By Chris Via
Brief and incessant, repetitive and spiraling, Panthers and the Museum of Fire offers an illuminating perspective on an internal drama: how trivial moments can become pivotal in the development of a writer.
Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig. Zerogram Press, 128 pages, $14.
Purchase at Bookshop
The 2015 Australian novella Panthers and the Museum of Fire has been characterized in a number of ways: stream of consciousness, autofiction, and Künstlerroman chief among them. Knausgård’s autobiographical mode and Woolf’s “moments of being” have been noted as influences, though the digressive tendencies of Nicholson Baker (cf. The Mezzanine) and the daring catalogue of Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait have also been referenced. In other words, this is one of those books powered by a paradox: nothing much happens, yet, for the protagonist, everything happens. For the reader, “the whole time you were reading you were waiting for the story…to start for real.” For the writer, the story will “start for real” only after the narrative ends.
We stay in the mind of Jen. (Presumably Jen Craig, who tells us her parents still refer to her as Jenny, “preferring to ignore the fact that they had called their daughter after, though in advance of, a multinational dieting company.”) She is walking from Sydney’s Glebe to Surrey Hills in order to return the manuscript of her recently deceased childhood friend Sarah to Sarah’s sister, Pamela. Craig uses this one-act set piece as an invitation to stage a playful interrogation of consciousness, a playful presentation of what happens in Jen’s mind as she thinks and steps:
I am always being buoyed by the unexpected, serendipitous connections between one train of thought and another, and yet the connections that I fashion in my brain through the repetitive, inevitable rhythm of my walking could well have no reality, no veracity.
It is Monday, the day Jen is to meet Pamela at a Surrey Hills café. Much has happened since the funeral on Wednesday where Pamela handed Jen Sarah’s manuscript entitled Panthers and the Museum of Fire. During Thursday and Friday Jen struggles through the mire of her banal existence. More compellingly, her mind is also taken up by her worries about her arduous plight as a writer. She is also dealing with her anxiety over her father’s failed writing career. (She refers to writing as her disease and her father’s cancer.)
All the words that I intend to write evaporate as soon as I think of them, and when I look back on my life, all I see are these words I have intended to write, all these thousands and millions of words I would like to have put down on paper.
But on Friday night Pamela calls Jen and asks that Sarah’s manuscript be returned, unread if possible. Unable to resist temptation, Jen reads the manuscript until 2 a.m. on Saturday and again later that morning. Everything changes. She can’t articulate why, even to her close friend and confidant Raf during their Sunday evening dinner, but she has experienced a breakthrough that resonates with one of Proust’s emblematic creative epiphanies. (Marcel flits through Jen’s mind with “dark, hooded eyes and a drooping mustache.”) Jen, à la pied, ruminates on her estranged friendship with Sarah and the manuscript that has triggered her transformation. The irony is nothing if not jarring; her friend showed no evidence she was the type of artist who produced the very kind of writing that Jen has up to then failed to create.
Among the stratum of her thoughts, she recounts her early religious experience (apparently a brand of Calvinism) and the curious incongruity of her relationship to Sarah and Pamela’s family. But Jen’s battle with anorexia propels the most trenchant and paradigmatic of her reflections:
I had to wrench myself from my anorexic existence to be free of it. In fact, I had to kill the self that was anorexic. I could have no pity. I had to decide for myself to force myself to understand my self, and it was only in this way that I could throttle the anorectic.
Brief and incessant, repetitive and spiraling, Panthers and the Museum of Fire (longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize) offers an illuminating perspective on an internal drama: how trivial moments can become pivotal in the development of a writer, how fresh vision arrives unexpectedly, like a touch of grace that comes out of nowhere.
Chris Via is a book reviewer based in North Carolina. His work appears in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Splice, 3:AM Magazine (forthcoming), and The Rupture (forthcoming). He recently contributed introductions and afterwords to two novels; and in 2018 he won honorable mention for Grove Atlantic’s national book review competition. He is also the host of the growing literature-obsessed YouTube channel Leaf by Leaf. Chris holds a B.A. in computer science and an M.A. in literature and writing.