The Enduring Appeal of Slow-Burning Metafiction: On Jen Craig’s “Panthers and the Museum of Fire”

"Panthers..." cover

“…I was writing and all the time I was also watching myself writing…” This passionate meta-short novel by Australian Jen Craig reckons with a world (the real world) where everyone thinks they can be a writer. The main character (Jen Craig), her father, and her long estranged dead friend from childhood all have intimations, but none can deliver passable prose, though Jen’s reading of a friend’s failed work triggers a “breakthrough” for her own writing—the words of the author Jen Craig detailing this experience of her speaker.

Though there is a Macguffin (the dead friend’s unpublished manuscript [titled Panthers and the Museum of Fire—and also the name of highway exit in Sydney], which is handed to Jen at the wake by the friend’s sister) the book plays out not like a Hitchcockian song, but rather like the slow burn of consciousness. Regrets and secrets bubble to the surface in this part-Bernhardian/part-Murnanian meditation on the lengths we go to fool ourselves while at the same time protecting ourselves from others. The long paragraphs jam up on each other like ice floes against a berg, as they carry strange recursive music and that of perfectly pitched cold-hearted thought: “All the energy expelled by the young in the éclat of their revelation forms the glow that surrounds them, moves with them as they move, and is the one cause of all envious thoughts by those who are no longer young…”

Craig’s book transported me to the words of Wallace Stevens in an autumnal mood: “Children…will guess that with our bones/We left much more, left what still is/The look of things, left what we felt/At what we saw.” The air of death hangs about the Sydney landscapes in this jewel of feeling, written in a time when so much fiction is rancorous in delivering a satiety of “relevance,” when all the relevance required is to know we are born and then we will die.


Panthers and the Museum of Fire
by Jen Craig
Zerogram Press; 128 p.

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