Britain's first book blogger (November 2000). Also available in book form.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

"Where now? Who now? When now?"

The famous opening lines of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable constitute a modern invocation to the gods at the start of an epic. Only this one appears not at the beginning, not even in medias res, but at the end, where there are no gods, and no end.

"I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know"

Answers emerge to provide aesthetic balance, if nothing else, but at least one is conclusive: the unnamable has a name of sorts ('the Unnamable') and the positive spin placed on the words that follow – "you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on" – has enabled writers to accommodate them as gee-ups from a personal trainer as they climb the purgatorial mountain of Literary Achievement. Pick up any contemporary novel, read the first paragraph and see how each sets down the where, the who and the when right from the start, as if to go on is rather to go back.



Appeals to explicit subject matter and dramatic events have become invocations in a godless time, as we seek a grounding in the hereafter of writing. What's especially notable then about Jen Craig's Panthers and the Museum of Fire is how it destablises such invocations:
For a long time I have dreamed of such a breakthrough, I thought as I set off from my flat in Glebe on that Monday morning – walking to a café in Crown Street for no other reason than to meet the sister, Pamela, so that I could give her back the manuscript Panthers and the Museum of Fire supposedly unread, as she had insisted on the phone only two days after she'd given it to me.
This is both straightforward and unaccountable: the specific where is an anonymous spot on the way between the two places where the ostensible action is, the who is the narrative I, perhaps Jen Craig herself – but then who wrote the manuscript with the same title as the book we're reading? – and when is the walk itself, except it appears incidental to the reports of the breakthrough and the café meeting, which seem far more significant whens and, as a result, all three entwine to displace any certainty on their priority.

Perhaps priority should be placed on the narrative itself, which would be convenient because writing is exactly what the dreamer regards as the breakthrough she had been seeking, now given so unexpectedly by Panthers and the Museum of Fire, a manuscript written by Sarah, an old school acquaintance, into whom the narrator had bumped on the street one day, leading to a series of events, including Sarah's death, possibly as an indirect result of her excessive weight, culminating in the supposed non-reading of the manuscript. Each event and the narrator's commentary is reported with reference to where she is on the walk between Glebe and the café on Crown Street, with the events that occur on that walk included too, and also with recollections of how she had related the events before the walk to her friend Raf at some point in the recent past, either at a gastropub in Potts Point, or over the preparation of prawns before a dinner back in Glebe, or over the phone to report the remarkable breakthrough she had experienced the night before.

Confused? You won't be.

Sarah's surviving sister had asked the narrator, knowing she had literary flair, to read the manuscript discovered in her papers, with a view to making something of it, perhaps redemption for Sarah's otherwise sad and lonely existence, an existence not helped by the narrator's tactical avoidance of her. Instead it redeems the narrator's existence, with the odd parallel being that the narrator's name is the same as the Jenny Craig weight loss company, or would be had she not shortened it, which is expanded upon in another odd parallel when the narrator explains she had been anorexic at the time the company had made its name, causing her all kinds of social grief.
No anorectic can bear advice, and particularly no advice that touches on or even seems to touch on our inviolate selves. [...] All those who haven't been anorexic themselves have no idea about anorexia because they have never led an anorexic existence, and it is the anorexic existence – the nature of this existence – which matters more than anything else in the world to an anorexic. An anorexic needs to exist in this way because there is nothing else in their existence but existence itself; everything else in the world they have given up for this existence; the anorectic is an addict of the anorexic existence.
While this might draw us to comparisons with the self of Kafka's Hunger Artist unviolated by nourishment and, like Sarah, dying off-screen, except in her case apparently from too much nourishment, it would be better read in tandem with Metamorphosis, as change is the horror driving that story, with the previously inviolate selves of Gregor and Grete undergoing transformations right at the beginning and right at the end, with Sarah as Gregor to the narrator's Grete; one's death allowing the other to stretch her limbs or, in this case, make a breakthrough in her writing.



Such assertive monologues do then suggest a neurotic focus on self and the inevitablity of change: the stability of former being dependent on the latter only in its stubborn resistance. This is a theme consistent with Jen Craig's first novel Since the Accident, in which the narrator's sister, the one for whom change came in catastrophic form, describes how a closing door had changed her attitude to the art workshop she had just attended as part of her recovery:
It was stupid, she said, and it was only a measure of her suggestibility after the workshop that she should have let herself be panicked by a door that was sliding shut. She'd thought until that moment that, unlike the others, she hadn't been affected by all the talk of creativity and images at the workshop, but the door had shown her otherwise. Before the workshop, she thought, the door would just have been a door and not a symbol of an impending disaster or an urgent and life-changing choice.
The fear of impending disaster, caused by an excessive attention to signs, is of course the disaster itself and, worse, appears to be prompted by what we otherwise assume to be its consolation: artful self-expression. The comedy and distress of the situation is very much in keeping with the experience of Panthers and the Museum of Fire, which is neither one of comedy nor of distress but both at the same time, impossible to separate, and in which the entangling energy of the narrative is at one with the panicked immobility of the narrator.

The bizarre title, about which I'm sure you're still asking, embodies these dynamic oppositions, as the intrigue and promise in panthers and fire is then displaced by mundane facts. The words come from road signs pointing to a rugby league club called the Panthers and a genuine museum of fire, both with gift shops selling even more signs on T-shirts and mugs. Except the title, like the signs on the T-shirts and mugs, retains the promise of something beyond rugby club and museum, even if they are found in the rugby club and museum, a promise found in a manuscript only ever present as a title, as a sign of things to come. Where now? Who now? When now?

Such promise and its displacement reminds me of the author of the line Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt, and anyone who loves the work of this author will find similar, blessed relief in Jen Craig's fiction. For all their differences, they share an unaccountable joy in writing within absurdity and impossibility, despite and because of absurdity and impossibility. It is from Thomas Bernhard's acceptance speech when he received the Austrian State Prize for literature and caused a government minister to storm out of the building in disgust. Everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death – perhaps the ultimate breakthrough.



Jen Craig blogs at Being in Lieu and Absurd Enticements.

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