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Posted on 10 Jun 2021 in Fiction |

JEN CRAIG Panthers and the Museum of Fire. Reviewed by Kiran Bhat

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Jen Craig’s novella immerses the reader in the mind of its protagonist as she reflects on reading, writing and remembering.

Superficially, Jen Craig’s novella Panthers and the Museum of Fire is the narrator Jen’s response to the draft of a recently completed novel, Panthers and the Museum of Fire. Nothing more, and nothing less. There are certain key details to note. In the novella, the writer of Panthers and the Museum of Fire is a dead woman named Sarah. Jen is supposed to meet Sarah’s sister Pamela somewhere in the Sydney suburb of Glebe to return the manuscript, and the entire action of the novel is framed by the walk between Jen’s home and the café where this meeting will take place.

Jen and Sarah have been friends for many years. Memories of their interactions, and encounters with Pamela or their mutual friend Raf, are sutured into Jen’s mind as she walks. Photos taken by the visual artist Bettina Kaiser interrupt the barrage of thoughts here and there, but a good 90 per cent of events and of the tension occurs in Jen’s mind. The novella is so internal that one is often caught wondering whether or not Jen will make it to this meeting with the sister at all.

How is it, then, that a work with so little action can be so satisfying? Perhaps it is the depth of the thoughts within narrator Jen’s mind. From the get-go, using a mix of long and short sentences, Craig wastes no time in letting the complexities of Jen’s mental state unfurl. The long sentences work to show how much is happening in Jen’s mind, all the while giving space for Craig to set the scene and share a few telling details:

I have sacrificed love, holidays, sanity, my health, I told myself on my way up the street from the place where the building I lived in had mired itself in the roots of Moreton Bay figs and playground urine and the foetid remnants of plastic bags – doing nothing but work and work, or at least all the time just seeming to work and work, to get close to this breakthrough that might, indeed, have always escaped me because this is how I find it, and in spite of myself.

The sentence exhausts the reader, but for a reason. Jen is an exhausted mind, a failed writer, a person who has set out to achieve much but has ultimately accomplished little. She reminisces about the suburbs of Sydney that have defined her, scenes at parties or at church, remnants of conversations she has had on the meaning of life, relationships, and God.

The pictures interrupting the text also help to halt the momentum of Jen’s thoughts, orienting them towards another emotion. For example, on page 16, the character Jen is battered by thoughts of how Raf perceives Sarah and the guilt she feels for not calling Sarah sooner. As she passes a newsagency and the burned-out church on Mountain Street, Jen suddenly remembers that no decision is of any consequence, since Sarah is dead.  The text is halted in the middle of this realisation by a photograph of three gas access plates set into the footpath. While the image is most likely an attempt to put the reader in Jen’s mind, to literally see what she is seeing as she walks, the randomness of the image serves to give an added filter to Jen’s experience. Are Jen’s eyes merely absorbing what she sees around her, or is she spacing out due to the pain her own memories are giving her?

Regardless of the answer, the pictures feel like a nice cool drink after a long hot walk; a pause from the constant intensity of Jen’s mind, and a chance to reflect on what it is that is making her think so much.

While the narrative remains deeply anchored inside Jen’s consciousness, it would be disingenuous to call it stream-of-consciousness. Textually, the narration remains true to the conventions of first-person narration, and is easy to read as such. The sense that one is engaging in a very different sort of reading experience comes from Craig’s unwillingness to get on with her own story. Jen sometimes thinks about Sarah judging her over getting her ears pierced, or the days when she practised ballet tirelessly, or ate pieces of melon with her friend Raf. Jen is also experiencing a sort of jealousy. Sarah’s unpublished novel  is a work of marvellous literary accomplishment that will achieve the sort of acclaim Jen’s career has seen little of.

Whether it is from grief or insecurity, Jen is in a state of great distress, and much like a wheel stuck in a pothole, Jen’s thoughts whir over and over again, never reaching any destination, but always in movement.

This state of constant mental agitation results in some unique reflections. ‘The older people get, the tighter they get, their skin becomes loose but their minds just tighten like drums,’ Jen says as she explains away her own lack of open-mindedness. Likewise, upon describing the effect Sarah’s manuscript has had on her, Jen tells the reader what truly makes a book worth reading:

A manuscript about everything and also about nothing: a hold-all object, as Virginia Woolf says – a manuscript in which everything is possible, everything can be written.

It is unclear whether Craig is aware of it herself, but her Panthers and the Museum of Fire is just as vast as the manuscript meta-reflected upon in her novella. While the juxtaposition of photographs with intense reflections draws unavoidable comparisons to Austerlitz or The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, Jen’s meandering mind has much more in common with the equally manic narrator of Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. That being said, Panthers and the Museum of Fire relies much less on intellect and more on pathos than Sebald or Ellman. Because of her neuroticism as well as her insecurity, Jen comes off as an immensely likeable character. One feels not so much trapped in her mind as nestled inside of it, and because of that softness, is more likely to relate to her than feel overwhelmed by the deluge of her thoughts.

It is therefore likely that Panthers and the Museum of Fire will provoke not only contemplation in the minds of its readers, but also sympathy. While constructed as a stand-alone response to a friend’s literary work, Panthers and the Museum of Fire employs its premise to deconstruct what can or cannot be said, experienced, or felt in the context of a story. It is the ideal book for those who are interested not in the destination of a plot but in the interior journey of a character, just as it is the ideal work of art for anyone interested in the experience of being trapped within one mind, but gently so.

Jen Craig Panthers and the Museum of Fire Spineless Wonders 2015 PB 130pp $22.99

Kiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. He has currently travelled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages, but you can currently find him hopping around Mexico. Check out more of his work at @originalsin_0421 on Instagram, or @WeltgeistKiran on Facebook and Twitter.

You can buy Panthers and the Museum of Fire from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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