sarah’s manuscript, Jen sees the world differently.
All the time I have believed myself to be the protagonist of a writing story—the story of a writer —the kind of story that is as mysterious and alluring as the title of Sarah’s manuscript—a protagonist who herself writes stories that are similarly mysterious and alluring. All the time, wanting to be this kind of writer rather than the one that is staring at my father in his study mirror, that rust-spotted mirror in his writing room under the stairs—where everyday he gets up from the couch he keeps in the room for the purpose of resting his eyes and washes out his socks and his underpants in the garage sink so that his wife (my mother) will have no excuse to intrude on his writing space—where every day since his retirement from Pennant Hills High School he’s sat in his corduroys at his desk in the room under the stairs and stared at his ancient IBM with the DOS instructions and the half-dead printer (whose ribbon he re-inks by hand, purpling his reddening, calcifying, blistering fingers—his circulation slowing down), trying to get out the writing, as he puts it, this writing that is killing him, this writing that is the cancer that is destroying his life, which fouls his breath, which drives away his only child and falsifies his wife, which has constructed a warren of impossibilities around him.
As is pretty obvious, many of the quirks in Craig’s style are nicely adapted from Thomas Bernhard—reconstructed conversations, pointing out our reliance on clichés by placing them in italics (“you take your life into your hands” or “being on the ball“), etc. But without any access to Sarah’s manuscript, we don’t really understand what caused Jen’s breakthrough. There might be some clues here and there, but I don’t think they tell us why Jen suddenly found herself able to become a writer.
The title of Sarah’s manuscript and Craig’s book, by the way, refers to an exit sign on a highway in Sydney. The Panthers are a rugby team and the Museum of Fire is exactly that.
Jen Craig. Panthers & the Museum of Fire. New South Wales, Australia: Spineless Wonders, 2015. Cover design and photography credited to Bettina Kaiser. There is a nice, short video clip of someone (the author perhaps?) reading from the book over on Vimeo.