Fiction – Kindle edition; Spineless Wonders Publishing; 140 pages; 2015.
I spoke too soon. I didn’t expect to read another book quite as surprising or as unique as Gerald Murnane’s The Plains during my my project to read exclusively Australian literature for a year. And then I picked up Jen Craig’s Panthers & The Museum of Fire and was completely wowed by it.
This brilliantly original novel feels like something Paul Auster might have cooked up if he was high on amphetamines. There are echoes of Italo Calvino, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, too. It’s fresh and bold and startling. And it’s quite unlike any other Australian novel I’ve ever read.
But it’s also a reviewer’s nightmare, because this is not the kind of story that is easy to summarise or to write about. Reading it is very much an immersive “experience” and — if you’ll excuse the language — a bit of a “mind fuck”.
This passage, only a short way in, is a good example of how it plays with your mind, because what you read is exactly what you are thinking at the time:
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 a 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 feeling 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, one paragraph 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 was never a real part, all the time there was nothing but the reading of the manuscript one word after another, the words being everything, the storyline nothing – you continued to read, I should have told Raf last night, although I was still jet-lagged, if I could call it that, from the experience of reading and writing. It was the most idiotic thing, but you continued to read.
Meta-fiction writ large
The story, which may or may not be fiction, is narrated by a woman called Jen Craig. She’s delivering a manuscript, Panthers & The Museum of Fire, to the sister of a friend, who has just died. The friend, Sarah, wrote the manuscript and her family entrusted it to Jen, but now she’s been asked to return it — unread.
All the time I have believed my self 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.
As Jen crosses Sydney on foot with the manuscript in her bag, she provides a running commentary on her surroundings — “I walked through the people grouped at the bus stops towards the slope that headed down to the tunnel under the railway lines” — which is intertwined with her inner-most thoughts about her problematic friendship with Sarah, a woman she considered rather dull but who has surprised her by writing a book.
She also tells us about her “first real friend”, Raf, whom she met at university, and reveals all kinds of insights about her life, including how she converted to religion in a bid to become a writer (“I’d said to this God: I will believe in You so long as You make me a great, a famous writer, which surely only You have in Your power to confer”) and shortened her name from Jenny to Jen because, ironically, she had anorexia at the time the weight loss company Jenny Craig first launched on the Australian market and didn’t want to walk “the country as a bag of stick bones with a diet company’s name”.
The narrative is all stream-of-consciousness — “there is always too much in my head” — and written in a breathless style using long, convoluted sentences which unfurl across the page in all kinds of unexpected directions like streamers blowing in the wind. These “streamers” often double-back on themselves, so the sentences — much like the entire narrative itself — are circular; beginning with one thought, moving on to a dozen more, before returning to the original point; they never lose their way.
The voice is self-obsessed but it’s lively, immediate and full of interesting insights about modern life. The subjects broached range from computer technology to party etiquette, the difficulty of making friends and the struggle to put on paper the thoughts in your head.
Some of the passages about books and reading, for instance, will resonate with many:
I have no shortage of books that I know I want to read one day – I have piles by my bed, my bookcases are full. Each time I walk into a second-hand bookshop somewhere I do not emerge from that bookshop without at least three or four purchases; if it is a good-quality bookshop I might emerge with ten. The backs of my diaries contain lists of books I want to read and need to find (the asterisks marking all the essentials); every month or so I relent and go on Amazon dot com to trawl their quiet and glowing fields for the 11 used & new available from $3.00. I have more than enough books that I want to read, more than enough essentials that I spend my time looking for in second-hand bookshops. To discover one new author – and this new author might have been dead for over a hundred years – has always been to discover a new route through the susurrus of those second-hand bookshops, another several evenings trawling the glow of Amazon lists and other better sites.
A “wow” of a book
I really loved this book: it “wowed” me from its puzzling start to its satisfying conclusion. It took me on a real journey — in my head. It’s clever and wears its intelligence on its sleeve. It’s not a passive read, nor is it a sedate one. It makes you think and gives your brain a real work out. As a result, it may leave you exhausted — and breathless — but it’s worth every tantalising, carefully placed word.
Panthers & The Museum of Fire has just been longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. The title comes from the name of a road sign — for Panthers rugby club and a museum about firefighting — in Sydney.
For another take on this novel, please see Tony’s review at Messengers Booker (and more).
This book is available in the UK and US in both paperback and ebook format.